Date: 25 Jul
Aircraft: Boeing 767
Departure: 1010 hrs (wst)
Score: 7/10 stars
The highly competitive domestic long haul business class sectors in Australia have resulted in service levels changing dramatically on the lucrative Nullarbor routes from Perth to the major Eastern States ports in Australia. Now, if you take a wide bodied service from say Perth to Sydney, you can recline in a fully flat bed (the old international business class pod), eat at your leisure from a menu and enjoy the linen-clad perks we've always experienced at the front of the plane, but delivered with new vigour and, it must be said, in the case of Qantas, significant and genuine enthusiasm from cabin crew.
If dining aboard is a matter of concern, then the food and wine service across the Nullarbor has also greatly improved.
A digression: One of the great innovations in aviation in recent years - TCAS; Cat IIIB autoland and carbon fibre fuselages aside - has been the button hole in the Qantas Business Class napkin. It's also a primary newbie indicator (PNI) at the front of the plane. At first the new J Class flyer is clueless, then they see others with their napkins attached to their top button and, with a confected ennui, sheepishly follow suit. But it's with some satisfaction that one sees the newbie patting the napkin down on to his Pelaco shirt front while a small smile of satisfaction crosses his face. Not knowing about the button hole makes eating in the air difficult and potentially messy. Why is it then that the very useful button hole napkin concept has not been extended into the non-aviation world? This truly is one of life's big questions. Homewares stores, take note.
But I digress.
QF42 left on time, more or less, and with a 4.5 hour transit, service began at a leisurely pace. Menus, previously only available on international business class flights, were distributed. The trendy restaurant terminology "plates" has been appropriated at the Q kitchens: the menu had a "small plates" section and a "main plates" section. The term "entree" or "starter" is just so last decade.
Sweet corn chowder with garlic croutons and a salad of slow roasted carrots with prawns, almonds, labne (cheese made from draining the moisture away from yoghurt) and the ubiquitous quinoa (pronounced kin-wah) were the two small plate options.
The carrot dish gets a big tick. The baby carrots were nicely al dente; the labne was well seasoned and texturally good (overly drained and it becomes gluey and cloying, underdone and it is too runny) and the garnishes lived up to expectations: crunch from the almonds and prawns which had retained moisture, a big win in airline cookery where overcooking is regarded as a sensible health and hygiene standard.
Mains - four of them to choose from - read well. The thought of braised beef cheeks didn't do it, but the hot smoked salmon with green tea noodles and a sesame soy dressing was a hugely generous serve, even if it was, in fact salmon with potatoes and rocket. Presumably green tea noodles and soy went MIA on the day.
This dish was dramatically under-seasoned and bland. Apparently it's difficult to excite taste buds at flight level three zero, but you'd reckon the kitchen would know that and overcompensate. Having said that, the hot smoked fish was first class and the spuds were nicely cooked and dressed.
Cheese is, well, cheese. The cabin crew deserves a big tick for ensuring that the cheeses were served at cabin temperature. Service of cheese fridge cold is a no-no in any restaurant, but it is attention to detail often forgotten on the ground, let alone in the air. And I have had Qantas cheese plates in the past that could set your teeth chattering.
But, by far the cleverest thing about this meal, was the introduction of an amuse bouche service as drinks orders are being taken. Business class meal service can take a long time, so if you're in row 6, there's every chance the economy cabin crew has fed everyone in Y class before the business crew get to you. For most of us, this matters little (it's not as if you've got to be somewhere) but there are enough alpha male flyers who loathe waiting for anything for these delays to have become a problem.
The amuse bouche - in this case a flaccid, but well flavoured square of frittata - solves the problem. The alpha in 6F has been paid attention to; he's been fed and he has a drink in his hand. Happy days.
Date: 28 July 2013
Aircraft: Airbus A330
Departure: 1730 hrs
Score: 8/10 stars
One probably doesn't need the cheese course on a Virgin flight. The airline's internationally renowned song and dance man, Richard Branson, is all the cheese you'd ever need. Unkind? Probably. But Branson is no stranger to the cheesy photo op or the cleverly pitched stunt. And, of course, it works. It has positioned Virgin as the freestyle outsider, the fun lovin' alternative to the stuffy legacy carriers.
In Australia, this posture - pitched at the yoof - has been usurped somewhat by budget tyro JetStar with it's perky TV ads and toothy models plucked from the ranks of its flight attendants.
And while Virgin hasn't dumped its youthful tear-way image altogether, It is now a serious player in the business class market in Australia and it has had to, well, grow up. It's doing a cracker job too. There's still a bit of yoof culture about it, especially in the design of its major airport business loungers, but as Aussie business flyers discovered when they took advantage of the airline's matching platinum-for-platinum, gold-for-gold frequent flyer promotion in 2012, this is one hell of an airline.
Culture in any organisation is important and it's clear (as a first time Virgin business traveller) that the service culture at Virgin is superb. The staff are smiley and chatty and genuinely personable and yet they never cross the "too familiar - get out of my space" line. Nor do they have the vacant look and fixed smile of the 'professional' steward who delivers flawless service, but forgets the most important part - a genuine, welcoming attitude.
The Virgin business cabin is a nice place to be.
Its pod seating too is best in class and a real winner for Perth-Sydney/Melbourne/Brisbane travellers, particularly on red eye flights.
So, what about that cheese course. Well, it's good too, although on a menu specifically designed for Perth flights you'd expect a West Australian cheese to be on the card - the stunning Ringwould Dairy goats cheeses would be an obvious choice. Instead we get a three cheese list with two from the same producer in Gippsland and the other a supermarket cheese from KingIsland in Tassie. There's nothing wrong with any of them, but, where's the imagination?
Irish Australia larrikin chef Luke Mangan is the face of the food and he seems a good fit for Virgin. He's a TV personality, man about town, cookbook author and knockabout bloke with a gleam in the eye and a cute turn of phrase. His menu on A330 flights is an extensive book' titled 'Chef's Selections' specifically designed for what Virgin calls its "Coast to Coast" services.
From the starters list a beautifully plated Peking duck dish with spring onion and hoi sin riffed off the classic Beijing duck in a pancake, capturing the big, bold hoi sin flavours while not swamping the glazed duck slices. The crew have obviously been to plating-up school: the dish was perfectly presented completed with snipped micro herbs. Big flavour.
From the mains list, blue eye trevalla with steamed potatoes was the kind of well cooked, but ultimately uncomplicated dish one just loves to eat on a plane. Again, plating-up skills were superb. A plinth of perfectly cubed steamed spuds had been laid with care on the plate on top of which the trevalla - moist, hot, well-seasoned - had been set. It was topped with a punchy roasted capsicum sauce, adding yet more bold flavour to the construction.
We're talking airline here. Had this dish been plated up in a restaurant on the ground, would we be raving quite so much. Arguably not, but it is one of the best executed dishes, I've eaten in the sky for quite some time (The best by the way is Neil Perry's eight course degustation in the first cabin on the A380 service Sydney to Los Angeles - which I'll review in upcoming editions).
The chocolate lava cake was a fail. It was acidic from too much bi-carb and just, well, ordinary.
The drawcard in this cabin is the wine list. One isn't just offered wines from a trolley. An entire wine list is proffered along with the menu at the beginning of food service and it is lavish in scope (for an airline cabin that is) and with its tasting notes and explanations. It may sound all a bit wine-buffy, but in fact the list is more useful to non-wine buffs than experts. It gives them time to think about what they want to drink, so when the steward comes round for orders, it's a simple conversation rather than the entire explanation for each passenger. Good move. And classy too.
But for those who like an aperitif before lunch, the inclusion of Campari on the liqueurs and spirits list is about as perfect as it gets.
One of the best.