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Australian carrier Qantas has one of the strongest food and beverage programs in aviation. The airline first partnered with chef Neil Perry, who brought acclaim to Australian cooking at his landmark Sydney restaurant Rockpool, back in 1997, making this one of the longest-running celebrity chef-airline pair-ups in the industry.
Part of that relationship involves regular menu updates both in Qantas’s lounges around the world and on its airplanes, including one that went into effect at the Qantas International First Class Lounge at LAX on Friday. I was part of a small group of journalists invited for a sneak peek at the new dishes.
Perry and his team at Qantas change their menus seasonally. Major shifts happen in winter and summer, and smaller ones in the fall and spring, all tailored specifically to each lounge and each international route.
Qantas and Rockpool’s manager of food product development, chef David Speck, said, “We serve around 300 different menus at any one time throughout the Qantas network. We try to make sure that no component or dish is ever repeated in a single passenger’s journey.”
With this new menu at LAX, as with all of Qantas’s ground and air offerings, the driving principles are, “healthy-style dishes, sustainable ingredients and local products,” said Speck. He then led us through a tasting menu highlighting both Qantas classics and unique items from the new fall menu, all served in the first-class lounge’s dedicated à la carte dining room.
First, we tried a signature cocktail from Rockpool’s mixologists, the Blushing Sparrow, with vodka, lemon and sliced grapes. It was refreshing, but strong, so I only sipped at it.
The meal itself began with local La Brea Bakery sourdough bread and Californian extra virgin olive oil before a light starter of Japanese hamachi crudo with a tangy jalapeno-yuzu kosho. The dish was light but very tasty and featured one of the Californian ingredients Speck most appreciates, fresh chilis.
Next came a warm salad of enoki, shiitake, shimeji and oyster mushrooms tossed with a fragrant sauce of garlic, green scallion, chili, mint and coriander and topped with fried shallots and crispy roasted brown rice. “This really makes autumn for me,” said Speck as we dug in, and the dish was indeed delicious. The mushrooms were light but earthy, and the dressing was flavorful without being overpowering.
I followed Speck into the kitchen to see the plating of the next dish we would try, a chicken salad that’s only going to be available at the LAX lounge.
The salad consists of cabbage, radish, parsley and cilantro with shredded chicken poached in an Asian herb stock and tossed with a chili-soy-tomatillo dressing and crumbles of ricotta salata. The dish was substantial without being heavy and an interesting combination of Latin and Asian flavors.
For the final main course, we were served one of Perry’s signature dishes, and one you’ll find in every lounge: his famous salt and pepper squid. These enormous strips of calamari come breaded in a light batter and served with hand-ground green chili dipping sauce and mild garlic aioli. Though fried, the dish manages to remain refined, and the zesty dipping sauces are a highlight. We were also served a side of locally sourced mixed greens drizzled with Rockpool vinaigrette.
Finally, for dessert, we were treated to a Cantonese-style three-milk egg-white sponge cake topped with rose-citrus meringue and shaved pistachio. The cake was rich, but very fluffy, and it was hard not to finish the whole thing.
Along with the meal, we tasted a few different Australian wines including a crisp Leo Buring Leonay Riesling from South Australia, a fuller-bodied Chardonnay from Flametree Walcliffe in the Margaret River, Tolpuddle Vineyard Pinot Noir from Tasmania, and finally, a Canadian ice wine from Jackson Triggs with dessert.
Guests at the lounge will find a few other highlights including seared striped bass with herb salad and Guangxi-style crispy pork bely with cashews, red onion, sesame and a dark chili paste. Old favorites like the reuben sandwich with sauerkraut and pickles are also still represented.
All in all, I thought the meal was quite good, and not just for an airline lounge. Thanks to the solicitous service, the pretty plating on the airline’s Noritake serviceware designed by Marc Newson, and the high quality of the ingredients and preparation, the meal felt like dining in a nice restaurant out in the city.
The first-class section is part of the larger Oneworld lounge at the terminal, though to get in here specifically, you’ll need to be flying first class on Qantas or one of its Oneworld partners, or be a Oneworld Emerald elite flying a Oneworld carrier in any class.
It seems like we’re entering a new era of airlines focusing on their meal service, both on the ground and in the sky, with new chef partnerships and new dining concepts in their lounges specifically. American and United are upping their game when it comes to premium lounge dining (though in TPG’s own estimation, the Qantas Lounge at LAX pretty much blows the American Airlines International First Class Lounge out of the water). United even opened an invitation-only restaurant at Newark last week. The innovation and effort that Qantas is showing may encourage other carriers to keep improving as well.
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