72 Hours in the Middle East: What I Learned

This trip was a TRIP to say the least (see what I did there?). To do something like this, you have to be either a sheik or a major mileage traveler – chances are that I will never be either one. However, I do have a few takeaways from my marathon, whirlwind trip that I thought I would share here:

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1. On a long flight, the seat is king.

The best flight of my life was the one with the best food, not the best seat. And yet, I can comfortably say that I would not have wanted to take that flight for the longest, 14 hour long haul portion of my trip. For that, I wanted the biggest, widest, plushest seat available. It doesn’t matter if the airplane has a crappy entertainment system or you have to sit near the toilets or they only feed you peanuts for 12 hours. You want the BEST, FLATTEST, CUSHIEST seat that you can afford.

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2. Take a little helper

A sleep aid is essential to sleeping well and thoroughly on your flight. I suffered next to no jet lag when I returned home, and I’m convinced that it was due to some moderate use of a simple over the counter sleep aid. I had never before taken anything on a flight because I was so scared of having a terrible “hangover” when I landed. I was careful to hydrate a ton, eat enough to absorb the medicine, and not mix it with booze (though it seems like I drank nonstop, I really only indulged on flights where I didn’t take anything.). I’m now a convert!

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3. Red eyes are not the devil in first or business class

Combine tips 1 and 2 and you may well just arrive well rested enough to grab breakfast and a quick shopping jaunt at your destination before you crash for a nap. I have never arrived so well rested as I did after that first overnight flight to London. If you can get a relatively cheap flight in business class just because it’s the red eye – OMG DO IT!

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4. Certain airlines are worth the layover

I have always been a “straight through is best” kind of gal. Get me there and home with as few complications as possible and all that jazz. And I still feel that way about traveling with kids or nervous travelers (hi mom and husband). BUT…if you, like me, rather enjoy a glass of 2005 Sauternes and seeing an airport where they sell Tang by the bushel, a slightly more complex routing can be a delight. I loved the new business class seats that we had by taking a slightly less convenient flight to London. The chance to sleep one night in the Qatar airport was, unexpectedly, totally delightful. And I would fly loops just to use that incredible Etihad suite again. One small layover for an incredible airline is something that I would absolutely do again.

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5. Make your credit cards work for you.

I am not a finance nor a miles blogger. I’m just saying…if you are interested in building up miles to fly on some of these incredible airlines, take a look at one or two of these blogs to get an idea of credit cards that can help you build up miles at the same time that you are just buying groceries, staying at hotels, and paying for gas. It should go without saying that you need to be fiscally responsible – the idea of “churning” credit cards isn’t something that I could ever imagine doing. But if you spend on a credit card any way – why not make it work for you, right? I might not ever have 12 million miles, but it won’t be for lack of having a credit card that works my spending for me!

Like I said, this trip was once in a lifetime for me. I would love to fly any of these airlines again, but I don’t know when or if that will ever happen.

Thank you so much to my dad for making this happen. You have always made my dreams come true and I couldn’t ask for a more enthusiastic, generous, and fun flying trip buddy.  I’ll never forget this Krug-infused, lay flat seat-laden, first class extravaganza. 

Especially when I’m on my next Jet Blue flight, praying for a can of seltzer. 

72 Hours in the Middle East: Etihad Airways AUH-JFK

*This series covers a once in a lifetime trip with my dad. He is a member of an elite squad known as – no, not the Special Victim’s Unit – the Concierge Key Crew. He has flown and accrued over 12 million miles with American Airlines and, as such, he has been invited to be part of this unpublished, invite only, members’ club. You can’t buy your way in or request membership – you must fly some unpublished number of flights/miles per year in order to gain entry. He flies a certain number of qualifying miles each year to keep his outrageous perks. Every year he does a few crazy, 72 hour trips in premium cabins to  maintain his status. This time, he invited me to accompany him. This is my story.  (DUNH DUNH – SVU music).*

When you are on an airplane for 14 hours, you hope that it’s comfortable. You don’t know that it can be the best sleep of your life, fabulous entertainment, and a dining extravaganza. Not to mention more spacious than your actual NYC apartment.

20150202_062537 My own personal wardrobe and a cabin manager who insists on calling me “Miss Sarah.”
20150202_062909 Minibar that is incredibly warm, but still cool. Check out this blog for a fantastic review of the suite. 20150202_063916 More Arabic coffee and dates, along with a personal note from the captain of the aircraft. I never get tired of this Arabian hospitality.  20150202_064424 As soon as we take off, it’s LUNCHTIME!
20150202_083006 I really was pretty champagne logged by this time, but I managed to rally. The veggie chips were really tasty – fresh and crunchy, with a particularly delicious onion one that tasted like an upscale Funion!

20150202_084920 It’s just about showtime. Please note the exceptional extra virginolive oil. We are lucky to get a pat of margarine on US flights.

Ugh. This was so great.
20150202_090240 Smoked salmon amuse bouche

Light and delicate. Soft but not mushy, scattered with dill and a dollop of creme fraiche. Very appetizing. Please notice the fold and mother of pearl plates. Just like the paper plates we use at home.  20150202_092006 Savory chickpea soup with yogurt

Fabulous! Somehow, the middle east knows how to make soups that are spiced but not OVERLY pungent or spicy. This soup is a thin broth with a rich texture. It’s mostly smooth with a few chewy chickpeas in there. The yogurt provides a wonderful cooling aspect. This is so comforting and just what I wanted after a CRAZY few days.  20150202_093231 Mezze platter

I apologize for the horrible picture – I scarfed this right before I bunked down for about 4 hours. This is not as good as the Qatar mezze platter, but is still LEAGUES above any American or European airline’s food. The minced chicken is particularly noteworthy – crispy, juicy, and complex in spices.

20150202_135841 One mattress pad, a beautiful duvet, and some more champers later, I was ready to sleep. To say nothing of the fabulous doors that closed to my extremely private suite.

20150202_144301 When I woke up a few hours later to “2 and a Half Men” on the tv, I realized that Ashoton Kutcher has no talent and that I was RAVENOUS.  20150202_155012 Steak sandwich with turkey bacon, melted cheese, onion compote, arugula, and oven baked fries.
20150202_155034  Was I starving? Were my tastebuds compromised by exhaustion and altitude? Was I still groggy from the champagne fest of the last 3 days? Or was this just plain old the best steak sandwich I have ever eaten? I remember that he bread was crispy but not hard. The steak was incredibly tender but with a rich, meaty, minerally taste. The bacon was crispy and not too thick, the onions were sweet, and the mayo/mustard spread was tangy against the melted cheese. The fries are a little undersalted and not quite crispy enough, but they were made on a PLANE. Come ON. This is, IMHO, the finest steak sandwich in the sky, Qantas included. I would get another one right now.  20150202_162643 Baklava

I’m  a sucker for this stuff. 
20150202_185256 Cheese plate

Tete de moine, gorgonzola, and a surprisingly rich and creamy brie. I just couldn’t stop eating on this flight!
20150202_193937 Smoked salmon sandwich

Dad gave it a thumbs up. I was too busy eating my cheese plate. 
20150202_213601 My last view of Arabic water.

All too soon (I KNOW…I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT I JUST SAID THAT, EITHER!), we started our initial descent and landed at JFK. This Etihad Airways flight was exceptional. The food was excellent, the entertainment was endless, and the seats were extraordinary. The food, drinks, and amenity kits were not quite as over the top as Qatar’s, which is why this did not make the grade as the best flight of my life. But the seat was the BEST airline seat I have ever enjoyed. It was incredibly private, comfortable, and spacious. The doors closing really made it feel like I was flying on a private plane. When we landed, the magic didn’t end – 0ur complimentary chauffeur whisked us back home. Then, of course, I came home to laundry, a broken shower, and credit card bills. That’s when the magic ended. 

And with that, it was done. My incredible, magical, amazing flying trip was done. 12,000 miles in 3 days. 

Coming up…my thoughts and tips for long haul international travel.

72 Hours in The Middle East: Abu Dhabi Airport and Etihad First and Business Class Lounge

*This series covers a once in a lifetime trip with my dad. He is a member of an elite squad known as – no, not the Special Victim’s Unit – the Concierge Key Crew. He has flown and accrued over 12 million miles with American Airlines and, as such, he has been invited to be part of this unpublished, invite only, members’ club. You can’t buy your way in or request membership – you must fly some unpublished number of flights/miles per year in order to gain entry. He flies a certain number of qualifying miles each year to keep his outrageous perks. Every year he does a few crazy, 72 hour trips in premium cabins to  maintain his status. This time, he invited me to accompany him. This is my story.  (DUNH DUNH – SVU music).*

As Miranda Hobbs said in perhaps the worst piece of cinematic schlock ever created “Abu Dhabi Du!” It was time to check out another bling-tastic airport. Though, since we were flying a different airline, the standards were not quite as incredible as what I was used to.

I became so spoiled in such a short time.

Trust me, I actually hate myself.

20150202_025757 Beautiful mosques and buildings that seem straight out of “Arabian Nights.”

20150202_031405 Please excuse the horrible photo (bumpy car ride) and pay attention to the stuffed camel that the taxi cab magazine recommends as traditional Emirati food. Move over, turducken, there’s a new girl in town.
20150202_035200 Checking in at Etihad First and Business Class. Lots of seating, lots of help – no lines. And, because this is Abu Dhabi, after all – a ton of bling. 
20150202_041143 After an extremely easy security process we visited the first and business class lounge. Okay, here is where my obnoxious comments come into play: for a flagship lounge, they didn’t seem to have it together. The place was super busy – okay, I totally get that. But to only have 2 women checking someone in is crazy. It took us 20 minutes just to gain access to the lounge. Then, when we got in, it was a ZOO. Loud, kind of disheveled, tons of people everywhere, and a spa that was booked solid because everyone except me knew to come 3 hours before their flight to get those appointments! Look, they had very nice bathrooms, a full bar, and everyone who we asked for help was lovely. But this didn’t feel like an exlusive, flagship first class lounge experience. Not compared to the other palaces I had experienced, anyway.

Like I said, I actually hate myself. But there ya go.
20150202_041453 The food was excellent, at least – the labne was as thick and sweet as whipped cream with just a slight yogurt-y tang.   20150202_042048 The last time that I will see this kind of ticket with my name on it for a looong time.  20150202_042553 I may or may not have pocketed one of those ketchups. That’s only for me and the walls to know.  20150202_042645 Like I said, the bathrooms really were beautiful.  20150202_043411 Nowhere to buy toothpaste, but stock up on those gold bars! 20150202_050105 Palm trees and my home for the next 14 hours.

I would also like to know that we pre-cleared customs in Abu Dhabi. This is the greatest thing ever and I wish that we could do it in every foreign country that we visit. Basically, you clear customs before you leave the country so when your plane lands, it does so in a domestic terminal and you skip right through the doors onwards to baggage claim or the taxi line. The WORST part of coming home from an international vacay is schlepping through the customs line, and even though you miss out on Duty Free shopping on the way home, did you really need that set of 6 interchangeable earrings or huge handle of booze? This made the next 14 hours totally relaxing. 

Next up: The final flight and the best sleep I have ever enjoyed on an airplane. 

72 Hours in the Middle East: DOH-DXB on Qatar Airways

*This series covers a once in a lifetime trip with my dad. He is a member of an elite squad known as – no, not the Special Victim’s Unit – the Concierge Key Crew. He has flown and accrued over 12 million miles with American Airlines and, as such, he has been invited to be part of this unpublished, invite only, members’ club. You can’t buy your way in or request membership – you must fly some unpublished number of flights/miles per year in order to gain entry. He flies a certain number of qualifying miles each year to keep his outrageous perks. Every year he does a few crazy, 72 hour trips in premium cabins to  maintain his status. This time, he invited me to accompany him. This is my story.  (DUNH DUNH – SVU music).*

The short 50 minute jaunt to Dubai on Qatar airways was almost as amazing as the 6 hour one. A full meal, Billecart Salmon champagne, reclining seats and gargantuan video screens…I mean, REALLY?! I have to beg for a tomato juice on a trans continental flight here in the USA.

20150201_060315 I couldn’t believe that I was in Qatar, going to Dubai…I still can’t believe it!
20150201_061954 We saw this all over our trip – most men wore sandals and they al took them off everywhere, sans socks. WE are talking the airport, the restaurants, the planes, and the lounges. Not my cup of tea, but it’s not my culture either. I can’t imagine that these people would think much of us screaming Jersey Shore references at bachelor parties, right?
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I mean, can you BELIEVE this menu for a sub 1 hour flight?! Not to mention the fabulous, full drink menu. 

Au revoir, Doha!
20150201_071446 Onward to Dubai!

20150201_072607 Lunch was all served on one tray, so of course in this case, it was all eat dessert first! This beautiful cream puff is from Laduree’s Qatar outpost…beautiful.

20150201_072611 Juicy chicken with the smoky, savory spices of the Middle East. It’s served with sumac-spiced yogurt, tangy feta cheese, and some impeccably fresh salad. I can’t tell you how delicious the food is on this airline. This was better than many salads that I have enjoyed in quick service cafes on the ground. And it was made in a tiny galley in the air. Served with CHAMPAGNE. Yeah, I’m obviously still not over it. 
20150201_074647 It’s going to be a long time before I have this view again, if ever again.
20150201_075432 Dubai comes into view!


20150201_083739 After an extremely quick and easy customs experience in Dubai we went to the car sent by our hotel…DO YOU SEE THE CAR THAT THEY SENT?!

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IN WHAT WORLD DOES THIS HAPPEN?! This is like a Lexus or an Audi here – sure, it’s luxury, but something that is common and not really thought about twice if you see it on the street. Just the first taste of the opulence that is Dubai.
20150201_085917 And here’s our second taste – the first glimpse of the world’s only 7 star hotel, the Burj Al Arab.

Please note – Due to conflicting interests, I will be not blog my experiences in Dubai until an article that I am writing for an outside source is published. Here, we will skip directly to the next flying portion of the trip. The Abu Dhabi Airport is up next!

72 Hours in The Middle East: Hamad International Airport and Al Mourjan Lounge

*This series covers a once in a lifetime trip with my dad. He is a member of an elite squad known as – no, not the Special Victim’s Unit – the Concierge Key Crew. He has flown and accrued over 12 million miles with American Airlines and, as such, he has been invited to be part of this unpublished, invite only, members’ club. You can’t buy your way in or request membership – you must fly some unpublished number of flights/miles per year in order to gain entry. He flies a certain number of qualifying miles each year to keep his outrageous perks. Every year he does a few crazy, 72 hour trips in premium cabins to  maintain his status. This time, he invited me to accompany him. This is my story.  (DUNH DUNH – SVU music).*

The Hamad International Airport makes every airport in the USA and Western Europe (that I have visited) look like a KMart in Kansas.

NO offense, Kansas.

No joke, these airports are amazing.

And weird.

Jut like this whole trip.

Take a look, why don’t you?

20150201_051928 Incredible Middle Eastern food in the food court. Seriously – the dolmades were the best that I have ever eaten. Filled with al dente, fragrant rice that was spiced with a ton of turmeric, cumin, and some nuts. Warm and garlicky; they are served with a dollop of tahini-rich hummus and a spritz of lemon. Delicious.

20150201_053155 Skin lightening is a big deal here, just like in Asia. There were also always blonde, light skinned women in ads with men who were clearly darker skinned and of Arabic descent. Which is odd to me, because the Middle Eastern women I saw were among the most exquisite woman I have ever seen. The attendants on my flight would be movie stars here – that just goes to show you how standards of beauty differ around the world.

20150201_055122 More luxury retailers than you can shake a stick at. Bring your platinum card. 
20150201_050827 An Arabic keyboard. It was just cool.

20150201_050614 The UNBELIEVABLE Al Mourjan business lounge. Two floors, business center, a video game room, a huge restaurant…need I say more? This is the best lounge that I have ever experienced. It’s thousands of square feet with the most luxurious, over the top surroundings I have ever seen. There are more attendants that there are people int he lounge and anything that you can desire will be yours at a moment’s notice. Shower? Of course. Ipad? Naturally.

20150201_045655 Krug? But of course. That’s right…Krug served 24 hours a day, as much as you can handle until you fall asleep or barf. It’s almost obscene. Also, a chef noticed that I wasn’t taking anything from the dessert buffet and asked what was wrong. I just mentioned that I had enjoyed my fill of baklava for the moment and he fairly RUSHED to the kitchen to bring me a still warm pineapple custard pastry from the kitchen. I thought that he was going to cry if I didn’t try it in front of him. Luckily, it was outstanding –  as buttery and light as I have enjoyed in Paris. 

20150201_044655 Foul medames. Like a very light, non-curried daal made with fava beans. It’s a traditional Middle Eastern breakfast and I can see why – it’s savory and filling without being heavy. My new obsession – I have to make it, stat. 
20150201_043751 Palm tree in the airport. Because that’s how Doha rolls.

20150201_043747 Chinese New Year!

20150131_192133 The Middle Eastern place where we ate dolmades had longest line at a food court with Burger King, a salad place, and a Japanese spot. I love how most of the people here – you can see Qatar flight attendants in line! – actually eat the food that I imagine they do. I imagine that they might feel the same way when they see me scarfing down Shake Shack – it’s just cool!

20150131_192106 French cheese and yogurt and herbs potato chips. I could KICK MYSELF for not buying these.

20150131_190801 Should have bought this, too. 
20150131_185859 Pistachio cotton candy!

20150131_185801 An outpost of my FAVORITE date shop in London!

20150131_185408 $3,000 on cognac? Sure, why not? After all, you don’t get the credit card bill until you get home. 

20150131_184734 The Qatari people LOVE Tang – they sold it everywhere and people were buying it like it was going out of style.

20150131_182659 More Krug. I’m telling you, so much Krug.  20150131_182653 Fabulous samosas, halloumi, tabbouleh, and babaganoush in the lounge. The chefs make it fresh and replace the buffet dishes every 20 minutes or so, whether the buffet dish is empty or not. The babaganoush is particularly memorable. It’s not at all creamy – it’s light and vinegary with flecks of raw red pepper and roasted not raw garlic. Sensational.  20150131_182225 Chandelier big enough for ya? I mean, I could have held my WEDDING here. That’s how incredible this lounge was.  20150131_182207 The fountain has little droplets that leap UP instead of dripping down. Nothing is too opulent out here. And no small detail is overlooked.  20150131_182106 Two story lounge. Because the piddly satellite lounge in Heathrow is one floor…this one has to BEAT that one. And oh, it does.   20150131_181728 Gold coffee bar, anyone? 20150131_180547 Airport hotel. BEFORE customs. That’s right, it’s airside. So if, like us, you are only land bound for 8 hours or so, you can quickly get to the hotel, eat, and sleep, before getting back up and waltzing right to your gate. None of that shuttle or passport BS. It’s SO EASY…why can’t we do this here?! 20150131_180345 The window peeks out onto the terminal, but don’t worry – there is a wooden window shade that both blacks out the room and keeps weirdos from looking in. As you can see, it’s a really lovely hotel room! 24 hour room service, spa, pool…it beats the hell out of a lot of NYC hotels! I would sleep here again in a heartbeat.  20150131_175037 Really weird sculpture cost the Qatari royal family a gazillion dollars or so. 
20150201_051109 Cyan, not blue! I love anything that reminds me that I’m not on my home turf.
20150201_053523 Kidz n Cats…freakiest doll ever.

What an unbelievable airport. It’s large and confusing, but unbelievably luxurious. If you don’t have access to the Al Mourjan business lounge, you can access another lounge for a nominal fee. I can’t even imagine how the new first class lounge will top this one…what, will they be offering free puppies to play with while you wait for your gate?

Up next: An hour flight, a pastry from Paris, and our descent into Dubai. 

72 Hours in the Middle East: Qatar Airways Premium Lounge Heathrow

*This series covers a once in a lifetime trip with my dad. He is a member of an elite squad known as – no, not the Special Victim’s Unit – the Concierge Key Crew. He has flown and accrued over 12 million miles with American Airlines and, as such, he has been invited to be part of this unpublished, invite only, members’ club. You can’t buy your way in or request membership – you must fly some unpublished number of flights/miles per year in order to gain entry. He flies a certain number of qualifying miles each year to keep his outrageous perks. Every year he does a few crazy, 72 hour trips in premium cabins to  maintain his status. This time, he invited me to accompany him. This is my story.  (DUNH DUNH – SVU music).*

Moving onto the Qatar Airways premium lounge.

Calling itself “the world’s only 5 star airline,” I had high expectations for Qatar Airways’ lounge. I expected it to be exclusive, to have real champagne, and to have clean, serviceable shower suites.

I didn’t expect it to be the best lounge I have ever experienced, excluding Sydney’s flagship Qantas lounge.

*note – Qatar beat its own record later on this trip, but to date it was the best lounge that I had ever experienced.*

20150131_034216 After our long transit, we finally arrived to the Qatar lounge. Not what I would call an amazing entrance, but at this point, I just wanted a shower and some breakfast.

20150131_095445 Then we arrived to this beauty. An exquisite, huge lounge with a fountain (I would find that this is a staple at Qatar lounges), a casual self serve brasserie, a formal restaurant, a tv room, and a huge shower suites section. A bevy of beautiful Arabian women flew forward to help us into the lounge, get us settled, and ply us with baklava and fluffy towels for the shower. Well…OKAY!

20150131_035223 L’Occitaine amenities. Not to mention the razors, shaving cream, mouthwash, toothbrush, toothpaste, hair ties, and other amenities available at the sink.
20150131_035237 Side shower nozzles.  20150131_035240 And a rainwater one. The pressure is weak for my tastes, but the privacy and serenity more than makes up for that.  20150131_040538 Frette robes, natch.

Not to mention that each shower suite bigger than my bedroom at home. Plenty of fluffy towels, lots of amenities, and heated floors. HEATED FLOORS. I could spend an hour in here, easily.

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We bypassed the self-serve option for a seat in the beautiful, private restaurant. Orchids at every table, fine crystal at every seat, and a glass wine cellar with suspended bottles of champagne. Just beautiful.  20150131_041511  Our order was taken quickly and for some weird reason, I opted not to totally clean out the candy bar.

I blame the jet lag. And my poor breeding.

20150131_034521 Kuwait Airlines and other Middle Eastern airplanes right outside our window – not the kind of aircraft that I see every day.

20150131_042941 Bollinger rose

For BREAKFAST. Fruity and light, with a sweet backnote. Not too yeasty or at all filling. A lovely aperetif.  20150131_043103 Smoked salmon Benedict

The English muffin is dense (odd, since we were in London and all that), but other than that, sublime. The salmon must have been Scottish or Irish – it isn’t at all salty or overly smoky. The orange yolked egg is thick and rich, and the Hollandaise is light and lemony. The portion is ideal for reviving the spirit but not totally stuffing you before a food-heavy flight.

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I had no idea that I had been squeezing lemon like a plebe my whole life. How humiliating.

20150131_043109 Bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese

Even better than the eggs. What the hell kind of cream cheese do we eat here in NYC, supposedly the center of the bagel universe? Other than Barney Greengrass, there is no cream cheese that can compare with this. It’s lush, rich, and dense. The smoked salmon is thick and mild, with a velvety texture and mild taste.

20150131_041412 Pistachio delicacies at the brasserie.

20150131_095126 Some EXCELLENT baklava and nut pastries before we left.

This lounge is beyond. It’s not like anything I have ever experienced. It’s over the top luxury food, top of the line amenities, and beautiful surroundings. It’s loud in a luxurious way. It’s so Middle Eastern. And so fabulous.

Next up: the best flight of my life.

72 Hours in the Middle East: American Airlines to London Heathrow

*This series covers a once in a lifetime trip with my dad. He is a member of an elite squad known as – no, not the Special Victim’s Unit – the Concierge Key Crew. He has flown and accrued over 12 million miles with American Airlines and, as such, he has been invited to be part of this unpublished, invite only, members’ club. You can’t buy your way in or request membership – you must fly some unpublished number of flights/miles per year in order to gain entry. He flies a certain number of qualifying miles each year to keep his outrageous perks. Every year he does a few crazy, 72 hour trips in premium cabins to  maintain his status. This time, he invited me to accompany him. This is my story.  (DUNH DUNH – SVU music).*

Friday at 4 pm. We go to check in for our evening flight from NYC to London. I assume we are going to the priority check in line, where I have been fortunate to go before when flying business class.

Um, no.

20150130_164711 For someone like my dad – who has this special card… 20150130_165241 You get to use the transatlantic first class check in.  20150130_165339 It’s in this secret, special hall that a woman guards. Your name has to be on a list to get in. And when you get in, the person checking you in knows your name because, duh, you fly so much. You are then escorted through security, cutting to the front of the line. It makes normal premium class service look like peanuts. I mean, it was INSANE…everyone was shooting us daggers, but I couldn’t blame them. We were then ushered to the first class lounge…even though we were flying business class…because of his Concierge Key status. AWESOME. 
20150130_171648 We quickly helped ourselves to glasses of Gloria Ferrer champagne – a little acidic and tinny for me, but it did the trick. The sushi wasn’t exactly Nakazawa style, but we were eating it with BRITNEY SPEARS’ mother and it was in an airport and I wasn’t scared of getting food poisoning. So I dealt. 
20150130_185645 After we were (escorted, even before people with children) onto the plane, we settled down for a quick 5.5 hour flight across the pond. America’s new business class is sensational. Huge entertainment selection, lie flat seats, and a really comfy blanket/pillow combo.
20150130_191810 The Hundred Food Journey is the best food porn since Chef.
20150130_210712 The food leaves a lot to be desired. It’s fine but not exciting or especially flavorful. It just does the trick. So, I ate my flavorless but at least tender steak, took a sleeping pill, chased it with another glass of sparkling wine (it tastes better as the pill kicks in), and 40 minutes into the movie, I was passed out and didn’t wake up until our descent to London. 
20150131_030054 After we made it through the transfer security, we waited for about 40 minutes for a shuttle to the new terminal. We had a ton of time before our next flight, but I thought that my dad’s brain was going to explode. He kept muttering about having enough time in the next lounge. I had no idea what he meant. 

I mean, I literally had no idea what he meant…

Next up: Bollinger and baklava with Qatar Airways.

Charming Charleston – One Fabulous Dinner at Husk

It’s been a long time since an American focused fancy restaurant has really wowed me. Maybe that’s because I generally prefer the assertive tastes and spices of Southeast Asian cuisine. Maybe it’s because if I have a special occasion meal, I want the pomp and circumstance that French restaurants offer. Maybe it’s because I have been known to eat a slow cooker full of meat and cheese dip on Superbowl Sunday.

Whatever the reason, I just don’t usually get fine dining American restaurants.

But then, I don’t usually get to eat at Husk.

Sean Brock’s restaurants have earned him cookbook deals, James Beard Awards, and the respect of the entire country – it’s easy to see why. Husk prides itself on being an entirely Southern restaurant. As in, everything that you eat has originated in the South and will be prepared in traditional Southern ways, with a few fusion and high end touches thrown in for good measure.

20141115_203652 The board that shows where the products come from each day. Pork, beef, fish, kale, sesame seeds…every damn thing comes from the South. It takes locavorism to a whole new level.
20141115_211738 Though this restaurant is widely regarded as one of Charleston’s best, but it isn’t at all stuffy. You want to wear a collared shirt or a cocktail dress, but you are greeted warmly and practically expected to pick up chicken bones with your fingers to be sure to get every succulent morsel. This place is perfect for a night out with real foodie friends.  20141115_214302 Benne seed rolls and pork butter

Sesame seeds are widely used in Charleston’s cuisine and are called benne seeds, from the African word for sesame seeds. The rolls are warm and fluffy – a little sweet and cottony for my tastes, but he butter absolves these of any evils. Pork butter. Sweet, savory, and a little salty. It compliments the slight nuttiness of the seed-topped bread and as it melts in yellow rivulets onto the rolls, it brings bread to a new level. Great way to start the night.

20141115_214753 Kentuckyaki Pig’s Ear Lettuce Wraps, Napa Cabbage and Shiitake “Slaw” with Toasted Peanuts, Cucumber-Lime Dressing

The best pig’s ears I have ever had – and I love pig ears. These were highly recommended by our gregarious server, and he was dead on. These put bacon to SHAME – they are so crispy, so crunchy, but not too hard or stiff to easily bite. They are infused with barnyard, porky flavor that is intense and complex – to me, it tastes almost like boar in its flavor. Not gamy, just deep. They are tossed in a sweet and salty Asian bbq style sauce. The ears are topped with a crunchy, tart slaw and wrapped in sweet butter lettuce leaves. This is an excellent balance of flavors and textures, using an ingredient that we don’t see too much up here in NYC. It’s also the restaurant’s philosophy in a single bite. Local ingredients, traditional techniques, fusion and high end flavors. Fantastic. I almost ordered another one of these for dessert.  20141115_214806 Wood Fired Clams, Sweet Corn “Chowder,” Hot Sauce with Herbed Chicken Fat, Mustard Greens and Crispy Chicken Skins

Finally, Jewish comfort food and Southern comfort food united in all of their savory glories. This is talk stoppingly delicious. Corn chowder is sweet and rich, but not at all greasy – it’s just rich with the corn milk and probably some butter. The clams are juicy and soft, offering some briny, salty flavor to the earthy soup. The chicken skins are…unreal. Almost like fried clams themselves, with a feather-light textures and crispy, potato-chip crunchiness. And get a load of that beautiful wooden serving bowl!
20141115_221719 Amberjack from Mark Marhefka, Roasted Cauliflower and Butternut Squash, Tuscan Lacinato Kale, Brown Butter

Amberjack is one of my favorite fish and I was incredibly pleased with this preparation. I liken this fish to a slightly firmer Chilean sea basS (Which I haven’T had in years, since it’s in danger of becoming extinct). It’s mild, soft, and extremely delicious. The brown butter is so..buttery. Nutty, rich, sweet. It really anchors the fish and is perfect with the tender kale. The squash is a little underdone, but the cauliflower is crispy, brown, and addictive.  20141115_224715 Espresso and Doughnuts

Espresso cake and doughnut ice cream. Super caffeinated and super sweet. I especially love the extra smooth ice cream with crumbles of doughnuts beneath.

Husk is a must visit when in Charleston. It’s so wonderful that it’s almost worth a trip just to eat there. I never really GOT Southern food before  I visited Charleston. This meal was delicious, the portions are great, and the prices are beyond fair. I can’t wait to go back for more pig ears.

I’ll see ya soon, Charleston.

Charming Charleston: Hominy Grill Turns a Yankee to a Southern Belle

My 24 hour jaunt to Charleston started off with a BANG!

20141115_122539 Hominy Grill is one of Charleston’s most lauded brunch spots. It focuses on Southern comfort food and the entire feel to the place is homey, relaxed, and fun. Hominy Grill doesn’t take reservations, so be prepared to wait in line (with cocktail, of course!) or take your chances on getting seated on the patio. It was a chilly day so we were lucky enough to snag a heating lamp and get seated right away on the patio.  20141115_123733 Bloody Mary

Spicy, strong, and savory. Homemade bloody mix with quite a healthy kick of Mary. It’s not too spicy but it has a definite nasal-kicking hit of horseradish. It’s just what you want in a Bloody Mary and it starts the weekend off RIGHT.  20141115_124715 Fried green tomatoes with homemade ranch dressing

Perfect. Crispy, thin breading around tart, juicy green tomatoes. They are piping hot – literally,s teaming in the middle – and served with creamy, herb flecked ranch dressing that redefines my idea of that condiment. These aren’t like fried pickles or tart picked green tomatoes – they have a mild, almost sweet taste and are totally addictive.

20141115_125446 Nasty Charleston

Let’s break it down:

Biscuit – sky high and tender with a texture so light tha it almost floats away. Not too buttery or at all salty – it’s all about the texture and providing a backdrop to the other ingredients.

Fried chicken – delicious. Crispy, thick exterior spiked with garlic and salt. the interior is uniformly thin but thick enough to be juicy. It’s fresh and succulent – it would be ideal on its own with a dash of Tabasco.

Cheddar cheese – sharp, melty, salty and – importantly – not overwhelming.

Sausage gravy – creamy, peppery, porky, perfect.

Basically, biscuits and gravy have a new place in my heart and stomach.
20141115_125513 Fried Chicken

A revelation, plain and simple. The best fried chicken I have ever eaten in my life. Juicy, crispy, and tender. Drizzled with spicy honey and tempered with pickled okra and carrots.  20141115_130011 Fatty and juicy and meaty and crunchy. All of my favorite words. I am in no way a fried chicken person, and I am telling you that this is a dish for the ages. I still dream of it.  20141115_132716 Hominy Grill is delightful. It’s just the simplest food made better than any Yankee has ever had it. The fried chicken is unmissable and the service is so kind and friendly that you may just friend your server on Facebook when you leave the restaurant. The food is downright CHEAP and the menu is so full of delicious things that I wouldn’t even repeat anything next time! Except for the bloody mary. And those tomatoes. And the duck sausage hash that I didn’t even photograph. Okay, I would repeat a lot of dishes.

What can I say, I love me some Hominy Grill.

Charming Charleston: Drinks and Dessert

I can finally say that I see the light. I see why people are obsessed with the South and don’t want to leave it once they visit there. 

I have seen the light in the form of Charleston, South Carolina. Beautiful shop-lined streets, horse and carriage rides just because it’s Saturday, and food.

WOW. FOOD. 

I had two outrageously delicious restaurant meals, but if you wanted to get just drinks and desserts, you could do that in Charleston and be mighty pleased.  20141115_134448 Sugar Bakeshop

This diminutive bakery is what Magnolia must have been before “Sex and the City” turned it into the slut of the West Village. It’s no larger than your first studio walk up and filled to the brim with cookies and cupcakes. The servers are helpful, the prices are more than fair, and the cupcakes are DIVINE. Don’t miss the cream cheese icing if you can help it – it’s the smoothest, creamiest icing I have ever enjoyed, with just the slightest tang.  20141115_134759 Lemon cupcake

For the true lemon baked goods connoisseur. The cake is fluffy and moist, with a very tender, loose crumb. It doesn’t crumble, it more melts in your mouth. The center is filled with a tart, pleasantly lip-puckering lemon curd, and the icing is bright, rich, and very sweet. It’s refreshing and decadent at the same time. A must get, especially if the weather is nice enough so that you can enjoy the bakery’s adorable courtyard while you indulge. 
20141115_195101 The Gin Joint

Some of the best cocktails for the price that I have enjoyed anywhere. For $10…that’s right, $10…I treated myself to a bespoke cocktail using only the words “vegetal” and “strong.” This beaut came with gin, aperol, and cucumber. It’s definitely strong, but also well balanced – sweet, tart, and a little savory. It’s the ideal way to start the evening – or end it! The restaurant is tiny (a theme in Charleston eateries), but friendly and upscale-casual. I would definitely go back for another drink or one of the delicious looking pork buns!

Next up: Bloody Marys and fried chicken