Despite of the cabin crew’s incessant fawning, the last meal I had on Etihad’s Business Class was a huge disappointment. Zucchini and aubergine slices tasted like they were forgotten in insipid broth; fish was bland; and the desserts were a total flop. I’ve put all that in an Etihad general survey and one week after, they sent me another survey to do, except that this time, it was mainly on food. When asked what would I like to see on the menu, I answered pork. That was the last time I heard from customer service. Pork is never served on airline meals. You can request for a non-pork meal (even if there is no pork meal onboard anyway) but you can never order pork meal. But pork is not my specialty…it’s pastry!
Here I am again on a Business Class seat crossing two continents. And while gulping refills of champagne to get me drunk to dull my fears of take-off, I peeked at the menu. I knew better this time. Order dishes from the airline’s country. This guarantees “home-made” offerings. Don’t get French food on a Dutch airline, for example.
But before attacking the menu, let me tell you the story of how a poor person like me gets to travel in style. A couple of years ago, a young, tall, good-looking man walked into my shop, ordered my famous “Obama” sandwich and a soda, took a seat and settled comfortably to eat. When he came back to the counter to pay, I cajoled him into a casual conversation like I always do with all my clients. By the time he got back his change, I knew the story of his life: single, renovating a flat in Brussels, and works for the airline Etihad. And out of the blue, he offered me one of his ten staff tickets, cheap tickets on any of their destinations but on a standby status. Every year since then, I go back to Manila on Business Class with a ticket that cost one-fourth the price of a pair of Valentino shoes; shoes that I will probably never get unless I meet a client who can offer me staff-priced pairs (and even then…)
Now the menu. The usual advice is to eat light so I half listened to the advice and ordered two starters….and a dessert. I left out the watercress soup and chose a plate of arabic mezze as my first entrée. It was fantastic. Rice stuffed on a vine leaf, tabouleh with pomegrenate seeds, creamy hummus, pickled vegetables, pita bread and a puff pastry filled with spinach and pine nuts. The steward came back with my second starter, asked me how the first one was, accepted my compliments with glee, and served with flourish, my new plate: quinoa and wakame salad, green asparagus cooked al dente, and red pepper sauce that blended well with the tanginess of perfectly cooked shrimps marinated in lemon. Delicious!
It was time for dessert…a Javanais, the Belgian version of the French opera, known to have been invented by Cyriaque Gavillon in 1955 and was named as such by his wife in honor of the ballet dancers of the Opera Garnier in Paris. A Javanais.…a cake made of four, very thin layers of almond biscuit, mocha buttercream and iced with a dark chocolate ganache. I’ve been dreaming of the Javanais for weeks, after sweating on the recipe, validating measurements and procedures a million times for my final oral exams in bread and pastry school. Finally, I was getting one and snobbishly licking my dessert fork 39,000 feet above the ground.
Now, when you get a Business class seat for cheap, you feel guilty being bitchy. So, I stayed polite and emptied the plate but if one day, the inflight chef stumbles upon this piece, may I just suggest more coffee in the buttercream, more ground almonds in the cake, and a real ganache on the top layer instead of icing coming from a plastic pot. And the vanilla cream that came with it was not really necessary especially if it was poured from a brick.
By the end of my “light” meal, the steward was starting to take my opinions seriously and was getting excited after each serving, so he suggested I take a meal just before landing. I ordered a salmon pie with mashed potatoes and herbs. A mistake. I should have just stayed with the Arabic menu. The puff pastry was uncooked and the salmon filling was too oily it could have clogged my arteries if I had finished the plate. And the caraway seeds mixed with the mashed potatoes carried away with it all the other flavours that would have made this edible. I’ve left the plate untouched and wanted to hide from the now excited steward by making myself smaller on the huge, comfortable armchair that extends into a bed for two small people like me.
But he saw me so I pretended I wanted another dessert and ordered baklava, the mediterranean version of “mille feuille” (“a hundred pages”) usually made of layers of filo pastry, filled with nuts and sweetened with honey. The steward arrived with the last, tiny piece of baklava onboard (while my seatmate got lucky with the last pack of chips) and saw me taking notes. “So, you are copying our menu,” he said. I looked at him and returned the smile with “no, I’m getting ready for my next survey.” And I rattled superlatives for the food and service but did not dare to add that it would have been perfect if not for the incessant babbling of the cabin manager.