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From Manila to Los Angeles: Michelin-starred fine dining onboard Japan Airlines |

Food and Leisure

From Manila to Los Angeles: Michelin-starred fine dining onboard Japan Airlines

IN BETWEEN DEADLINES - Cheryl Tiu - The Philippine Star
From Manila to Los Angeles: Michelin-starred fine dining onboard Japan Airlines
At the JAL First Class Lounge at Narita International Airport: The Japanese meal combination includes grilled mackerel, spicy seasoned cod roe, and miso soup; and for dessert, taiyaki.
Cheryl Tiu

With restrictions gradually being lifted both in the Philippines and in different parts of the world, Filipinos are beginning to travel again. A popular destination is the United States, which has generally been open throughout the pandemic, requiring (aside from customary travel documentation) only proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test result taken no more than one day before travel. (Source: CDC website)

Japan Airlines (JAL) is a popular carrier of choice from Manila to Tokyo, but did you know they offer well-timed, convenient services onwards to North America? They fly to Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Honolulu, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, New York and Vancouver. And because Japan is ideally situated on the flight path from Manila (and many parts of Southeast Asia) to the United States, the overall travel time is relatively short.

On my return flight to the US (where I am now based), I flew from Manila to Tokyo (Narita) to Los Angeles, and I cannot stress how pleased I was with the service, food and beverage, total flight time (under 14 hours!) and safety measures.

L’Effervescence’s sautéed swordfish with Mediterranean-style cheese risotto.

Manila to Tokyo

Manila to Tokyo is an easy leg of just under four hours, departing from NAIA Terminal 1. At the airline’s Sakura Lounge, business class passengers have the option of choosing set meals with mains of penne pasta or a tuna sandwich, served in a takeaway box.

Onboard a Boeing 767-300, JAL offers Sky Suite 2 business class seats, which features a 1-2-1 configuration for more privacy. Passengers are welcomed with Japanese rice cracker snacks and dry natto fermented soybeans and their beverage of choice — champagne for me, of course (on this flight, it was Ayala Brut Majeur).

Lunch is a choice between Japanese (Dainomono) and Western; I opted for the former, which for the month of February is grilled salmon Yuan-style and deep-fried chicken with tartar sauce, served with an array of sides that included steamed savory egg custard, simmered pak choi and mushrooms, and a Japanese omelet.

The flight attendant recommended pairing it with Kamokinshu Junmai Daiginjo from Hiroshima Prefecture — the highest grade of sake that’s ultra-fresh with lots of umami — brewed exclusively for the airline. I also had a glass of the sole Japanese wine on the menu, Château Mercian 2020, which is a blend of chardonnay and the Japanese grape variety koshu, which had lively acidity and minerality, meant to accompany everyday Japanese dishes.

The JAL first class lounge in Narita

Landing at Narita International Airport was an opportunity to take in at least some of Japan’s food culture — during my transit time of two hours — while the country still remains closed to tourists. And, as Sakura Lounge is currently closed, JAL’s business class passengers are invited to visit the First Class Lounge.

What was previously a buffet-style meal service has been tempered for health and safety reasons. Instead, food is ordered at the table through your mobile phone via a QR code. I opted for Sushi Tsurutei’s weekly sushi plate of maguro tuna, squid and tamago; the Japanese meal combination that included grilled mackerel, spicy seasoned cod roe, and miso soup; and for dessert, taiyaki, the Japanese fish-shaped cake with red bean filling.

Service is very attentive and punctual. Just a few minutes after placing my order, an attendant set my meal down before me. When not eating, facemasks must be worn, and certain seats are blocked off to ensure social distancing.

At the JAL First Class Lounge at Narita: Sushi Tsurutei’s weekly sushi plate of maguro tuna, squid and tamago

Tokyo to Los Angeles

To be totally honest, I was so excited because I knew that the Tokyo-Los Angeles leg would be serving three-Michelin-starred L’Effervescence’s menu by chef Shinobu Namae. I’d been wanting to visit the French-Japanese restaurant in Tokyo, which is also a regular on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, for some time now. This flight would finally allow me to try chef Namae’s cooking!

This is part of JAL’s BEDD (Bed, Dining, Delicious and Dream) Sky Auberge offering meals by some of the world’s top Japanese chefs on select flights. It’s an impressive Michelin star-studded roster: Hideki Ishikawa of Kagurazaka Ishikawa (3 stars); Koji Koizumi of Kohaku (3 stars); Shuzo Kishida of Quintessence (3 stars); Jun Mishina of Ren Mishina (1 star); and food producer Fumiko Kono.

According to Masato Ando, JAL’s product development manager in charge of inflight meals, everything is geared towards offering first and business class passengers the experience of “dining in a luxurious restaurant in the sky.” Hence, they have “collaborated with young, talented chefs, (who are able to) devise menus with new ideas and sensibilities, as well as pursue excellence in taste and experience even in the special environment of an airplane cabin.”

Onboard a Boeing 777-300, JAL’s business class is a 2-3-2 Sky Suite 1, which features staggered seating (with private hallways even for window seats that allow direct access to the aisle) and privacy partitions.

I started my journey with a glass of Delamotte Blanc de Blancs — the sister maison of the Salon, one of the most sought-after champagnes in the world — made from 100% grand cru chardonnay grapes, which is also one of my favorites.

Chef Namae’s three-course meal includes hors d’oeuvres of chicken consommé aspic with caviar, smoked salmon and spinach sformato, savoy cabbage and pork rillettes, and gratinated mussels. The main dish is a choice between sautéed swordfish with Mediterranean-style cheese risotto (which I opted for — absolutely melt-in-your-mouth!) or wagyu beef sirloin with wasabi cream sauce, spinach gnocchi and salted kelp. Dessert is kumquat and ginger mousse.

“As a chef, cooking for Japan Airlines means you have to play a role as if you are a representative of Japan,” shares chef Namae. “We infuse our own creativity and uniqueness, but above all we strive to impress all flyers, as food experiences in Japan are uniquely good, almost without exception wherever you are. It’s a matter of pride and dignity.”

For COVID safety, courses are served covered with lids, while breads from Maison Kayser and cutleries are sealed in individual packaging.

A strong theme of sustainability

The downside of being able to sleep comfortably on a fully flat bed is not waking up in time for the final meal before landing. I was set on trying Fumiko Kono’s Western Set Plate of smoked salmon and spinach eggs benedict, because I had read they were created sustainably, in partnership with Future 50 Foods. Her menus are part of JAL’s “Anytime You Wish,” which passengers can enjoy at any time until an hour and 30 minutes before landing.

While I missed this last meal service, I noticed that the airline had a strong theme of sustainability, working with chefs who are aligned (L’Effervescence was also awarded a Michelin Green Star as part of chef Namae’s commitment to the environment), even in premium economy and economy classes, where menus are developed by young chefs from the RED U-35 culinary competition, with the goal of reducing environmental impact. These are in line with JAL’s goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

It’s normal to feel a hesitation to fly, especially two years into a global pandemic, but it gave me comfort knowing JAL takes health and safety measures seriously, so much so that they were awarded by the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX) World Class Airline 2022 — one of only two airlines in Asia to receive it — as well as a Diamond Certification for Health Safety; and a Five-Star Skytrax COVID-19 Safety Rating. JAL also provides all international passengers complimentary coverage for medical, testing and quarantine expenses incurred as a result of testing positive for COVID-19 during their travel, in partnership with Allianz Travel.

Plus, there are special perks for Filipino travelers. JAL is currently offering passengers departing from Manila to North America (all classes) additional complimentary extra checked-baggage allowance and complimentary 24-hour onboard Wi-Fi service.

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