Singapore's Changi Airport has an all-new first class lounge, and it's arguably the best on the block – especially when judged by the à la carte dining room.
The Qantas Singapore First Lounge takes the same approach to pre-flight dining as its siblings in Sydney, Melbourne and Los Angeles, with a seasonal menu designed by Neil Perry, one of Australia's most accomplished chefs, whose collaboration with the airline stretches back some 22 years.
"I've always wanted to have a Rockpool restaurant in Singapore, and I've very pleased than (Qantas CEO) Alan Joyce paid for it and David Caon designed it!" Perry jokes.
Perry's long love affair with Asian food – which took local form at his Spice Temple restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne - finds a unique crossroads in the melting pot of Chinese, Malay and Indian dishes.
"I just love the food up here," Perry tells Executive Traveller as we relax in the newly-opened Qantas Singapore First Lounge. "I think Singapore is one of the most successful multicultural societies in the world. It's a great place, so easy to get around and the language is mainly English. And yet the food is not sanitised, it's really authentic."
Perry first visited Singapore in the mid-1980s, and now travels to the Lion City several times each year. One of those trips is for the city's Formula One race in September, where his Rockpool restaurant features at the exclusive Paddock Club.
After serving close to 1,500 guests through to 11pm, Perry and his team usually head to one of the city-state's colourful hawker markets for their own dinner (a mainstay, despite its reputation as a mere tourist magnet, turns out to be Newton Circus: Perry is a regular at stalls 30 and 31 for satay, black pepper crab and grilled stingray).
It's no surprise, then, that a variety of Singaporean influences have shaped the menu at Qantas' Singapore First Lounge, from some obvious signature dishes to subtle touches based around just one or two local ingredients.
Dining at the Qantas Singapore first class lounge
Nestled away near the D Gates of Terminal 1 – watch for the mezzanine level escalator next to the Hermes store – the Qantas Singapore first class lounge is open daily from 2.30pm to around midnight.
Of course, entry isn't restricted to first class passengers on Qantas' daily Airbus A380s from Singapore to Sydney, Melbourne and London.
First class flyers departing Singapore on fellow Oneworld airlines such as British Airways plus Qantas partners Emirates and Air France are also deemed loungeworthy.
There's also a very warm welcome for Platinum and Platinum One members of the Qantas Frequent Flyer scheme (and the invitation-only Chairman's Lounge), and their Oneworld Emerald equivalents.
Other Oneworld airlines flying from T1 include British Airways, Finnair, Japan Airlines and Qatar Airways, with Malaysia Airlines at the nearby T2 and Cathay Pacific at the more distance and troublesome-to-get-to T4.
Over half of the Qantas Singapore First Lounge is given over to the dining room, so as to cater for the 5-8pm rush hours before Qantas' evening wave of flights to Australia and the 'crush hour' of short-stay passengers in transit on the flagship QF1 and QF2 superjumbos to and from London.
The seating area at the furthest end of the lounge, closest to the open kitchen, is nominally set aside for Qantas' first class, Platinum One and Chairman's Lounge passengers.
While the tables are not reserved per se, Executive Traveller understands that the maître d' will escort passengers to this 70-seat space based on their travel class or status and, except for the busiest times, guide other travellers (mainly those holding Qantas Platinum or Oneworld Emerald status) to other areas of the dining room.
The all-day dining menu features a handful of starters, a half-dozen mains and a trio of desserts. None of these is especially large, apart from the generous laksa bowl, so you can certainly sample a few appetisers up front.
While waiting for your mini-feast to begin, try one of the speciality cocktails such as a Merlion Blush (a Sling-style mix of vodka, cranberry and grapefruit), Calamansi Mojito (white rum, calamansi and mint) or Tamarind Talisman (Jameson whiskey, tamarind and lemon).
If Champagne is more your style, the current choice is between Joseph Perrier Brut NV, Taittinger Brut Reserve NV and Taittinger Prestige Rosé NV.
Being a Qantas first class lounge, the legendary salt and pepper squid is hard to pass up. Crisply fried and served with a Thai-style green chilli dipping sauce and aioli, it's a mainstay of the Qantas lounges at Sydney, Melbourne, LAX and London/Heathrow and a must-have for many regular visitors.
If the salt and pepper squid is global, the tea-smoked duck breast with pickled cabbage and Chinese mustard is decidedly local.
Adapted from Perry's Spice Temple restaurants, this sees duck breast poached in an aromatic stock containing Sichuan peppercorns, then smoked over a mixture containing jasmine tea. Once cold, the duck is thinly sliced and served with pickled cabbage and a spicy Chinese mustard dressing.
The grilled skate (stingray) takes its cues from one of Perry's favourite Newton Circus hawker stalls. It's marinated and grilled with a sambal made from lemongrass, tamarind, chilli, turmeric, shrimp paste and ginger.
"We then hit it with a bit of burnt butter, calamansi lime juice and some capers," Perry explains. "So it's a really nice little fusion, but its roots are definitely in Singapore."
Buffalo mozzarella is a popular starter from Qantas' Sydney and Melbourne first class lounges, but with a slight Asian finesse.
"With marinated cherry tomatoes, cucumber and pea shoots, it's all looking very European," Perry says. "But we throw some soybeans in to give it that texture and crunch, some creaminess and nuttiness, which gives it that little bit of Singaporean flavour."
Positioned halfway between starters and mains is the always-reliable club sandwich with chicken breast, bacon, slow-roasted Roma tomatoes, cos lettuce and aioli on wholegrain bread.
Both the club sandwich and the sourdough poached eggs with butter-sautéed shiitake and enoki mushrooms and salsa verdé are said to be popular with travellers alighting from QF2, whose timezone-confused stomachs often lean towards a light brunch-style meal rather than a full dinner.
But if you've got room for one main meal, it will probably be the signature laksa with crayfish.
This is based on a fragrant laksa paste made from dried shrimp, candlenut, ginger, lemongrass, turmeric and galangal. The paste is blended with coconut milk, fish sauce and water to create a delicious broth, and filled with fresh, long rice laksa noodles, fish cake, cray fish meat, bean sprouts, egg and tau pok (fried bean curd puff).
"Laksa is of course is a very Singaporean dish that would normally be chicken or prawn, but we've put a bit of luxury around it by adding some crayfish," Perry says. Laksa also appears in the Qantas Singapore Business Lounge from time to time, as one of the two plates of the day, but sans crayfish.
The stir fried black pepper beef is "another dish we have on the business class lounge menu from time to time," Perry says, "but we wanted to have it here because I think it's really representative of a Singaporean flavor. When you come to Singapore you're probably going to have pepper crab or pepper prawns or pepper beef."
The Qantas Singapore First Lounge version sees beef sirloin marinated in oyster sauce, light soy and chicken stock; then stir fried with red capsicum, black pepper, garlic chilli, spring onion and ginger; and served with steamed jasmine rice and a fresh coriander garnish.
If you lean towards fish rather than meat, the lounge features a grilled barramundi sustainably grown and ocean-farmed by Kühlbarra in the Straits of Singapore, just off the island's southern coast of the island.
"We keep this very Western in its execution, but this is a locally farmed product that's really awesome. I tasted it and I gave it the big tick, which I don't always do with barramundi," Perry admits.
The barramundi is served on a grilled lettuce wedge with finely sliced fennel, dressed in a lemon vinaigrette and sourdough breadcrumbs, and topped with a butter made from green herbs, anchovy, garlic and lemon, then garnished with finely chopped chives.
The chicken with crispy eggplant salad and mustard greens presents a slightly Chinese skew on a Western dish.
"It's that kind of fun that we can have here," Perry elaborates. "Crispy eggplant and mustard greens are very Chinese, and then we put a ginger and shallot dressing made with sesame oil over the top."
Should you be craving something decidedly European, the pappardelle with zucchini, cherry tomatoes, green olive, basil and parmesan will hit the spot.
The wide egg pasta ribbons and finely sliced zucchini are sautéed with garlic, lemon and green olive, then served with tomatoes that have been slow roasted in red wine vinegar with thyme and parsley, and garnished with fresh basil, parsley, finely grated parmesan and a sprinkle of chilli.
As with any visit to a Qantas First Lounge, we strongly recommend that you leave room for dessert. Let's also set expectations: the classic 'pavlova in a glass' made famous at Sydney and Melbourne isn't to be found at Singapore, with Perry aiming to create this lounge's own seasonal signature dessert in the coconut and mango sorbet.
"This is packed with beautiful tropical flavour in mango and coconut sitting on a layer of sponge cake, and then caramelised palm sugar syrup goes over the top, with toasted coconut and chopped mango. We think that's going to become a real signature here, like the pavlova is. It's such an Asian flavour, but in a sense it also harps back to something that Australians kind of understand."
As with the pavlova, the component fruit in this dish will change regularly with the seasons and allow regular travellers to enjoy something a little different on each visit.
That said, there is a dessert in a glass: it's the Torta di Verona with blueberries and toasted almonds.
Torta di Verona translates as "cake of Verona" and is a local specialty in the northern Italian town best known as the setting for Romeo and Juliet (although we expect this pre-flight delight will never be a story of woe).
Brioche is toasted, soaked in marsala and amaretto, layered with mascarpone whipped with egg and sugar, and finally topped with blueberries in syrup and toasted almond flakes.
If you're asking about our favourite dessert at the Qantas Singapore First Lounge, it's got to be the chocolate fudge cake with sesame sorbet, Pocky sticks and Milo.
While the dense chocolate fudge cake is a global citizen, it gets a Singaporean visa courtesy of the sesame sorbet, Pocky sticks and Milo, the Aussie-born chocolate malt powder that's much loved across Asia.
Changing up the menu
As with other Qantas first class lounges, the menu here will be refreshed every twelve weeks – although the seasonal variations will be less pronounced in a country which has just two seasons, those being 'hot' and 'hot and wet'.
"It won't be so much the season, it'll be what's inspiring us, what we've seen on the street," Perry explains. "We've already started talking about that, some street food influences like a tofu hotpot which we'd want to sophisticate that up. Maybe it's stuffed eggplant and a little bit of protein and turns into something really, really interesting, plus a couple of Western things that might be able to flow in and flow out."
Perry is also keeping an eye on what dishes on the debutante menu could become so popular that they have to remain. "The squid's the number one seller by double anything else, currently, and the club sandwich has really got some momentum over the last few days."
"So if those signatures play well, we'll have to keep them on. And then we'd probably look at changing a couple out of the out of the starter and two or three of the main plates."
But any dish that makes the cut must also be quick to go from kitchen to table, given that so many of the lounge guests are in transit on QF1 or QF2. "The crunch happens so quickly," Perry says.
"We make sure that everything can be served quickly, nothing takes more than 10 minutes. You've got to be confident that you cab sit down, order and eat, and then go and have a shower, or if you shower first you've still got enough time to have a bite to eat. That whole thing is our primary focus here, actually."
David Flynn travelled to Singapore as a guest of Qantas