My black cod was almost as good as the fish at Nobu New York. I had a "mint and pea" soup that tasted of neither peas nor mint, but was redolent of turmeric and tamarind and tasty enough to put on the menu of my favorite Indian restaurant in D.C. My beef fillet was, as expected, overcooked and dry. There's only so much you can do in an airplane galley kitchen. But when it comes paired with a 2006 Château le Bon Pasteur, who cares, baby?
It was at this point in the evening that most of us discovered the adjustable foot rests and my companion wondered whether they'd let us watch a movie on our personal video screens. I eyed the embroidered blanket in the neat plastic pouch. We asked a flight attendant to take pictures of us "sleeping" in the fully kicked-back seats that now became beds. I was seriously contemplating putting on the pajamas that came in my swag bag and thought it would only be prudent to moisturize with that Ferragamo face cream they gave us. It's very dry in airplane cabins, I reminded myself, as I sipped the Colheita port. Its 1974 vintage made it older than I am.
As I lingered over my roasted chocolate wafer fascination, I thought about a good friend who frequently flies from Washington to Asia for work and only travels business class. The reason to do it, he said, is not to be spoiled. It's to eat marginally better food, have a decent wine and maybe a cognac, and then drift into a mildly comfortable booze-assisted sleep so you don't feel like a zombie when you land after a 14-hour flight. It's not luxurious. It's a battle against jet lag.
My friend is full of crap. If you had the choice and the means, you would always -- always -- fly this way. Are you kidding? On the flight from Doha to Washington, passengers in front are served Château d'Yquem. For all non-wine snobs, this would be like Uber picking you up in a Rolls-Royce Phantom. It exceeds the bounds of necessity and propriety.
This is, of course, exactly what Qatar Airways wants me to tell you. That was the point of this entire evening. And you would be very happy indeed to sit in that chair and fly on that plane. Would you be happier than if you flew on Qatar's competitors, Etihad Airways and Emirates, which are respectively based in Abu Dhabi and Dubai? Maybe. But those are cities that, unlike Doha, people routinely visit for pleasure. "Comparing Dubai to Doha, it's like New York vs. Huntsville, Alabama," a companion remarked. So maybe it really is about the destination, not the journey.
I'll say this for the airline. No one made an overt sales pitch. There was no PowerPoint marketing presentation in place of the preflight safety briefing. It was a gracious, very odd little diversion, and at no point did anyone ask me whether I planned to write about it. I also have no plans to travel to the Gulf in the near future.
But later, I was told that some journalists aboard had taken complimentary flights from Qatar in the past -- in business class -- as had at least one of their bosses. I wasn't surprised. This kind of trade happens. Not a lot, but it happens. In my experience, it's more on the business side of publications than the editorial.
For a reporter, there's never an overt quid pro quo in covering events like this. The journalists who do it best don't take more from their hosts than dinner and the occasional cheesy gift bag. Often they'll give away the contents to co-workers the next day or put it in a pile that's donated to charity.
But if you want to come back, there's an expectation that whatever you write will be, if not entirely flattering, not remotely vicious. I don't write travel stories, and I don't cover the airline industry. I'm pretty sure I won't be invited back the next time the Qatar Cafe is back in town. (I'd love to be proved wrong.) But the reminder that I wasn't really a guest on this first-class flight made for a rough landing.