[LONG] A tale of two Concordes [Egon Ronay]

Rohit Khare (khare@w3.org)
Sat, 7 Dec 1996 05:47:49 -0500

Egon Ronay is the 'Robin Leach' of English critics, and just launched a
website for "top international travellers" at
http://www.egon-ronay.infocomint.com/ . Kind of like a Consumer's Report
for people who book the Presidential Suite at the Waldorf-Astoria Towers,
which is the current item. [I'm certain Rob Harley will have a bit to say
about this, but I won't ruin his surprise...]

Anyway, here's some fine vicarious bits. Personally, I'm willing to grant
that he got AF's *brunch* vs. BA's *dinner*, and that BA charges several
thousand more for the equivalent ticket. Still, I hung out next to the LH=
Concorde lounge, and you can tell BA *lives* for these people...=20



A Tale of Two Concordes

The very word Concorde is identified with the very best of flying - and i= n service, food and wine. It is the acme of luxury, the non plus ultra of t= he air. You expect to be thoroughly spoiled in a sophisticated way.

So I feared for British prestige and British Airways when I flew both the= ir Concorde and that of Air France to and from New York.

To make the comparison objective and my dissecting knife sharp, my ticket= s were fully paid and I flew both planes on the same day. I had an Air Fran= ce lunch at 12 noon French time, arrived in New York at 8.30am American time and ate British Airway's dinner at 1.30pm American time, landing at Heathrow at 10.30pm London time. At least my body clock didn't need adjusting!

My first flight was Paris-New York and I have to say I expected to start = at the top since everything supplied to Air France's Concorde would obviousl= y come from France.

At Charles de Gaulle there was no special Concorde check-in desk: a business class desk had to suffice. Perhaps in the country of =E9galit=E9= , a mere difference of =A32,500 return between Concorde and business class doesn't count.

But the principle was carried a little too far, I thought, when on arriva= l at the much promoted, special Concorde lounge, whose praises they sing on Internet, they took my coat and put it on a thin wire hanger that may wel= l have come from a dry cleaner's. The 'luxury' lounge was almost tawdry with armchairs only midgets could sink into. Not spacious to start off with, it gradually grew somewhat crowded. Four or five wines, including champagne, were being served by a young man informally dressed in a short-sleeved shirt. The wines themselv= es had unceremoniously been dumped in a large bowl awash with water and ice.

My search for luxury took me to the buffet table. But this was small, offering no other food than miniature croissants, brioches and shortbread. The table was adorned with a few bottles of spirits and - I couldn't believe my eyes - coffee automats so you could serve yourself with coffee or tea from taps identified by makeshift labels.

Next to them were jiggers of UHT milk to guarantee that if the coffee was good (and it wasn't) its taste would be spoiled. Those who preferred hot chocolate could make it themselves from sachets of powder and hot water.

There were no waiting or bar staff. Plenty of phones though, even if loca= l calls were not free.

A five-foot high glass partition divided us from the club class lounge which, as far as I could see, had exactly the same features but was smaller.

In the midst of this disappointing mediocrity, there was a sudden sign of hope: a solitary, half-hidden flight menu, with the wines printed on the left of a menu in French and English, both in terse, military language. N= ot only was there not a separate wine list, but there was no choice of wine for any of the five courses.

There was nothing terse about the names of the wines: Corton Charlemagne 1992, Grand Cru, needs no embellishment (though perhaps a slight lowering of its age). The ap=E9ritif was simply listed as 'Champagne Cuv=E9e Speci= ale' - unjustified modesty as it turned out to be Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 1988: for me, the best champagne there is.

(But it was only when I asked to see the bottle during the flight that I discovered this treasure. Normally, it is just handed to you already in a= n ugly glass. Alas, it was wasted as, at great height [over 50,000 feet in our case], the palate becomes insensitive to delicate flavours. Surely Ai= r France must know this!)

We left the lounge without even a bon voyage - perhaps they were glad to get rid of us?

But I looked forward to some cossetting on the famously uncomfortable pla= ne with its narrow aisles and low, curved ceilings.

There were smiles, but they reminded me of Marcel Marceau: mimed from the neck up and not from the heart.

But I was ready to forgive everything as I anticipated the best of French gastronomy. I did not let myself be turned off by the amuse geuele, a dryish, slice of a brittle little roulade (ingredients unidentifiable), a small canap=E9 of jellied, probably tinned, asparagus and half a boiled e= gg with a coffee-spoonful of salmon 'caviare'.

Never mind, the first course promised better: 'Assiette Marine', translat= ed into 'smoked salmon assortment'. It consisted of smoked salmon (tasting farmed if of anything at all), marinated salmon (strangely white but at least with an interesting texture), and a remarkably dry slice of slightl= y smoked steamed (or boiled?) salmon, plus five or six pearls of salmon roe.

Exceptionally forgettable - and the Chablis to go with it wasn't availabl= e!

Tournedos po=EAl=E9e followed. The meat was saut=E9ed and far too well do= ne. Sliced, saut=E9ed tennis shoes probably taste like the garnish that came = with it: tightly-rolled-up sticks of oyster mushrooms (Air France couldn't translate them and they remained pleurotes in English).

I have rarely had a blander-tasting dish of food, aggravated by a rubbery bread roll (I had to ask for butter). But it couldn't spoil the excellent Morey Saint-Denis, 1988.

Excellence at last, and it continued with dessert: a sponge roll with vanilla mousse and raspberry sauce. But it was accompanied (why?) by a fruit salad consisting only of grapefruit, orange, bits of pineapple and too much Kiwi fruit. Had France's whole crop of apples, pears, strawberries, raspberries and grapes fallen victim to a natural disaster?

The coffee, though quite strong, had no aroma and was flat.=20

The service, which was reasonably efficient, lacked the real caring one should have felt, or sincere friendliness or natural kindliness. The head of cabin staff should be relegated to the ranks, and the chef relegated t= o the kitchen sink.

What has happened to those tokens of luxury once synonymous with Concorde= ? Where have all the truffles, caviare and foie gras gone? It may be sacriligeous to ask, but are the French losing their savoir faire and joi= e de vivre? Have the French lost all their taste for luxury, even at well over =A35000 per return flight.

As I walked away, I looked back at that beautiful bird in Air France's keep. It may be part of its design, but this time it should droop its nos= e in shame.

At least the flight was not special enough to bring me down to earth with= a bump when there was no privileged short-cut to JFK's notoriously slow passport control and the baggage hall (although, to be fair, it's the sam= e when you leave British Airway's Concorde).

Approaching the British Airway's Concorde lounge I pondered: if what I ha= d just experienced passed for the French idea of luxury and sophistication these days, how would the British - with their somewhat austere approach = to luxury and good living and doubtful (though now undeserved) reputation fo= r gastronomy and service - compare?=20

My arrival at the lounge was an eye-opener. Three or four times the size = of Air France's in Paris, it was palacially spacious and supremely comfortable, decorated in relaxed good taste with big, new-looking armchairs and lounge staff that could not be bettered.

I was several hours early but, after her initial surprise, the hostess wa= s infinitely kinder than her French counterpart and genuinely solicitous about my comfort in the time I had to kill.

I called a few friends - local calls were free. The steward - more like t= he perfect butler - patiently spent a long time on getting me a call oversea= s and, even though these are not free, refused to accept the $11 owing. 'Wi= th our compliments', he said.

The buffet was much bigger than in Paris, very well organised and with staff who constantly replenished the exceptionally good, fresh small sandwiches. There was also a good selection, plus fruit, celery sticks, walnuts, olives etc.

The coffee was good Cona-type with jugs of fresh milk and cream. All in all, I was quite sorry to leave, even after four hours.

The flight attendants also seemed truly pleased to see the passengers. Indeed, the amount of attention all round was almost embarrassing. No smiling masks here!

The menus and wine lists were beautifully produced and informative. How about being advised on one's wines by Michael Broadbent, Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson?

The ap=E9ritif, properly served from the bottle was the superb Champagne Pommery, Cuv=E9e Speciale Louise Pommery 1987, shrewdly chosen as, even a= t 45,000 feet, it maintained its inimitably perfect balance and wonderful tiny bubbles.

A delicious, simple first course was avocado, shellfish and a small piece of sweet water melon - which, to my surprise, proved an inspirational addition. It arrived with a choice of four different rolls, all warm and exemplary, and with a perfect Grand Cru Chablis 1992.

As opposed to Air France's lack of choice in any course, British Airways offers three main courses. To make the comparison as exact as possible, I chose beef again. This time, it was a roast, garlic-crusted tenderloin of beef and I don't hesitate to say it was the best dish I have ever had on any airline.

Hats off to British Airways and all my previous skirmishes with them forgotten. The accompanying mellow Les Forts de Latour 1978 made me wish that Concor= de flight times were longer.

An imaginative, feather-light wine jelly, containing a few excellent raspberries, was followed (we were on a British plane) by a well-ripened camembert and a gulp of hard-to-miss Dow's 1978 Tawny port.

The difference between the Air France and British Airways staff was that with the former you felt you were being catered for.

The British Airways Concorde experience oozed luxury, refinement and a genuine concern for passengers well-being.

In virtually all categories, BA triumphed over Air France in standards of service and quality. The crew's ceaseless efforts turned dinner into a wa= rm convivial occasion. The Air France Concorde could - and should - learn from BA.