Food to fly for

When F&HE contributor Richard Holmes set off to fly around the world in four days, we sent him packing with a simple brief: find us the best airport restaurants on the planet. Apart from a severe case of jet lag, here’s what he brought back…

Johannesburg – Hong Kong/CX748
No matter how often I visit, flying into Asia is always a thrill: the signs are indecipherable, the language a blur and even ordering breakfast is an adventure. And that was my first stop after clearing customs. I ate well on the Cathay Pacific flight from Joburg – deep-fried kingklip with jasmine rice, and braised udon noodles with barbecued pork for breakfast – but I’m a glutton at heart, and even more so in Hong Kong where you’ll find the best airport restaurants on earth. But don’t take my word for it.

The 12 million passengers who voted in the Skytrax World Airport Awards in 2012 placed Hong Kong International Airport top of the pile when it comes to airport dining. I eventually find myself at Chao Inn; the only foreigner in a restaurant filled with airport workers and mainland travellers. Sign language and a friendly smile are my allies, and I fumble my way through the menu as a pot of steaming green tea arrives unbidden – the perfect pick-me-up after a long flight.

Barbecue pork buns are my weakness in Hong Kong and I overdose with two baskets. To follow, steamed rice rolls and pork dumplings are all but obligatory in the spiritual home of dim sum. Chao Inn isn’t the only show in town though. There’s excellent sushi at Itamae, soup-filled dumplings at Shanghai Lao Lao and a handful of other dim sum bars with picture menus to make life a little easier. Easier, perhaps, but not as authentic.

And authenticity is why I’m here, to meet chef Lai Wai-Hung. Hung’s Delicacies, a street-side eatery in the city, has bagged a Michelin star for three years running and last September he brought fine dining to airport travellers. Goose marinated in his secret lou seoi sauce is his signature dish, but for the adventurous a platter of deboned duck tongues in Chinese marinade, or a bowl of chicken tendons in a spicy mustard sauce, are the real taste of Hung’s award-winning kitchen. A pork belly follows scallop follows tongues, and while Hung wants me to keep eating I play my trump card: “Sorry, I have a plane to catch.”

Hong Kong – Los Angeles/CX882
It’s a long flight across the Pacific and as the plane descends over the snowcapped San Gabriel Mountains, I am ready to eat again. As I come in to land at LAX’s Tom Bradley International Terminal, I can almost see the table booked for me in the retro-futuristic Encounter Restaurant. Like a four-legged spider from a bad Hollywood sci-fi, Encounter is perhaps the quirkiest of my airport eateries. I have a table booked for 5pm Tuesday, and I’m ready to order. Pity, then, that it’s still Monday. Damn that International Date Line that allows you to leave Hong Kong on a Monday afternoon, fly for 12 hours across 10 time zones, and land… on a Monday afternoon.

As a seasoned traveller I should have known better, but the best-laid plans don’t always work out. I’ll spare you the sorry details, but let’s just say that my unexpected stay had highs and lows: a wonderful day on the Santa Monica beachfront, and a hotel breakfast where chocolate waffles were the healthiest option in town. Encounter offers a delicious taste of modern Californian cooking. No, it’s not the city’s finest restaurant, but for memorable airport eating it’s one of my favourites, with quirky decor that’s a playful mix of the Jetsons and Flintstones. From the plentiful window tables LAX – with the city beyond – stretches out in a 270° panorama.

On the menu, seafood reigns supreme. A starter of ahi tuna tartare is generous, but not enough to ward off the Encounter Colossal Shrimp Cocktail, a 70s throwback of giant shrimp served with mint and mango relish. Mains are meatier, with most ‘intergalactic travellers’ – as diners are known – opting for the signature dishes: Peking-style roasted duckling with snow peas, or a pepper-crusted steak with garlic whipped potatoes. To finish off, and with one eye on my itinerary, it seems only fitting to pay homage to my next destination. I order the New York Cheesecake, and bid the City of Angels adios.

Los Angeles – New York/AA10
It takes just over five hours to fly across the United States, and I descend into the chilly dawn of a New York morning. The city’s John F. Kennedy International Airport is surprisingly quiet as I make my way to Terminal 7 for my connecting flight. This is the shortest stop of my round the- world tour and, sadly, my restaurant of choice is closed. Fair enough; it’s barely gone 6am and there can’t be many travellers hoping to try Bostonbased celebrity chef Todd English’s signature Kobe beef hotdog served with Cheddar and Parmesan fries. His restaurant Bonfire is one of the best at JFK, blending Argentine and American cooking traditions, dished up in a stylish New York grillroom setting.

The best I can do is salivate over the menu as I grab a pretzel from Auntie Annie’s and wander off in search of the British Airways lounge. I’ve travelled three-quarters of the way around the world in three days, and I still have three flights to go. Happily, I bag a seat on the upper deck of the British Airways 747 to London. Flying Club World is a wonderful thing when you’re ticking off time zones and the seven hours across ‘the pond’ pass in a happy blur.

New York – London Heathrow/ BA0178
It’s a rare traveller who hasn’t spent time in transit at London Heathrow and, if you’re lucky, it’ll be in the sparkling Terminal 5, not the gloomy older terminals. At T5, the airport is your culinary oyster. The sushi bar at Itsu is ideal for solo travellers, while Wagamama is a little more lively and always a safe bet for their extensive menu of Asian street food. Grilled prawn skewers marinated in lemon grass and chilli are delicious, but leave space for a bowl of ramen soup: Asian street food doesn’t get more authentic than this hearty noodle broth.

If you have a little time, and fancy ticking a celeb chef off your list, there’s one must-eat destination: Gordon Ramsay’s Plane Food. Of course Ramsay – with a galaxy of Michelin stars to his name – isn’t behind the skillet every day, but his signature stamp is evident from the sleek decor to the menu of modern British cuisine. The steak selection of dry-aged British beef is always a safe bet, while stout-braised shoulder of beef, roast cod or steamed sea bass show off the best produce the island has to offer.

If you’re short on time and pounds, the Plane Fast menu is for you: three courses served in under 30 minutes for £17 (R220). Your best choices? White onion and West Country cider soup, with a roasted Dingley Dell pork cutlet. It’s all I have time for on this leg of my circumnavigation. There’s a train to my satellite terminal, and only a few minutes to make my flight back to Joburg. One more long-haul flight and I’ll be on home soil. It’s a good feeling. Now I wonder what they’ll have for dinner on board…

Fine air fare
Airlines are upping their game on in-flight food, particularly up at the sharp end in Business and First Class. British Airways worked with super-chef Heston Blumenthal to discover how to make food taste better at 35 000 feet and the result was their innovative Height Cuisine: dishes designed to keep taste buds happy in the dry air of cruising altitude. The results are impressive: Club World breakfasts include organic frittata with creamed spinach, or syrupy French toast with fresh fruit compote. Up in the rarefied air of the First Class cabin the menu oozes umami. Divided into a Bistro Selection and BA Classics, the choices wander from Herefordshire beef fillet to roasted wild cod. And yes, why not Scottish king scallops to start, and a platter of French cheese with a glass of Vin de Constance to see you off to sleep?

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