Since America West, et al., limited in-flight noshing to a sack of pretzels, entrepreneurs at airport cafes and vicinity hotels are leaping into the catering business, and encouraging passengers to load up on takeout meals. Good idea on the surface, except nobody is policing exactly what travelers may cart on to fight mid-flight famish.
At one Los Angeles airport hotel I stayed at recently, the concierge encouraged me to visit their cafe for a to-go meal. Included among the choices "specially prepared for the air traveler" was an entire rotisserie chicken in natural juices, with scalloped potatoes, green salad and garlic bread. At a San Diego hotel just the other week, I was invited to do the same, with the opportunity to tuck into my carry-on bag a five-piece order of buttermilk fried chicken, biscuits, gravy, green beans and a buttered roll. At our own Sky Harbor Airport just earlier this month, even the boarding announcement reminded us to stock up on groceries -- like the drippy-mayo, onion-rich tuna salad hoagie being offered at a California Pizza Kitchen Express just feet from the gate.
Oh, Lord. I pray that in case of noxious odors, the oxygen mask will drop from above my head. And the first time the guy in the tiny seat next to me bumps my elbow and asks to borrow my tray table for his sucked-clean chicken bones, we're going to have a problem.
It's enough to make me want to buy my own airplane. I could, I suppose, because I've learned that Cessna, in an attempt to reach the "common consumer," has come out with a five-seat jet for what it's touting as the bargain price of just $1 million.
Right. But if I ever did find a way to bankroll my Boeing, the food security on my plane would be strict. The only eats I'd allow on my craft would be the delicacies prepared by our Valley's premier in-flight caterer, the Blue Fig. Located in the Scottsdale Municipal Airport, the Blue Fig is a full-service restaurant offering breakfast, lunch and dinner. But besides feeding the few people who know the place is there, the Fig also pampers the outrageously wealthy folk who stable their private jets on the compact runway -- just on the outskirts of the hugely expensive real estate at the foothills of the McDowell Mountains.
I've got to love the operation, if only for its gumption. Can anyone imagine the uproar if the city had announced now that it was building an airport in the middle of what's grown to be one of the most posh corridors in metro Phoenix? Suddenly the runway is across the street from the ritzy Kierland Commons shopping mall, and next door to enclaves of half-million-dollar homes with residents who stage protests over the height of stop signs (true story: Carefree), no less jets buzzing their pool parties.
And yet just recently, across the tarmac, the Scottsdale Air Center opened. It's an $8 million "service stop" facility for private and corporate jets costing up to $40 million. The high-tech compound includes an astonishing architectural design with a metal roof fashioned like a paper airplane. It's also home to Scottsdale Hangar One, a private garage owned by Bennett Dorrance III, a Paradise Valley resident whose family founded the Campbell Soup Company in the 1880s. Dorrance is managing director of a high-end development company, DMB. His executive terminal has about 94,000 square feet of space for several aircraft and 30 of his favorite vintage cars.
Think the city and its image-conscious residents are happy to have the Airpark?
You betcha. Except for the periodic plane crashes -- one next to a Home Depot this past spring, and another into the McDowells last January -- the Airpark has been nothing but an economic blessing.
So the Blue Blood, er, Blue Fig, fits right in. With its $26 charred filet mignon in roasted garlic sauce, this isn't typical airport hash.
There's been a restaurant in the Scottsdale terminal forever, originally called the Left Seat, a no-frills coffee shop serving breakfast and lunch. (Zzz. Taco salad, BLTs, Reubens and burgers, about $5 for a meal.) But three years ago, Valley celebrity Jan D'Atri took over the lease and turned it into an upscale destination, D'Atri's. She redecorated with lots of classy rock accents, white tablecloths, a wine collection, sexy lighting, a curvaceous bar and a wood-burning pizza oven. The menu went high-end, too: $11.95 for a jumbo shrimp cocktail, and $21.95 for veal scaloppine. I loved it -- nobody except the ritzy Cessna owners knew it was there, so it was like my own private luxury. The only thing that rubbed me wrong was that it got a bit too schmaltzy and snooty. Did we really need D'Atri serenading us with her accordion rendition of "Moonlight Sonata," and the attentions of a uniformed maitre d'?
Apparently not. About four months ago, D'Atri realized that being a celeb was a full-time job (newspaper columns, expanded TV appearances and so forth). She gave up the restaurant to new owners, and now, we have the Blue Fig.
Sorry, Jan. I miss ya, but after one meal at this place, not so much. Not a lot has changed on the menu, but in a quiet way, the place has gotten even better. The restaurant has hit the comfortable mark between the too-casual Left Seat and the often too-serious D'Atri's. The new owner, Lanvi Tran of Cave Creek, has hired two chefs from the Scottsdale Culinary Institute. And wow, these guys are good. The service has softened, too. I truly don't care when I have to wait for a new pizza because my original order was burned, since the server thanks me for my patience with such sincerity that the mistake is totally human. And when it does finally arrive, the pizza is dynamite, lavished with homemade sausage, fresh tomatoes, roasted bell peppers, Gorgonzola, shaved Parmesan and opal basil that I'm told is home-grown.
Oh, I like this place. I've dragged my buddy all the way from Tempe for dinner at (he can't believe it) the tiny north Scottsdale airport. He's not sure what I'm up to, but has agreed to come because I've promised his two young sons there's steak involved. Within seconds of pulling up at the terminal, everyone is thrilled. Our table is against the full glass wall, with feet-away views of movie-star-style aircraft. That keeps the boys happy. We've got an entertaining wine list, which keeps my buddy under control (even if there's nothing surprising, it's fun to order a bottle of "Seven Deadly Zins" red Zinfandel from California. Try it. It's an inexpensive opportunity to see how the peppery and ripe berry wine is so different from that dreaded cotton candy white Zin we grew up on). And we've got wonderful, well-priced food, which pleases me.
There is nothing but joy in each of the fresh, perfectly executed dishes. There's lots of real crab in the cakes, dolloped with aioli and watercress. My buddy scrapes his plate clean with one night's special of expertly moist salmon in garlic sauce, and his son goes berserk swiping up every drop of spicy marinara over (homemade!) spaghetti with gloriously peppery homemade sausage. The other son announces the grilled New York strip steak the best he's had in his (admittedly young) life, and after a couple of bites swiped from his plate, I have to agree. This is first-class beef, paired with shiitake mushrooms and organic vegetables in a heavy but good herbed garlic sauce. My dinner, a theme meal of chicken breast decorated with figs, a roasted peeled pear, and sage, is the loser of the group, only because the meat's a bit dry and too sweetly sauced for my taste buds.
Breakfast is breathtaking. How else to describe an omelet layered with lots of smoked salmon, scallions and crunchy grilled asparagus, capped with chunks of avocado and thick sour cream? Even the potatoes are superb, chunked red variety and crispy hot. My all-time best breakfast at the Blue Fig is the croissant Riviera, layered with grilled carved Black Forest ham, crispy bacon, scrambled eggs, herb-roasted tomatoes and Swiss cheese.
Lunch is just as worthwhile, with a dynamite sausage pizza draped in tomato bell pepper, Gorgonzola, shaved Parmesan and opal basil. And I've got nothing but praise for a Brie and ham, layered with carved grilled meat, herbed oven-dried tomatoes, watercress and pesto on grilled sourdough.
The all-out reason to make Blue Fig a regular experience is its appetizer of calamari. This is possibly the most exquisite squid I've tasted, fluffy light, barely chewy, paired with drop-dead-addictive fried artichoke hearts, and served with dips of homemade tartar and a luscious fiery chile/cocktail blend. But then there's the artistically crafted tuna salad, the barely mayo'd chicken salad, the thick-gutsy balsamic dressing, the creamy cheesecake, the rich tiramisu . . .
Actually, Blue Fig could be dangerous, too. Not for my plane passengers. For my waistline.