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One of the real pleasures of flying first class (or upgrading with your frequent flyer points) is the improved food, and especially the tasting menus on board many longer flights.
Last week, at the start of a media trip with Etihad, I enjoyed the chef-designed dégustation in Etihad's first class on a flight from Sydney to Abu Dhabi -- a stunning eight-course, ten-wine tasting menu served across four hours while we cruised above the gorgeous sights of Australia's red centre.
The 'tasting menu' trend
Many airlines, including Qantas closest to home, run tasting menus in first class on long flights.
The idea is that you use some of the time to sample unusual creations or signature dishes: Australian fusion, for example, or Japanese kaiseki, Arabic mezze and so on.
Virgin Australia partner Etihad, though, has an unusual concept for its first class food: an on-board chef recruited from restaurants (not flight attendant school) to be your personal cook for the flight, a food and beverage manager who's in charge of the wine, plus a fascinating set of food technologies to keep ingredients fresh and delicious.
(More on those technologies in our Abu Dhabi interview with Etihad's man in charge of catering, coming up soon on Australian Business Traveller.)
With a nearly empty cabin -- just two other passengers -- on my afternoon flight from Sydney to Abu Dhabi, I was in for a treat from the Italian duo, chef Rocco plus food & beverage manager Federico.
Let's get down to tasting...
The table was set with a linen cloth and chic brown runner while I relaxed with a glass of Bollinger Grande Année vintage 2000 champagne plus a salmon and cream cheese canapé.
Grande Année is the perfect airborne champers to my mind: clean, elegant, well-balanced and with fine enough bubbles to keep its fizz in the sky.
First to arrive was the bread basket: three warm rolls, one chewy and dark, one multigrain, and one white. All were delicious.
Unfiltered Italian extra virgin olive oil (which I later learned is transported frozen to keep it fresh) and a butter pat with Etihad covering followed. Top marks for butter that was cool but distinctly spreadable: I've eaten at Michelin-starred restaurants where the butter has been rock hard.
A four-slot row of amuse-gueules kicked me off:
- Cherry tomato and bocconino: both a little underwhelming -- I had better on Virgin Australia's Coast to Coast service.
- Roasted olive with labneh: creamy, but underwhelming as far as the olive taste went. Adding the sprig of thyme to the second mouthful improved the flavours immensely.
- Red pepper with cream cheese: enjoyable texture with the crispy biscuit, but not enough capsicum.
- Green olives: perfectly crunchy, tart and sour: a real palate-awakener.
A mixed starter plate of duck, antipasti and lobster-shrimp cocktail arrived next. (Unfortunately, a missed setting on my camera meant that the pictures for this course came out far too dark. You'll have to make do with words for this one.)
The standout on the plate was a chilled magret of duck with balsamic reduction over onion jam and antipasto artichokes. Perfectly cooked and tender, with a delicious amount of smoke. I would have been pleased to eat the dish in any restaurant.
I found the lobster and shrimp cocktail a very respectable (if somewhat uninspired) version of the mayonnaised classic.
Italian chef Rocco's antipasto selection was tops too: sundried tomatoes, caper berries and a stuffed mini pepper. The caper berries were a fabulous touch -- sharp, biting, acidic and the perfect palate cleanser on a plate with rich foods. Very enjoyable spicy bite to the stuffed mini pepper.
Chef Rocco suggested the French Louis Latour Burgundy (a Chardonnay), and I added an Italian Friuli Traminer to taste beside it.
The Latour lost much of its taste at altitude, but wasn't sharp like so many fresh, fruity Chardonnays can be. I would have preferred a more buttery Burgundy to take account of the decreased humidity and increased altitude of the cabin, but that's verging on being palate-subjective.
The Friuli, by contrast, might not be a non-connoisseur's first pick, but the Traminer grape (a slightly drier version of the Gewürztraminer more familiar to Australian vineyards) is a real gem at altitude. This is what wine people call an "aromatic" wine, and the well-fruited nose complements what is actually a surprisingly dry wine when you get it in your mouth. The long aftertaste is a real bonus.
A chef's surprise followed: a new take on the toasted sandwich, with lavosh bread, beef bacon, brie and spinach.
This kind of updated comfort food works incredibly well on a plane, and I munched my way happily through it.
Next up: the asparagus soup, light, delicious, and perfectly flavoured. I enjoyed the contrast of the antipasto artichokes, which chef Rocco had added and warmed through.
The intense flavours of the capsicum, feta and thyme crostino were the perfect counterpoint.
With it I sipped at chef Rocco's recommendation of the New Zealand Nautilus Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Kiwi savs tend towards a grassy, asparagus nose, and the typical acidity matched the asparagus soup. But I kept the Friuli topped up too -- the aromatics there worked even better with the creaminess of the soup.
A palate cleanser of mandarin sorbet with cinnamon syrup was particularly good, with an impressive presentation: all too often sorbets and ice cream in the air are too firm, but this was just the right level of softness.
The main course was absolutely outstanding: an Italian tagliata of deliciously rare beef, just how I'd asked for it, with perfectly grilled asparagus, and the extra umami oomph of varietal mushrooms over a well-textured lemon and mushroom risotto, complimented by a bordeaux sauce.
With the beef I tried taster glasses of three of the five reds on board: the French Chateau Kirwan Margaux from Bordeaux (Cabernet-Merlot), the South African Stellenbosch Fantail Pinotage, and the Margaret River Eagle Vale Shiraz.
I found the Pinotage to be the most drinkable of the three, with well-balanced fruit and an impressive tannin structure.
Fans of peppery Shiraz will love the Eagle Vale, but I found the tannins a little too astringent at altitude. Meanwhile, the Bordeaux -- the Big Name Bottle -- was relatively thin, and with a less-than-generous earthy mouthfeel. Go for the New World and you won't be disappointed.
Etihad is to be commended for its very well-constructed wine list: there's something quality for just about every wine drinker here.
A cheese course followed: cheddar, brie and a Danish-style blue, accompanied by Abu Dhabi honey and an orange marmalade.
The cheddar was really interesting cheese: mature, tangy, and almost crumbly in the mouth. Delicious. The blue was strong and smooth, but lacked finesse.
Overall, the cheese was the least impressive of the courses, although this didn't surprise me: Etihad is a halal airline and so there are issues around the use of animal-derived rennet in what we might consider more upmarket cheese.
Fresh strawberries with balsamic reduction and mint were a fantastic refresher -- I adore strawberries and balsamic, and this was very well done.
And then it was the last up: a foursome of desserts.
- Carrot and walnut muffin: soft, moist and tasty.
- Sago pudding: interestingly textured sago with a strawberry coulis, though the coulis was a little sweet.
- Chilled cherry Clafoutis: beautiful texture, cool and smooth, with delicious cherries
- Italian panna cotta: a little disappointing, lacking in flavour and that custardy richness, and somewhat gritty.
Food & beverage manager Federico surprised me with an absolutely stunning Sauternes dessert wine, which wasn't on the menu but which was utterly delicious: golden, generous in the mouth and yet not cloying at altitude.
The meal finished with a choice of premium teas from Dilmah. I picked the Middle Eastern mint tea, topped up with mint leaves by the crew. A great choice.
Overall, I'm full of admiration for the menu that chef Rocco managed to create with just two ovens, a microwave and a toaster, nearly twelve kilometres in the sky.
I'd have been entirely pleased with most of the dishes in a restaurant on the ground, and everything else was head and shoulders above what you'd find in business class.
And you can't beat this for a lunchtime view either:
Still hungry for more on inflight food? Tuck into a little something more from AusBT:
- Virgin Australia's celebrity chef Luke Mangan reveals how he thinks up meals and makes sure they'll work on the plane
- Check out Finnair's new funky Marimekko cult designer tableware
- Ordering your business class meal before your flight with Singapore Airlines' Book The Cook
- Read up on Cathay Pacific's new Signature Chinese dishes
- Bringing an airline's home cuisine specialties onto worldwide flights with Asiana, Lufthansa and LAN
- Four course meals on three hour flights: the best "medium-haul" food in the sky
- Qantas' Rockpool consultant Terry Higgins shows how menus get from a chef's brain to your tray table — and shares a recipe for the popular business class dish of snapper with coconut milk and garam masala
- Dr Ron Georgiou, Malaysia Airlines' wine consultant, on the best wines to choose in the air
- Cutlery, crockery, salt and pepper shakers...the story behind everything else on your business class meal tray