The Airline Issue
by John Mariani


  The Way It Was: Leonardo di Caprio as con-artist Frank Abignale in "Catch Me If You Can" (2002)

     Just look at that photo above.
      There really was a time when airline travel was as joyous and glamorous an experience as when Ole Blue Eyes sang about it:

                                   Come fly with me, let's fly let's fly away.r
                                    If you can use some exotic booze
                                    There's a bar in far Bombay.
                                    Come fly with me, we'll fly we'll fly away.

                                    Come fly with me, lets float down to Peru.
                                    In llama land, there's a one-man band
                                    And he'll toot his flute for you.
                                    Come fly with me, we'll float down in the blue.

                                    Once I get you up there, where the air is rarefied,
                                    We'll just glide, starry eyed.
                                    Once I get you up there, I'll be holding you so near,
                                    You may hear angels cheer because were together.

                                    Weather wise it's such a lovely day.
                                    You just say the words, and we'll beat the birds
                                    Down to Acapulco Bay.
                                    It's perfect for a flying honeymoon, they say.

                                    Come fly with me, we'll fly we'll fly away.

      Air travel had wonder to it, and, because at the start of the jet age, it was still relatively novel for people to hop on a plane, fthere was something festive about it. The planes were very beautiful and all looked different--like the Constellation (left) and the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser.  You dressed up to take friends and relatives to the airport and dressed up to pick them up when they arrived.  In some circumstances you could even get right on the plane with them--a child, an elderly parent--to make sure they were comfortable, and if there was a wait, it was usually by your own choice: You got to the airport early on purpose to have a drink or even an entire dinner.  Indeed, airport restaurants of the 1950s and 1960s prided themselves on their food, although food rarely ever rose above the mundane once you got onboard.  One of the most exciting restaurants of that era was The Newarker at Newark Airport, conceived by the legendary restaurateur Joe Baum of Restaurant Associates, and it was quite a marvelous thing to eat within the space age design of the TWA Terminal at JFK w(below) or at the elevated restaurant in LAX where you were almost at the height of traffic controllers.
      However dull the fare onboard, it was served with much the same graciousness as you'd have at a restaurant. Today there is hardly any fare at all. And no pillows. And no blankets. And no courtesy.
         evfOnce you could arrive at the airport, switch your flight, even to another airline, so if you had been stuck in traffic and missed your flight, not to worry. If you were on United, you just walked over and got a flight on American. If you missed the shuttle to Boston on Delta,  you just gave your ticket to USAir and you were on. Indeed, with the shuttle flights, you could run towards the gate as it was closing--without a ticket--and take a seat and pay for your ticket on the flight.  And, if the flight was full, they would literally drag out another plane, just for you, promising that there would always be a seat for you. Today, you need to check in an hour before or they may not let you on.
     If you really want to go cheap, you flew on a charter flight, which still had more amenities than 99 percent of the flights have today.  Obviously if you travel business or first class (see story below on Eos Airlines), the amenities were considerable, and the food was better, but today, even in First Class you get plastic knives and forks and stemware, and the napkins are made of the ghastly acrylic.
       And what of the airline personnel? The on-board service crew were called stewardesses, and, though there was truly a lot of sexism about the hiring and firing of young women, they were extremely well trained to be tough professionals, to dress well, to smile, and to serve the people with grace, intelligence, and a sense that they really were happy to have you onboard.  Today that are called by the more p.c. term flight attendant, which, of course, includes many men in the job, most of whom are given short-sleeved shirts, ill-fitting trousers, and ugly neckties to w2wear onboard.  I need not get into the way airline workers' unions have had to fight for their rights with airlines--and vice-versa--but the job description of a flight attendant might now be described as: 1. Nod when a passenger enters the plane. 2. Know nothing about flight times, discomforts, broken lavatories, or video screens that break down. 3. Treat frustrated passengers as if they are all terrorists. 4. Never relay a passenger's concerns to the flight crew. 5. Disappear right after take-off and take at least five minutes to respond to a passenger's request for an attendant.
        Flying used to be a glorious experience, now reduced to one of the most depressing and uncomfortable endurance tests a human being actually has to pay for.  Now you go to the airport hours in advance to wait on lines to get to a check-in desk with too few attendants, then have to go through the obnoxious and insulting security checks run by people who are about as competent at their jobs of protecting us from world-wide terrorism as the border patrol is in keeping illegal aliens and very sick people out of the country.
     weweDid anyone notice that when the Department of Homeland Security began oversight of security check point personnel, previously known for lax security, they merely hired back the same people and changed their shirts from blue to white and slapped on new badges?  How many of us have, inadvertently, gotten on a plane with something supposedly forbidden--like a Swiss Army knife--only to be held up because your toothpaste tube exceeds 3.5 ounces?  Make no mistake: by costing us all billions of dollars in useless security checks--triple what security costs were before 9/11--in a show in which everyone, including wheelchair-bound grandmothers from Iowa, may be patted down or strip searched, the terrorists have succeeded in forcing the world to expend resources that have made the dubious pleasures of airline flight into a harrowing gauntlet line flanked by armed guards who are supposed to make you feel safer.
     I remember the few times decades ago when I would get off the plane in an airport where there was a dictatorship in power in the country--Spain in the 1960s, all Eastern Bloc countries until the 1990s--where the sight of an armed thug in uniform was positively chilling.  Now those same thugs are in airports in Rome, Paris, New York, and Minneapolis, supposedly  to make me feel all warm and secure.  This is what it's come to.33e
     Finally, there are the unexplained delays, meaning that once they have you packed into those long aluminum tubes, the announcements about delays by the pilot are few and far between, the reasons never satisfactorily explained, and the prognosis for take-off kept a secret, apparently, even to the pilot.  I hear again and again and again how the presidents of airlines hate delays and how they cost them money. If so, why is it that when you look up at the board of outgoing flights at just about any U.S. airport, they will have scheduled 20 flights all to take off at 8 AM, knowing that the "normal traffic jam at LaGuardia" (or LAX or O'Hare, pick your airport), as the pilots jokingly inform you, is the same every single morning.  So the airlines, in order to make you believe you will be taking off and arriving on time, deliberately build in delay time; thus, a flight that should take only one hour and fifteen minutes is actually timed to leave up to an hour late to land at a time an hour later than the actual flight time.
     bbrThis past week I took a Lufthansa flight from JFK to Munich that was delayed four hours. The gate assigned to our flight was empty for three hours prior despite an aircraft arriving from Munich landing early and waiting for three hours to get to that gate. The air traffic control tower refused to tell the Lufthansa pilot when we would push off or even how many planes were on the runway ahead of us (about 30, it turned out), and that the same situation had been occurring on previous nights at JFK.  Had we not finally taken off in tie to land in Munich by 2:15 P.M. (four hours late), the flight would have to be canceled because, under regulations, the pilot crew could not spend any more time in the cockpit, and Lufthansa had no other crew at JFK. 
   On our way back from Munich, the same exact scenario played out. The announcement to board was only 20 minutes before flight-time, but we had still to go through two more security check points, the second with more than 100 people on line to be inspected--this, after having gone  through security after checking in. With five minutes to spare, a Lufthansa attendandant was shouting at us, "Run! Mach schnell!"  Upon arrival at JFK we were an hour early but had no gate open for two hours after landing.  The reasons had nothing to do with weather o delays in other airports. They were simply because toovvvvvvvvv much traffic was allowed to congest, night after night. It is as if you put 63 pieces on the 64-squares of a chess board and tried to move more than one piece to one space at a time.  This is, of course, irrational idiocy caused by airlines' demands for more and more flights to  land and take off in airports without the capacity to field them. Just look at what appears to be a swarm of locusts over U.S. air space in the graphic above!
      Does anyone seriously believe that they we safer on a plane now than five years ago?  Does anyone believe that the beleaguered air traffic controllers have the most modern equipment at their disposal to track flights?  Anyone who has seen the horrifying movie "United 93" in which the airport command control had to find out about a plane crashing into the Twin Towers by watching it on CNN should not feel very secure about the way things work.
If ever there was a textbook case on how not to run an industry and a security system, it would be the airlines and the FAA.  It wasn't always that way, and no one who was born after 1970 can begin to imagine how wonderful it used to be.


    Although the agonies of air traffic control, overbooking, and poor service are endemic to an industry that has tried mightily to do away with any modicum of comfort and reliability for passengers, the indignities can certainly be lessened by flying First Class or Business Class (or whatever brand name an individual airline comes up with), albeit at great cost.  There has, however, been a trend towards making Business Class more appealing and less expensive to more travelers because, unlike highly discounted tickets, that class does make money.  A few airlines have been built exclusively around Business Class, providing service that is nearly the same as First, and always more efficiently managed, than on the major airlines.
       fTherefore, when invited to fly to London by EOS Airlines, I leapt at the chance and I'm afraid the experience spoiled me forever--or depressed me if I need ever to fly Coach again for any length of time exceeding five hours.
      Eos was founded in 2004 by British Airways' former director of strategy, Dave Spurlock, and began operations in October 2005, and built a fleet of Boeing 757s, usually configured for 220 passengers, into luxurious 48-seat airliners done with a fine modern decor, fully reclining six-and-a -half foot seats-to-beds, and an amazing 21 feet of personal space.  You can be as isolated as you wish from  the rest of the passengers, and dinner is at any time you want it, not wheeled around on a cart, but offered individually. Even better is the option of dining before you get on the plane at JFK at the new Emirates Lounge, whose extensive buffets offer Middle Easter, Indian, and continental food of a remarkably high quality--far better than anything you'll find from airline onboard kitchens.   I ate splendidly, and drank good Champagne and wine before boarding, allowing me to get to sleep or watch the movies, which are shown on individual laptops brought to your seat by an extremely affable staff.  Eos also has a frequent flyer program called Club 48.
       The onboard menu, which I did not sample, included cilantro-and-cumin cured salmon and a mushroom terrine, lamb medallions with polenta crêpes and vegetables, lemon sole with wasabi puree, Asian wok noodles with hoisin sauce, cheeses, and a trio of desserts.  There is also a tea service on the flight back to JFK, 90 minutes before landing.jhjj
      Another of the advantages on Eos is that because of the small number of passengers there is never a wait in line at the check-in desk, and, as their ads contend, no need to rush to the airport hours in advance.  My wife and I checked in in about five minutes, then went to the lounge, ate a good meal, then went through security to the gate with just 46 other passengers. It was as one might have imagined flying the way it should be.
      You land at Stansted Airport, not the horribly overcrowded Heathrow or the hopelessly inefficient Gatwick,  and Eos offers a premium of car service, or, as we did, you can hop the Stansted Express (£14.50) and be at Liverpool Station in about 40 minutes. Eos also offers the opportunity to refresh, shave, and shower at the airport's Radisson Hotel at no charge. (The lounge at Stansted was being refurbished when we were there, so I cannot comment on its food or hospitality.)
      rfwwwEOS does what it does very, very well, which is why they can claim a 97 percent customer satisfaction rating.  And the cost of all this pampering, which is very close to First Class service on the major airlines where you still have to wait on longer lines, is lower than you might expect. Right now, for instance, were you to book a June 20 flight in Business Class to London on British Airways, you'll pay $10,318 (excluding taxes and fees) round-trip.  On Eos, an unrestricted round-trip is $7,950; with restrictions, $7,064.  (Fares change on almost a daily basis and vary considerably if booked longer in advance. Later in the year, after the tourist season is over, these fares drop too.)
      Last but not least, just try getting through on the phone to one of the major carriers these days to book a flight--it can take longer than the flight itself.  I just dialed Eos: it took just one minute and 10 seconds.

by John Mariani

55 East 54th Street


          Has it really been fifteen years since Oceana opened?
      I'd venture eight, maybe ten, but fifteen? Well, it certainly goes to prove the restaurant's success under the ownership of the Livanos Family, which also owns Molyvos and Abboccato on the west side, and several restaurants in Westchester County and Connecticut, and their long-time partner-manager Paul McLaughlin. While the owners may have tweaked the premises and décor, a two-floor affair done in marine colors with some beautiful seaside murals in the dining room, over the years, it has remained pretty much the same, for its style and ambiance need no updating. Oceana is still be one of the best-looking restaurants in Manhattan.
      Tablesettings are impeccable, lighting civilized, conversation level perfect. The winelist has been compiled over the years to match the menus here, and it is one of the finest in New York. with 1,100 selections, 25,000 bottles,  28 by the glass, and several impressive verticals like the "Kistler Collection." Upstairs is a popular banquet room.
      In all those years Oceana has only had three chefs: the first, Rick Moonen, set the restaurant on an even keel with food that was imaginative but always true to the species of seafood being prepared.  Moonen moved onto open RM in Las Vegas.  His successor at Oceana 0iwas very talented but liked to play tricks with his ingredients, using sometimes dissonant counterpoints, at other times lavishing fish with sauces that obliterated its natural flavor. Now comes a new toque, Ben Pollinger, a veteran of Lespinasse, Tabla, and Union Square Café, three distinctive venues that give him a wide range of cooking styles and seasonings, which he admirably applies with restraint at Oceana. Allow me a nautical turn of phrase to say Pollinger has righted the ship.  He is joined by pastry chef Jansen Chan, recently of Alain Ducasse NY.
     Pollinger's is a light touch--ideal with seafood and amply displayed in dishes like his Taylor Bay scallop ceviche with citrus, apple, and cucumber, all left to their natural states.  Crab came with artichoke, favas, a little basil and pancetta bacon, and a stinging nettle soup as bright as spring itself was laced with yogurt panna cotta and a little sorrel, with fresh Gulf shrimp.  Cuttlefish risotto, so often a muddy, viscous, fishy mess, is here creamy, slightly briny,  and beautifully textured, with fiddlehead ferns and spring onions.
      Potato gnocchi with asparagus, morels, and pecorino cheese was fine, if nothing thrilling, but a ragoût of periwinkles with wine wine and bacon, accompanied by foie gras and roasted garlic focaccia bread worked very well, because periwinkles can use some help.  Our main courses included a tapioca-crusted snapper (above) with green and wax beans, wild mushrooms, and a seaweed broth, and pan-roasted cod came with Manila clams, fingerling potatoes, baby mustard greens and the pleasant salty, hot bite of chorizo sausage.  Best of vall was taro-wrapped dorade with baby bok choy, long beans, peanuts, basmati rice, and a coconut-cilantro curry.  This last dish may have strayed into Indian-Indonesian waters but it was impeccably handled and shows that Pollinger paid rapt attention to Floyd Cardoz's cooking at Tabla.
     For dessert there was ricotta mousse--very light--with lychee and a ginger salad,  and a sumptuous chocolate custard brownie (right) with roasted cinnamon ice cream and espresso granita, as well as a homey warm vanilla cake with grapefruit and Earl Grey tea ice cream.  I didn't think a black pepper meringue did anything for an otherwise deeply flavorful rhubarb semolina tart.
     Everything Pollinger and Chan made seemed to be based on common sense coupled with an innate sense of what new flavors might go well together. Nothing seems torqued up, seafood and accompaniments were in equilibrium, and the fish always gained, rather than lost, in the bargain.  Pollinger is a rising star and I'm delighted he's carrying on the tradition Oceana began as one of New York's great seafood restaurants fifteen years ago.
      There is a three-course $75 dinner, $125 with wines, and a 3-course lunch at $33, with wines $48. A 6-course tasting menu is $195, wines included. Lunch is served Mon.-Fri. Dinner every night except Sunday.


by John Mariani

      nnnn I am not yet so jaded as some of my snobbier friends who refuse to drink American chardonnays, though I share their disappointment and frustration about why so many of these wines are so terrible.
      There are two principal reasons why this is the case: First, the varietal has had long acceptance among American winedrinkers going back to the 1980s when a style of big, oaky powerhouse chardonnays ruled in California, and vintners won’t argue with success. Second, California, whose premium wine industry has for so long been dominated by Napa Valley vintners, is only now discovering which microclimates work best for various varietals.  For chardonnay, as for pinot noir, Sonoma Valley terroir now seems to offer the best balance of climate and soil.
      Sonoma chardonnays tend to be more friendly and easier to pair with different cuisines,” sommelier Robert Evans, of The Dining Room in Atlanta’s Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, told me in a phone interview. “The Napa chards tend to be higher in alcohol, with a heavy use of oak that overpowers the characteristics of the varietal.  I like the creaminess that comes through, the buttery-ness and the fresh stone fruit flavors of Sonoma as opposed to the two-by-four taste in you’re your mouth in Napa.”
Evans names Hanzell Vineyards, DuMol, and Sonoma-Cutrer among his favorite Sonoma chardonnays, “although our chef is French and we have a very broad selection of French chardonnays too.”
      I like Evans’ choices and to them I will add a chardonnay he’d never heard of and I’d never tasted until recently. Orogeny is a winery in Sonoma County’s Green Valley, a sub-appellation of the more famous Russian River Valley.  It gets hot there during the day but the nights cool down and fogs roll in, so the vines never build that high alcohol you find in hotter Napa Valley. Orogeny’s chardonnay is 13 percent alcohol.
      The name is from the Greek, oro (mountain) and geny (birth), and refers to a series of “collisions and separations of the earth’s crust” that created Green Valley. Winemaker Dan Goldfield told me in a phone interview that Orogeny started out in 2000 when Chalone Vineyard sought to make pinot noir in that terroir, but that they found it just as conducive to chardonnay.
      As consulting winemaker, Goldfield, who had worked at Schramsberg Vineyards, La Crema, and Hartford Court, believed that “the oldest and coldest terroirs make the best chardonnay, and that Green Valley would be ideal for the varietal. The fog comes in earlier and goes out later, and those cold nights give the grapes the acids we wanted. Also, the ripening occurs in the cooler months of the season.” Chalone (which is now owned by Diageo Chateau and Estate Wines), signed long-term contracts with Dutton Estate Winery to grow their grapes, so Orogeny actually has no vineyards of its own. In 2002 they released their first vintage of pinot, in 2004 their first chardonnay, and today produce about 4,000 cases.
      Goldfield says he aims for complexity and subtlety in his chardonnays, though on the Orogeny website he goes a tad overboard in describing them: “Beginning with lemon-cream pie and tangerine aromas and ending with lush tropical fruit, pineapple and ginger spice overtones. . . along with creamy pear notes and a long, lingering candied green-apple and nutmeg/ginger finish.”
      Which to me sounds a lot more like the offerings at a smoothie store. I am a bit more restrained in my estimate of Orogeny’s virtues, but they are considerable and say much about chardonnay-making in California right now.  First, although it is reminiscent of some of the bigger white Burgundies, like Meursault and Le Musigny, it is distinctly California in style. There is definitely that rich and buttery component that comes from an abundance of California sunlight, and both the malolactic and barrel fermentation used add to this wonderful ballast beneath the tantalizing acids obtained from such healthy grapes.
      When you smell 2005 Orogeny ($25-$29) you smell that chardonnay fruit, not a candy store, and when you sip it you get a fine balance of refreshment and velvety textures.  When the wine fills the palate, the creaminess and citrus coalesce rather than collide, and what subtle toasty oak notes there are balance everything for a good long finish.
      It takes a cool head and a cool climate to make great chardonnay, and Orogeny has applied the wisdom of the former and the benediction of the latter to its wine.
John Mariani's weekly wine column appears in Bloomberg Muse News, from which this story was adapted. Bloomberg News covers Culture from art, books, and theater to wine, travel, and food on a daily basis, and some of its articles play of the Saturday Bloomberg Radio and TV.


More than 300 people paid $5 for all-you-can-eat goat, lamb and bull testicles at the ninth annual Testicle Festival at Mama's Place Bar and Grill in Elderon, Wisconsin.
The festival's founder, Nancy Fenske, said it began with her late husband Roger's birthday party 12 years ago after bringing back lamb fries from a trip to Montana. Now they fry up to 100 pounds of testicles for the festival. Fenske explained,   "What else can you do in a small town?"