Late last week United Airlines announced changes to their in-flight dining menus for first class passengers. As part of the new menus they held a tasting event at the Chelsea Kitchens facility adjacent to Newark airport and a small group was invited to sample some of the new meals as well as chat with the chefs who came up with the new menu. Here’s my take. And, yes, I am grading on a curve for what domestic F meals are like these days, where I think something around a B is the norm. I’ve had experiences in the past 6 months with Delta, American Airlines and United so that’s my comparison framework.
Salads & Sandwiches
United has introduced eight new sandwiches and four new salads for their first class passengers. The salads are already being served and the sandwiches will join them starting on 1 September 2014.
Most of these new meals are inspired by the current Bistro on Board paid food menu in the economy class cabin. United’s executives admit that the meals are very similar but note that often the portion sizes and ingredient selections are more “premium” that the BoB bits. The Asian-style noodle salad, for example, has a few more veggies included in the mix and the chicken portion is larger. Plus the first class meals will continue to be served with soup and a dessert.
During the tasting portion of the event I managed to try two of the salads and five of the sandwiches.
Roast Beef & Blue Cheese salad
The salad itself is romaine lettuce, cucumbers and a slice of tomato served with ranch dressing. Croutons continue to be served in a bag on the side. That’s not particularly special, really. But add on the perfectly cooked roast beef and tangy blue cheese crumble and the flavor popped nicely. The blue was not overwhelming in flavor; really just enough to be noticeable when at altitude. I actually enjoyed the meat & cheese without the dressing and then added the dressing and croutons after to go with the greens and essentially ate it as two separate courses off of the same plate. (A)
Asian-style Noodle Salad with Chicken
I must admit that I’ve had the coach version of this salad a few times and it is often my go-to meal when it is available. I’m also not a huge fan of most cabbages and that’s one of the additions to the first class version. The chicken is also glazed with a sweet-and-spicy sauce which adds to the flavor. I was a bit surprised to find myself disappointed with this one on the ground given how much I typically enjoy it in the air. Then I remembered that I hadn’t added the sesame ginger dressing yet. That pepped it up nicely and was very much the flavors I’m used to. (B+)
This is the only vegetarian option on the new sandwich menu so there’s something to be said for that. Both the mozzarella and the tomatoes were fresh though I have some concerns about how well it will keep even for just a day as the juice from the tomatoes tends to make bread soggy. Still, the mozz was a good flavor and if they can keep that consistent this should be a reliable option. (B+)
Thai Chicken Wrap
This is another item which has its roots in the Bistro on Board menu and which, to me, was rather remarkably similar to the original. I don’t actually know what is different on this one though maybe it is about portion sizing. The mayo served on the side is what makes this one work for me; without it the overall flavors just don’t pop enough. (B)
Prosciutto & Mozzarella
Maybe United scored a great deal on Mozzarella cheese and that’s why it shows up thrice on the menu (there is also a chicken & mozzarella which I didn’t try). I actually am OK with that as I happen to like it but I could see how some might feel otherwise. The prosciutto provides a nice salty balance to the soft cheese and the tomato focaccia really holds the flavors together. Alas, the prosciutto serving was a bit meager and I wasn’t the only one to notice. Couple of the other women there suggested that a couple more slices were needed to make it really work. Pretty good, but still room to improve. I’m willing to bet that the chicken version works a bit better with a larger meat serving on it. (C+)
Ham & Swiss
I wasn’t expecting much from this sandwich; it ended up being quite the pleasant surprise. It is served on a pretzel roll and it is one of the hot options. The cheese melted nicely and the sliced ham was more flavorful than I expected. Added bonus here is the pretzel roll, which I typically enjoy. One of the main negatives I saw was that the portion size of the ham seemed a little light on the taster I had; hopefully that was an anomaly. (B+)
Roast Beef & Cheddar
Similar to the Haw & Swiss this one is served hot and the melted cheese works well with the relatively thick sliced roast beef. I’m pretty sure it is the same roast beef used on the salad (cannot see any reason why it wouldn’t be) and that’s a good thing in my book. Decent potion size, too. (B)
Starting in February 2015 United will introduce five new entrees to the dinner menu on longer flights (1300+ miles). The specific details for these new options are not finalized yet but there were a number of “menu concept” options on display during the event and three were served up for us during the tasting portion of the afternoon. I tried all three.
Asian-style Short Rib of Beef
Keeping with history there is still a beef short rib glazed in a dark sauce on the menu. This one was presented as a hoisin-based sauce and it was served with jasmine rice and veggies. I like a beef short rib and I know it is a cut which typically works well to be reheated on a plane. I also really enjoy a tangy hoisin sauce and was very much looking forward to this one. I was more than a little disappointed. The sauce was OK but a but too runny and didn’t have the concentrated flavor that it will need to really be tasty at 30,000 feet; I’m not really sure that it would have a taste at all. And maybe I’m in the minority on this one as others in the room really seemed to enjoy it. But I cannot help but think it isn’t going to translate well from the current ground-based trial to in the air. On the plus side, the meat held up well as expected so the texture parts were all there. (C-)
Thai Chicken Curry
United knows that the flavors really need to “pop” on the ground if they’re going to have any chance of still being tasty when served in the air. To that end they’ve gone for a number of Asian entrées as part of the new menu concepts, including a new chicken curry option. This one, to me, was the biggest miss of all during the many plates I sampled. It is not just that the sauce lacked spice; it did, but that wasn’t the only problem. There was very much a lack of flavor in general. I know that Thai curries don’t have to be spicy to be flavorful but this one was neither. And that’s quite disappointing. (D)
Mac & Cheese
In which United appeals to my slightly Southern roots and manages to get a home-style favorite into the sky. Yeah, this was, by far, my favorite thing served up during the tasting. Rather than a typical mac & cheese baked into a foil pan and then reheated on board, with all the attendant crusting and overcooking issues, this one is different. They’ve made a round patty of mac & cheese and then breaded and fried it. When plated there is an additional dollop of cheese sauce to bring the flavor up a notch, something which will be very important in the air. I do think that the cheese-y flavor on the patty could be a bit stronger and I completely recognize that it was probably the least healthy of anything I tasted during the event. Still, it was my favorite of ten things I tasted. (A)
United also made sure to have a bit of the new prosecco which will be joining the catering cart in November available for us to taste. I had a few glasses throughout the afternoon and I’d say it is pretty good. It is not an exceptionally complex wine by any stretch but prosecco rarely is. It is crisp and light with just a bit of sweetness to it. And, from what I could find online, it is within the pricing ballpark of what many other on-board wines are running these days, maybe a couple dollars more. I am quite likely to choose this over the white wine catered just about every time, though I almost never ordered white wine previously.
One concern I have is about just how much will be catered on board each flight. None of the catering folks at the even knew off-hand what the load sheets looked like so it was unclear if it was just one bottle or more and what it would be offsetting in the cart. Certainly something which will be figured out eventually and easy enough to adjust as time goes on.
The new menu selections are a significant improvement. Even for those who bemoan that they are similar to the BoB menu I believe it is hard to argue that the BoB menu is probably better than what has been served up front lately. And the move towards fresh food prepared and served the same day is hard to argue with.
This move does not vault United into the lead over American and Delta. But it does bring them back up to a competitive level with those two. And, if nothing else, it adds variety back into the meal service, something which has been lacking for far too long.
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