‘Proper British Food’ might not be at the top of your mind as you prepare to jet off to sunnier shores but James Martin, housewives’ favourite and ex- Saturday Kitchen presenter, dishes up just that in his first airport restaurant (Stansted in this case).
It might be in Essex but he’s taken the whole British Isles as his larder. Even the packaging packs a provenance punch with a shaded map detailing his supply chain. There are porridge oats from Scotland, of course, tea from Yorkshire, mineral water from the Peak District, peppery pea shoots from Lancashire and butter from Maryland Farm in Somerset.
The menu is designed to be reassuringly familiar. Tuck into Bangers and Mash hotpot with sausages from butchers Nigel Fredericks (nigelfredericks.co.uk) or a smoked salmon sandwich, the wild salmon supplied by Severn & Wye (severnandwye.co.uk). Houghton Hams (houghtonhams.co.uk) in Northamptonshire provides the meat for his ‘Posh Ham and Egg Salad’ while the JMK burger comes in a bun baked by the London Bread Company (londonbread.com) – as do the muffins for the sausage and bacon butties.
Detour here and you might start to wonder why you didn’t book a staycation.
If James Martin’s airside eatery is enough to tempt you to stay in the UK, Comptoir Libanais – now at Gatwick, and Heathrow’s Terminal 4 – is an answering riposte, with its fragrant flavours of the Middle East and souk-like setting. How much more civilized is a silver teapot of fresh rose mint tea (green tea, fresh mint, rose water and sugar) than a bucket of latte and limp croissant?
The retro Formica tables, rose-patterned banquettes, Moorish tiles and shelves stacked with rose syrup and coffee conjure up a vintage Lebanese café as you tuck into a breakfast feast of granola topped with yoghurt, honey, banana and toasted sesame seeds or yoghurt, fresh pomegranate seeds and orange blossom water.
For a light lunch there’s a mezze – a mix of small dishes and dips such as hummus, tabbouleh (chopped parsley, cracked wheat, tomatoes, mint and spring onion with a lemon dressing) and grilled halloumi, marinated in wild thyme with sliced tomatoes, olive and fresh mint.
Of course there’s a Jamie’s in Gatwick. What’s more surprising (and disappointing) is that there isn’t one in every UK airport bearing in mind how fast he’s rolled out the rest (Gatwick’s, in the North Terminal, opened in 2012).
The rustic Italian restaurant with its industrial vibe is all rough wood, brick tiles and big picture windows and serves up high-stooled breakfasts in the bakery section, gourmet hot dogs in the Union Jacks Bar and the full Italian Monty in the main restaurant; think antipasti such as primavera bruschetta (lemony courgette, peas and beans with hazelnut and lovage pesto), Cornish crab bruschetta with organic yoghurt, lemon, chilli and crab aioli or, if there’s a group of you, an Ultimate Plank to share (artisan fennel salami, mortadella, prosciutto, spiced chicken-liver pate, Cobble Lane bresaola and pork scratchings with grissini, Italian nachos, mini buffalo mozzarella, aged pecorino and chilli jam, olives and pickles, marinated peppers and rainbow slaw).
That’s just the starters. If it wasn’t for the small suitcases rammed under the tables you could forget you were in an airport and settle in for the night.
If ever there was a game-changer for airport dining in the UK, it was the launch of Gordon Ramsay’s Plane Food – a natural fit for the sleek, futuristic Terminal 5 when it opened.
You can sip cocktails at the marble topped bar, relax over a three-course a la carte meal or if you’re strapped for time – say if you’ve got a plane to catch – order the Express menu (two courses in 25 minutes or three in 35). Options include cannellini and artichoke soup with chives followed by chicken curry, cashew nut and saffron rice and for dessert, pineapple carpaccio, passion fruit and coconut sorbet.
The Taste of Asia menu adds another dimension with seared beef tataki, watercress and ponzu dressing alongside spicy tuna tartare, wonton crisps and crème fraiche. You can also order a Plane Picnic to take onboard. Oh and the kids eat for free. It’s probably worth getting there early and making a night of it.
Remember that TV series In Search of Perfection? Well this restaurant, at Heathrow’s Terminal 2, is a culinary offshoot. Heston Blumenthal has taken up the gauntlet to improve airport food, by way of taking traditional classics to a new level.
Fish & Chips for instance. The beer batter is aerated through a siphon to make it extra crisp and light – and is served with a malt vinegar pickled onion juice spray. The fish is Cornish, the garden peas mushy and with just a hint of mint.
Then there are the pizzas – cooked in Heathrow’s first wood-fired oven at incredibly high temperatures and a Nitro Ice Cream Parlour. Using liquid nitrogen freezes the ice fast keeping the ice crystals tiny and producing a silkily smooth ice cream – best served as a Sundae, of course.
If you’re not peckish, you could perch at the bar for a Cocktail in a Cloud (there had to be a bit of cheffy smoke in there somewhere). Bramble with a Merlot cloud is a mix of Miller’s Gin, Tyrian Purple Mure, Lemon and Peychaud’s Bitters and a glass full of scented Heston-style vapour.
Words by Lucy Gillmore, October 2016