Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Qantas First Class Lounge, LAX

Update Review, March 2016

On my recent journey to Sydney, we decided to fly on American Airlines through LAX, even though Qantas now offers a direct flight from SFO.  It was a chance to try something new, since I haven't flown internationally on American before in business class.

As part of our voyage, I made sure we'd have enough connection time at LAX to check out the Qantas lounges.  I visited the First Class lounge soon after it first opened (see my original review) and wasn't impressed, but friends have told me it got much better.  So, even though it required re-clearing security twice, we took a venture over to the International Terminal (our flight was out of Terminal 4, even though it was an international flight).  A hassle, for sure, but, they have now opened the airside connector, so you won't experience this additional effort.

Was it worth it?  I'm not really sure.  I guess I would have been bored in Terminal 4 the entire time, but, the food really wasn't very good.  Ojan enjoyed his selections though, and he was the one who actually wanted dinner at that time (I had been snacking away on the American Airlines snack mix (so addicting!) and was planning to eat more on the flight anyway, so I wasn't quite as into the food as usual).  Anyway.  Still better than the LAX Admiral's Club, no question, but, not even remotely on par with the Qantas First lounge in Sydney.
Snacks: Seasoned Nuts, Potato Chips.
As before, the only self-serve snacks were seasoned nuts and potato chips.  The chips were kinda burnt, and didn't have a great taste.  For lounge snacks, these were both pretty weak offerings.  I yearned for my AA snack mixes!
Winter All Day Dining Menu.
We quickly moved into the dining room to have a meal, even though we knew we'd be fed a full dinner on the flight.  Our previous experience in the lounge wasn't great, but it was a few years ago, right when they first opened, and I heard reports things got better.  Plus, even if not great, the food there was certain to be better than what was served on the flight.

The menu is broken into several sections: Small Plates, Our Signature Sandwiches, Main Plates, Sides, Desserts & Cheese, and Market Inspirations.

The small plates include their signature salt and pepper squid, a soup (potato and leek), a salad (with cherry tomatoes, avocado, and jalepeno), tuna tartare, and jamon serrano with burrata.  I would have gone for the burrata, but Ojan wasn't interested, and we wanted to try a bunch of things, so, we ruled it out, and stuck with the classic salt and pepper squid.

We skipped the Signature Sandwiches, which included a burger, a croque monsieur, and a reuben.  I'm not a sandwich girl, but both the rueben (pickles!) and the croque (melty cheese!) did call out to me for some strange reason.

We also skipped the Main Plates, which included their signature minute steak with butter, a chicken and rice dish, a basic seared bass, and a veggie beet dish with barley.

And we skipped the Sides, just chips (fries), sauteed mushrooms, and two very plain salads.

I'm not quite sure why the "Market Inspirations" were titled that way, as there seems to be nothing really market driven about the two offerings: pulled pork tacos or fettucine bolognese, but those were the items that caught Ojan's eye, and since he was more hungry than I, we went with both of these picks.

And finally, my category: dessert.  The offerings weren't great - a fruit plate, a cheese plate, coconut trifle with lime and orange curd, chocolate fondant with raspberries, or an ice cream sundae.  After a quick trip to the business lounge to check out their dessert offerings (more on that next week!), I settled on the sundae.
Cocktail: Italian Fizz.
I decided to start with a cocktail, as the menu listed a handful.  Except, it just had names, no descriptions.  What was an Italian Fizz?  I have no idea.

It was ... sweet.  It was bitter.  And I didn't like it.  I think I was in the mood for wine, not a cocktail.
Small Plates: Salt & Pepper Squid with Green Chilli Dipping Sauce and Aioli.
We started with the salt and pepper squid, a signature Qantas lounge offering.  Last time, we didn't love it, but we have fond memories of it from all our visits to the Sydney First Class lounge.

This time it was ... fine.  I again didn't like the green sauce.  I don't know what it is, but I really don't like the flavor.  The aioli was really just mayonnaise ... it had no additional flavor at all.  I did appreciate the lemon to squeeze over the squid.

As for the squid, it wasn't rubbery, it wasn't too oily, it was well battered.  But, it just wasn't that exciting.  Inoffensive, but a bit boring.  Some seasoning, in the batter or the aioli, really would have helped.

Of course, if you wanted spice, all you had to do was take a bite of the red pepper.  Soooo spicy!

The food is clearly not cooked to order, as this arrived within 2 minutes of us ordering it.  Great for being in a rush in the airport, although we weren't really pressed for time, and it was a bit crazy how fast things showed up.
Market Inspirations: Fettucine Bolognese inspired by Neil Perry's Rosetta.
For our first main dish, we went for the bolognese.  I've strangely been really, really into pasta lately.  Even when just served in the cafe at work, fairly generic dry pasta, cooked in batches ... I've loved it.  So, pasta sounded good to me.

I took one bite of this, and declared it Chef Boyardee.

The pasta was this interesting texture, somehow both mushy and a bit too al dente, all at once, if that makes any sense.  Like you sometimes get with gluten-free pasta.  The sauce? Flavorless.  It did have bits of ground beef and fresh cheese grated on top.

We both found this very, very bland.  It too was served quickly, arriving at our table only about 5 minutes after the first dish.
Market Inspirations: Pulled pork tacos with red cabbage and chipotle mayo.
Along with the pasta, we got the other market inspiration: tacos.

So, obviously this was entirely Ojan's order.  I don't really like pork, I don't like tacos.  The order came with two huge tacos though, so, obviously I had to try it.

Much like the squid, it came with a lime to drizzle over, a nice touch.

The taco shells were soft tacos, and, huge, far too much taco shell for the contents. They were crispy on the outside, and moist inside, as if they were cooked way in advance, and had been sitting in a steamer basket or something.  Which I assume they were.

The pork filling was pretty mushy, but it had a nice flavor.  It wasn't bad.

I really liked the crispy, fresh red cabbage, a nice contrast to the softer fillings

And then ... the chipotle mayo.  Creamy, spicy, delicious.

I ended up eating a ton of the pork, cabbage, and mayo, as they all combined together quite nicely.  Crispy, soft, and creamy, all at once.  And spicy.  Did I mention, spicy?  Ojan claimed that eating the bolognese after the taco was a good move, because your mouth came pre-spiced.

Anyway, this was certainly the best thing we ate, mostly due to that aioli.
Dessert: Ice cream sundae with strawberries, banana jam, and amaretti.
After a quick jaunt over to the business class lounge to check out their offerings (decent potato salad, but not much else), I returned to the lounge for dessert.  I didn't want the trifle since it had orange and lime curd, both flavors that I don't care for, and I didn't want the chocolate dessert since it was late and I didn't want caffeine (and I knew that both dessert offerings on my flight were chocolate, doh), so, a sundae it was.

It arrived in ... less than 2 minutes?  I don't even understand how it possibly came so fast.

The ice cream was just basic vanilla, but it wasn't bad.  Ok creamy, not icy.  On top was ... "banana jam".  Um, this was just mushy banana.  The strawberry slices weren't particularly ripe nor flavorful, as, well, it was January.  The amaretti cookie bits added some nice crunch, but, were just generic amaretti cookies.

So, was this good?  Not really.  It needed a sauce.  It needed fresh fruit.  It needed whipped cream.  But ... it was at least something sweet.  They really need to work on the dessert line up!

Original Review, March 2015

To get to Sydney, I had to connect in LAX.  Now, normally I am not excited by the prospect of a layover, particularly in LA, but this time around, I was looking forward to it.  Why?  Because Qantas just opened their new lounges in the International Terminal, and I had access to the First Class lounge, complete with a full service sit down restaurant.  If it was anything like the Sydney lounge, which I visited years ago, I knew I was in for a treat.  Spoiler: No, it is not in the same calibre, at all, but, it is hard to rival that lounge.  And yes, stay tuned for my review of the Sydney First Class lounge on my return journey.

Then, on our way back to San Francisco, we had a rather long layover in LAX too, which again would normally really make me upset.  But, my research lead me to discover a little known rule: you can actually go to the international terminal to use the lounges, even if you aren't flying internationally!  It is a huge pain, since you have to clear customs when you arrive, re-check your bags, exit the terminal, and then find your way back to international departures, go back through security, re-assure every person that you encounter that you realize you are going into the international terminal not the domestic, and then, once you are ready to head to your real gate, you have to exit the international terminal, get to the correct domestic terminal, and go back through security in the domestic terminal.  Don't do this if you have just an hour or two to kill.  But, we had more than 4 hours, it was lunchtime, and even though we weren't super impressed with the lounges on our outgoing flight, we knew the American Airlines Admiral's Club waiting for us in the domestic terminal wouldn't compare.

My first impression of the lounge: so loud.  Not a calm, peaceful lounge.  First Class lounges normally seem like an oasis in an airport, but not this one.  I was stunned by the clamor.

One problem might be the open kitchen, which adds a nice esthetic, but leads to a lot of clanking noises, which in turn makes everyone talk loudly over the background noise.  But the real issue is that there were tons of children.  I've never seen such a high percentage of children in a lounge, let alone a first class lounge.  It was close to midnight, and it was clear that these children were up way, way past their bedtimes.  And finally, it was full.  To the brim.  I found it hard to believe that all of these people had status.

Overall, it just felt crowded, hectic, chaotic, and not at all peaceful.  On my return journey, since it was mid-day rather than mid-night, it was completely different, as there were literally only two other groups in the entire lounge (international flights are all at night, so there was no reason for anyone else to be there).  It actually was pretty relaxing then!

Since this is is Julie's Dining Club, I'll focus this review primarily on the food available, but I'll include some photos of the lounge space as well, just to give you a better sense of the environment.  The food was ok, but paled in comparison to the Qantas lounge in Sydney or the Cathay Pacific lounge in Hong Kong.  And, first world problem, they have no spa, so, no massages offered.  The horrors!


Early Afternoon: Empty.
As I said, when we stopped back on our return flight, the lounge was basically empty.  There were only 5 people total in the lounge, as it was early in the day, and no international flights depart until evening.  A total different experience, but, since you'll likely be using the lounge in the evening, be prepared for chaos.

The red chairs added a nice pop of color, but there were no power plugs nearby, making all these seats undesirable.
Uncomfortable chairs.
At night, since it was packed, we felt fortunate to find any chairs open.  The only type of seating available was these cool looking chairs, that turned out to be really uncomfortable, and also had no power outlets.


Self-Serve Drinks.
The only self-serve snack area is for coffee, tea, and house wines.  There are also mixed nuts if you want to nibble on something.  The nuts at least included macadamias, the only real notable thing here.
Daytime Pastries.
On our return visit, they also added pastries to this area.  I imagine they are put out in the morning.  I tried a cinnamon roll and it was actually decent, drizzled with a nice icing, moist inside and not dried out, filled with good cinnamon flavor.  I was fairly shocked.  It is hard to get a decent cinnamon roll outside a bakery. 
Ok, I lied.  There is one more self-serve area: the candy station!

I loved the idea of this, but perhaps it is why the kids were all so loud and crazy?  The offerings were two types of hard mints, Andes mints, and (previously) Red Vines.  Alas, not the most exciting candy jars, but still, credit for candy jars.
"Qantaz" First M&Ms.
Later on in our stay, another candy jar was brought out.  I of course went rushing over to check it out.  me and the kids.  It was filled with custom M&Ms.  Cute.  Except ... they said "Qantaz".  Doh!
Full Candy Jars!
Of course, on our return visit, the jars were actually full.  The big jar contained potato chips, which sounds basic, but they were the crazy largest chips I've ever seen.  I took a few out of pure fascination, but, they were just basic chips.


Dining Area.
Table service is offered in a more formal dining area, or from any seat in the lounge, since there is no other food available in buffets or snack stations.  Nuts and candy, that is it.

Service was much better on our first visit, although, there were still a number of mishaps, like us asking for more sparkling water and it never arriving.  On our second visit, no one paid any attention to us, so there wasn't even someone to ask for more water.  I ended up just getting up from my table and going to the bar directly to get more drinks.
Place settings in formal dining area.
The formal dining area is open to the rest of the lounge, with no real division.  The only difference is the style of seating, and existence of place settings.  They really need to break the space up better to provide some minimal noise isolation.
Current Menu.
The winter menu consists of small plates, mains, sides, and desserts.  There is only one menu, the "All Day Dining" menu, since they aren't open in the morning for breakfast like the Sydney airport.

The main plates weren't very appealing to me, although all were inspired by Rockpool Bar & Grill, Neil Perry's Flagship restaurant in Sydney:
  • Strozzapreti with broccolini, chilli, garlic and parmesan
  • Black Angus minute steak with chipotle butter and lime
  • Grilled striped bass with herb salad
We skipped all of these on our first visit, but when we returned, Ojan decided to try the fish.

Likewise, the sides didn't really call out:
  • Bowl of chips
  • Mixed leaves with palm sugar vinaigrette
  • Carrots inspired by St. John's
  • Roasted mushrooms with garlic butter
  • Cabbage potato gratin
  • Seasonal greens with California olive oil
I was somewhat curious what "carrots inspired by St. John's" were, and, on our return visit, I did end up ordering the cabbage potato gratin.

The small plates however were very appealing, so our first visit, we just ordered small plates.  They were lighter dishes anyway, which was nice before getting on a long overnight flight.  We opted for all of them, skipping only the burrata as we had indulged in tons of burrata earlier that day for lunch.  The full small plate menu was:
  • Belgioioso burrata with slow roasted tomatoes, basil, and olives
  • Kohlrabi and fenel salad with pomegranate, chickpeas, sesame and mint
  • Hamachi crudo with coriander, jalapeño, lemon and extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt & pepper squid with green chilli dipping sauce and aioli
Of course, my eye was on the dessert menu too:
  • Seasonal fruit plate
  • Tiramisu
  • Panna cotta with champagne jelly, raspberries and pistachios
  • Cheese plate of Point Reyes blue, Humboldt Fog goat cheese, Marin Country triple brie served with accompaniments
Our neighbors ordered all the mains, so I got to check them out.  The steak was really thin, and clearly well done ... as in, cooked very through.  The fish also didn't look very impressive, no sauce included, so I know I wouldn't have cared for it.  The pasta likewise looked pretty boring.  Our neighbors also ordered green beans and fries, none of which looked great either.

It isn't on the menu, but I saw children receiving plates of chicken fingers and fries.

Overall, the menu was much smaller, and lacked the gusto of, the one in the Sydney lounge.  As I'd soon find out, it wasn't just the menu that paled in comparision, the food preparation was also not up to par.  Then again, the Sydney lounge sets a crazy high bar.  This is an airline lounge after all!
Open Kitchen.
The concept of the open kitchen was nice.  It was clear that the food was being cooked to order, not frozen food being reheated.  The kitchen did look great.  But, I blame the kitchen, or more specifically probably the dish area, for contributing greatly to the ridiculous noise level of the lounge.  So much clanking!  Of course, the Sydney lounge also has an open kitchen, and isn't crazy noisy, so, that wasn't all that was going on here.
Bar Area.
The bar isn't really designed for you to walk up and order, since there is table service everywhere, but there are some seats available at the bar, mostly occupied by solo diners.

Visit #1: Evening

Hamachi crudo with coriander, jalapeño, lemon and extra virgin olive oil.
The hamachi dish looked the most stunning.  Slices of hamachi, thin sliced jalapeño and red onion, garnished with cilantro.  Really nice plating for a lounge!

But the fish itself was a bit warm, not cooked obviously, but not the chilled temperature I'd expect for raw seafood.  It was also a bit fishy, not necessarily as fresh as I'd like for raw.

However, the seasoning was really nicely done, great salt level, and drizzled with a bit of olive oil.  It is clear the kitchen has skills, with expert salting and plating, but the product wasn't quite right.
Kohlrabi and fennel salad with pomegranate, chickpeas, sesame and mint.
I was excited for this dish because I like kohlrabi and fennel, so I was a bit surprised when a plate of endive arrived.  This was actually our order, but the endive, the prominent feature of the dish, was not included in the description.

Again, they cared about the plating.  They are trying.

The two colors of endive were pretty, but it was very bitter.  The kohlrabi and fennel were shredded and I didn't really taste them against the strong endive.  I don't like chickpeas or pomegranate, so those components were uninteresting to me.  There was also way, way too much cilantro.

Ojan likes all of these ingredients, but he also didn't care for the dish, although he couldn't pinpoint why.

I'm not really sure why we ordered this anyway, I think I just wanted something light, given that heavy food and flying don't really go so well together.
Salt & pepper squid with green chilli dipping sauce and aioli.
And finally, salt and pepper squid!

The salt & pepper squid is a signature dish at Qantas First Class lounges worldwide.  I still remember the first time I had it in the Sydney lounge years ago, and I was blown away.  It is a menu staple at all lounges.

It was the best of the small plates, hands down.

The squid wasn't rubbery, it was well fried, and well seasoned.  The slivers of red pepper were crazy spicy though, and I made the mistake of eating one on its own just to taste it.

The green chili sauce was also quite spicy, and of course, I loved the creamy aioli, although it was a bit heavy on the garlic.  I also appreciated the lemon to squeeze over the squid.

Overall, this was a solid dish, not earth shattering, but the best of our dishes that day.  A few weeks later, I had it in the Sydney lounge (stay tuned!), and it was much, much better there.
Panna cotta with champagne jelly, raspberries and pistachios.
I didn't want tiramisu due to the late hour, and I wanted to have some chance of sleeping on the flight, so caffeine consumption was out. The only other options were a fruit platter or a cheese platter, so I had to settle for the panna cotta.  Not that this is a bad thing, since you know I love panna cotta.

It was a good enough panna cotta.  Very creamy, good buttermilk tang, well set.  The champagne jelly on top was a bit strange, but Ojan liked it.  In fact, Ojan loved this dessert.  He kept commenting on how much he liked it, and easily devoured it.  He also thought it was "light and fluffy", a point I contested.  It was firm, well set panna cotta, totally not fluffy!

A trio of simple fresh raspberries were the garnish, along with shavings of something green, which I'm assuming were pistachio, but we weren't able to taste it at all.

Overall, this was fine, but no flavors really popped for me, but again, Ojan adored it.

Visit #2: Midday

Grilled Striped Bass with Herb Salad. Potato and Cabbage Gratin.
On our return visit, I was still full from my breakfast onboard and opted to eat salads over in the business lounge, but Ojan ordered the striped bass.  I couldn't resist also adding in the gratin to his order.  Because ... even if I was full, how do you resist cream and cheese?

The food took a very long time to arrive, as in, more than 40 minutes.  If I were actually taking a flight anytime soon, this would be concerning.  I'm not really sure why it was so slow, as they clearly were not busy at all, only one other table was seated, and they ordered after us.

The bass was very simple, no sauce provided, just a lemon to drizzle over it.  The skin was fairly crispy, so it was a decent dish, but not exactly exciting.  Not my thing, but, if you wanted a simple protein, a well prepared selection.

The gratin was insanely decadent.  Layers of thin sliced potato and bits of cabbage, in a creamy, rich, cheesy sauce, topped with more melted cheese.  I actually quite enjoyed the sauce, but I wasn't really digging the cabbage.  The potatoes were well cooked.  I loved the cheese on top.  But wow this was heavy, and I really wasn't in the mood for it at all.
Tiramisu.  Decaf Americano.
Since my return visit occurred during the day, I was able to order the tiramisu.

Yes, I know I said the cream and cheese laden gratin was too heavy, and then went ahead and ordered a rich, heavy dessert.  The rules all change when it comes to dessert.

It was decent, but not great.  A layered creation, with two layers of soggy cake, that didn't really seem soaked in any espresso, two layers of sweetened marscarpone, and topped with cocoa powder.  The cocoa layer was too thick, making it hard to eat without ingesting cocoa powder and choking, but I liked the sweet mascarpone pudding, particularly when paired with a decent decaf Americano.  The portion size was rather insane for one person however, and Ojan didn't want any.


The wine list had 3 choices each in every category: champagne, red wine, white wine, and beer, along with a few cocktails.  I asked about one of the cocktails, as just a name was given, no description, but my server didn't know what was in it.  They are clearly still training the staff.
Once seated, I started with a negroni from the cocktail menu, because there were no descriptions for their specialty cocktails.  I asked my server what an "Italian Fizz" was, but she didn't know, and didn't offer to find out, so I just went with something I knew.

It was served in a substantial glass, quite heavy.  It was a fine drink.
Custom Cocktail. 
When we returned to the lounge after visiting the business class section, I decided to go for another cocktail.  Since no one seemed to know what the speciality cocktails were, I just asked for something with gin in it.  The bartender said that he'd make me something he'd been experimenting with.

He muddled mint and lime, and I know the final step was a splash of zesty ginger beer, but I'm not really certain what else was in here, besides the requested gin of course.  It was ok, and I'm glad he had fun making something, but I wouldn't get it again.

The bar was decently stocked, a fact which I remarked on, and the bartender disagreed.  He was quick to tell me that they had only one type of single malt and no port or other dessert wines, so he thought they could do much better.  And, compared to the Sydney lounge, yes, they didn't actually have anything that great.


The bathrooms were modern, with nice smelling Aspar products.  The layout was a bit odd however, as they were single-sex areas, yet they had entirely separate enclosed rooms with toilets and sinks.  I didn't really see why they were divided into men's and women's if they were so private, and it seemed like a bit of a waste of space.


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