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Let’s face it, with the notable exceptions of airlines’ first and business class offerings, in-flight dining has long had a well-deserved reputation as something very far south of scrumptious. There is hardly a readier punching bag in the food world, really; heck, sometimes the stuff that lands on your tray table at 30,000 feet is so unappetizing that even the flight attendants refuse to eat it. That said, there are some bright spots in this most particular of culinary constellations.
First-class dining options once skewed toward uniformity, just like in coach. You could expect a choice between beef or chicken at the back of the plane on your way from New York to Frankfurt, and a range of standard and probably fancy French-inspired items was a staple of menus up front. But the meteoric rise of locavore food around the world and the culinary cross-pollination that came with it has shaken things up — and the airlines are upping their game to meet the ever-inquisitive appetites of passengers. And not only in business and first.
Increasingly, menus in premium economy too include at least a small range of items with regional resonance. In fact, flying some carriers today such as Alitalia (obviously), Aeroflot (that’s right) and even Delta (never underestimate the universal appeal of regional American fare) can be as good an introduction to the cuisines their home countries represent as any fine restaurant. For all the debate on how food tastes blander at high altitude, some airlines are doing an admirable job indeed of keeping things flavorful in the sky. Note: list is meant to whet your appetite, but is non-exhaustive and not a ranking.
1. Air France
Nobody does la cuisine like the French, and Air France really steps up to the plate with a dizzying array of gastronomic options across all classes of service. In fact, navigating them all is a bit like navigating the Paris métro: a bit complicated at first glance, but each stop comes with the promise of a new discovery. Thematic A La Carte menus are available for an extra charge on long-haul flights in Premium Economy and Economy. Those options include the Marché de Jean Imbert (Bella Hadid is a fan of Imbert’s Paris restaurant), Une Selection LENÔTRE, created by the chefs at another famous French restaurant, and an Ocean Menu. A La Carte choices are also available in La Première first class. The airline’s legendary first class cabin is also where you can savor the haute cuisine of French star chefs Anne-Sophie Pic, Régis Marcon and Guy Martin, whose meals alternate every three months. Back in coach, though, you may not get so lucky with the generic menus.
On short-hauls to and from Paris Orly airport (ORY, not as well-known to Americans as CDG, where most flights from the US land) you can eat a bunch of gourmet stuff out of—mais oui—glass jars. They call it “ET HOP! À TABLE!” — a reference to Hop!, the airline’s regional subsidiary. These are short domestic flights, so you’ll get smaller portions, and they aren’t free, unlike the regular snacks you’d get on those flights. Still, they are crafted by leading French chefs and pâtissiers, and presented in jars. The Garden Menu is by Marcon and renowned pastry chef Frédéric Bau and consists of a vegetable millefeuille with a lemon vinaigrette, followed by a dark chocolate mousse topped with an almond crumble. Twice-Michelin starred chef Jean-Michel Lorain’s Farmhouse Menu turns up a poached egg and cream of pea and pancetta, accompanied by a pot of mango and passion fruit cream and a chocolate mousse by Paul Wittamer, official supplier to the Court of Belgium. Bon appétit and encore, s’il vous plaît.
When it comes to culinary greatness on the ground, it’s hard to mention France without saying the word Italy too — and if Alitalia doesn’t always deliver quite the same level of galley panache that Air France does, it is making a good effort. The airline rotates regional menus in Magnifica (business) class formulated by the Italian Gambero Rosso group such as a Menu del Lazio and Menu del Friuli Venezia Giulia, each having traditional, healthy and light options. If caffeine is all you crave, well, there is a Lavazza coffee menu with three different blends of espresso (in case you forgot to stock up on these Italian marvels at the aeroporto.)
3. Cathay Pacific
The Hong Kong-based carrier serves it up in style with a toothsome array of contemporary Asian dishes. Mains in first include the likes of shrimp and pork fun gor, scallop siu mai, chicken glutinous rice and Chinese selections like Peking duck salad, almonds, black truffle and double-boiled sea conch soup with bamboo pith and Chinese cabbage. Gourmet Chinese options abound in Business too, like Kampong chicken with Chinese ham, flower mushroom, wilted spinach, black fungus, and steamed fragrant rice. Even in Premium Economy and Economy you can expect to find authentic Chinese dishes on the menu.
The first rule of flying Aeroflot is: you do not make assumptions about the food offered on Aeroflot. The Russian airline has a business-class menu designed by Kamel Benmamar, latterly chef at Moscow’s Ryby Nyet (No Fish) restaurant, that will give you some rich tastes of the cooking of Mother Russia with modern spins. We’re talking starters like meat soup with mushrooms, sour cream and barley or trout, lentil with cream cheese and Wakame seaweed served with rhubarb fish sauce. Mains like vegetable stuffed quail with pumpkin and broccoli puree, served with demi-glace sauce and halibut baked in Hoba leaf with rice and broccoli in Miso sauce. On flights over 12 hours, a snack basket includes belevskaya pastila, a traditional Russian dessert.
Since Aegean scooped up the iconic Olympic Airways in 2013, it has become Greece’s de facto flag carrier and as such has developed an “all-inclusive flavor experience” on its business class that aims to showcase flavors of Greek gastronomy. And no, that doesn’t mean you should expect souvlaki in the sky. The enlisted a wine connoisseur and a trio of Greek celebrity chefs — one who owns the most highly-rated seafood restaurant in Athens, another who helms a restaurant in Mykonos and a third who specializes in desserts — to ramp up the menu. Selections vary seasonally, but you could expect the likes of traditional eggplant and veal minced meat moussaka, or chicken breast with Aegina pistachio crust, fresh oregano, herb-mashed potatoes and goji berry. And this is a good way to try Greek cheeses, such as kefalograviera and feta with dried apricot.
6. Air New Zealand
Air New Zealand may be most celebrated for its fanciful in-flight safety videos, but the airline also puts some creative muscle into its menus with a view to affording passengers some authentic flavors. On what other airline are you going to be able to tuck into a plate of seared hapuka fish in miso coconut broth with steamed shiitake rice, gai lan and fresh coriander salsa — in Premium Economy, no less? And rhubarb frangipane tart with vanilla bean mascarpone cream? Yum to the power of more, please! Business Premier menus feature the likes of salmon dusted with New Zealand lemon kelp and sesame, shiitake and spring onion rice with steamed baby bok choy. Lots of fresh, locally-sourced Kiwi goodness here.
7. Oman Air
Oman is a captivating country on many counts, and its flag carrier does its part to introduce travelers to its regional Omani recipes. In first class and business class, there are traditional Arabic mezzeh starters as well as a main dish with the tantalizing description of “Omani hospitality, flavours from the Sultanate.” Which means chicken breast stuffed with dates and pimiento, onion pilaf with basmati rice and roasted baby pumpkin, khousa and cherry tomato and loomi saffron sauce.
8. Turkish Airlines
Turkish cuisine is a feast for the senses, and Turkish Airlines knows it. It even features an onboard chef on long-haul routes. Zesty Turkish specialities such as shish kebap, karnıyarık, mantı, and imam bayıldı are served on domestic flights in business class; on transatlantic flights in business expect starters like hunter’s börek (stuffed phyllo), Turkish lentil soup with olive tapenade bruschetta and “traditional Turkish creamy wedding soup with lamb cubes” to turn up on the menu, as well as heartier fare like a yoghurt kebab with grilled minced beef and lamb skewers with buttered pita bread. Traditional Turkish coffee and Turkish delight add nice local touches to transatlantic meal service in business.
The first thing you should know about Ethiopian’s business class is that it’s called CloudNine. Which is pretty ambitious, but also quite cool. Even cooler is the chance to enjoy some authentic Ethiopian dining up there in CloudNine. According to the airline, the Ethiopian national dish is called injera bǝ wot — wot being a spicy stew prepared from locally sourced ingredients and accompanied by injera, a leavened and flat bread made from the Ethiopian grain called teff, which is grown on the Ethiopian highlands and is naturally gluten free.
Good things are cooking in Delta One business class, where they want you to “dig into a fresh approach to onboard dining, full of flavors inspired by the seasons and the regions we serve.” Culinary collabs correspond with hubs served: on many long-hauls from Atlanta, artisan foods of the American South such as regional cheeses, Carolina Gold rice and grits, local charcuterie and pork and mountain trout make welcome menu appearances, while menus on flights from LAX feature seasonal ingredients from Los Angeles-based chef partners Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo. And in the all-important ice cream department, they serve sweet things like Cherry Chocolate Fudge Brownie Ice Cream from Georgia-based High Road ice cream.
Featured image courtesy of Air France
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