Tuesday, March 25, 2014

First Class Dining Aboard American Airlines

I'm going backwards just a bit in time here, back to November, when I had to fly from Boston to San Francisco, after a recruiting trip.  I managed to actually find a decently priced flight on American Airlines, First Class, if I was willing to stop in Dallas on the way.  I normally always just fly direct on JetBlue or Virgin America, economy class, but the flight times weren't great, and I wanted to experiment with the tradeoff of a layover.

My flight was broken into two segments, Boston to Dallas, then Dallas to San Francisco.  My second flight did get slightly delayed, but otherwise, I was happy with my choice.  My seats were much larger than I would have had in economy class on the other airlines obviously, and although the connection did increase the total travel time, the onboard experience was so nice that I didn't mind.  I had wifi on both segments, and the flight attendants took great care of me.  Overall, quite pleasant!

Since this blog is about food, rather than in-flight services however, I'll focus on that instead :)  The first flight was lunch service, which was fairly limited: a choice of a cold salad or a single hot entree, and cookies for dessert.  And the food on that flight was really mediocre.  But the next flight was a full dinner service: appetizer, choice of hot entrees (which I could reserve online before the flight), side salad, hot rolls, and ice cream!

It was certainly the best dinner I've had on a domestic flight, and even better than some of the business class meals I've had internationally.  It put Virgin America's first class dinner service to shame.

BOS-DFW: Lunch Service

Warmish Mixed Nuts.
I remember being really impressed the first time I flew business or first class on American.  They served warm nuts!  This was incredible novel to me.  However, on both legs of my trip this time around, the nuts were barely lukewarm.  I was in the very front on the first leg, and the back on the second, and it didn't seem to make a difference.  Disappointing.

The nut mix consisted of mostly almonds and cashews.  My first batch also had one pistachio, my second had two.  My second batch also had two broken chunks of pecans.  Clearly, they know the cost of different nuts.  The nuts were lightly salted, but otherwise, completely flavorless and unremarkable.  I guess the novelty of nuts other than packaged peanuts has worn off.
Lunch: Buffalo Chicken Salad.
My choice of entrees was incredibly disappointing.  Literally, chicken or ... chicken.  Sigh.  My options were a hot entree of chicken with mashed potatoes and corn or a buffalo chicken salad.  I figured at least with the salad there would be something for me to eat other than the chicken.  If you read my blog, you know that I quite literally never like chicken.  Well, unless it is chicken liver :)

The salad was described as "fresh greens with Buffalo chicken, blue cheese, carrots, celery, cucumbers and ranch dressing".  It also came with a roll and a pat of butter on the side.

The roll was better than I expected, a swirl rye roll, with plentiful caraway seeds.  Not a nice fresh roll or anything, but served warm, and actually had some flavor.  The butter was just butter.

The salad on the other hand was pretty bad.  The "fresh greens" did consist of a good mix of assorted greens, including baby spinach, romaine, even a few pieces of frisee.  But they were not remotely fresh and crisp, but rather limp and turning brown around the edges.  Even bagged salad is better than this.

As for the rest of the vegetables, the carrots were standard carrot shreds, flavorless, but a bit crispy at least.  The celery was small chunks, old looking, turning white around the edges.  Like the lettuce, clearly not fresh.  Really not good at all.  The blue cheese came in a few crumbles throughout, again, pretty flavorless.  How do they make blue cheese flavorless?

The ranch dressing was basic ranch.  Actually not offensive, served on the side.

As for the chicken ... it was coated in a fairly decent buffalo sauce.  It had some kick.

I managed to salvage a meal from the wimpy lettuce, with some spicy buffalo sauce scraped off the chicken, with ranch and carrots, but I wasn't very happy.  It made me again think about how absolutely amazing Virgin America's salads, like the tuna niçoise or arugula and roasted pear, have been, and those are just in Main Cabin!  Each time I've had them, I've been very impressed with the freshness and quality.

The other chicken option was a far more substantial meal - they had the same roll we did, but then a side salad, a full piece of chicken, and sides of potatoes and corn.  Not that I wanted that dish, but it seemed like the better "value", if you were going for that kind of thing.
Decaf Coffee: Instant.
After my meal, I wanted a coffee.  When I ordered it decaf, the server actually warned me that it was a powder.  Nescafé.  I still tried it.

It was fairly awful, but better than the instant Taster's Choice provided on Virgin America.  I will never take fresh brewed, even mediocre, decaf for granted again!

I appreciated it paired with my dessert, but otherwise, yeah, not good.  It made me desperately wish that I'd filled my travel mug with Dunkin' Donuts while still inside the airport.  Self-protip for next time!
White Chocolate Chip Cookie.
The first time I flew first class on American Airlines, I couldn't believe that they served warm cookies.  My mind was blown.  Even more amazing than warm nuts!  Obviously, cookies are always better when warm, but the real selling point was the aroma of the freshly baked cookies drifting through the cabin.  OMG.  So memorable.

I was thus of course delighted when I started to smell the cookies baking on this flight.  I knew good things were coming.

We had the choice of standard chocolate chip or white chocolate chip.  I decided to go for the white chocolate, as there was only one chocolate chip left, and it was clear the woman next to me really wanted it.

It was a good enough cookie.  Sweet and buttery.  A bit plain, since just white chocolate chips aren't that interesting.  But, it was soft and warm and fresh.  Are they the best cookies out there?  Of course not.  But they are hot!  They are soft!  I was happy.

DFW-SFO: Dinner Service

Shrimp cocktail, side salad, wheat roll, butternut squash gnocchi with sage cream sauce.
My next flight featured dinner service, rather than lunch.

The lunch meals seemed pretty wimpy to me, so I was happy to see that dinner was a much more substantial offering.  It was served all at once, but included an appetizer, salad, roll, and entree (well, and dessert, but that came later ...).

The appetizer was a simple shrimp cocktail, consisting of 4 shrimp, along with cocktail sauce and a wedge of lemon.  The shrimp weren't great, fairly limp, but they weren't rubbery, and they were cleaned properly.  The lemon wedge was very juicy, easy to squeeze over my shrimp.  The cocktail sauce fairly standard, I'd love it to have a bit more kick from some horseradish, but it wasn't bad.  Overall, this was fairly lackluster, but not bad exactly.

The side salad was strange.  It consisted of romaine lettuce and ... rice.  I get that the rice was there for some crunch perhaps, but I really didn't care for it at all.  The lettuce was about as unremarkable as in my lunch salad, although this time it was only romaine.  But, the real issue with the salad was the dressing, an italian vinaigrette, poured on my the flight attendant.  And by poured on, I really mean poured on.  She way, way, way over dressed this.  I couldn't really eat it.  I preferred the lunch option, as it had the dressing on the side at least.

For rolls, we had a choice of white or whole wheat topped with oatmeal.  I went for whole wheat. Again, like lunch, they were served warm, and really weren't bad.  Not good fresh rolls, but not bad.  I didn't really want it on its own, but dunked in the sauce from the gnocchi, I enjoyed it.

And speaking of that sauce.  Now for the star of the meal: the gnocchi.  The dish sounded great: "butternut squash gnocchi with sage cream sauce".  When I made my flight reservation, I was able to select my entree, and was delighted to see this option (the other choice was of course chicken, with risotto and spinach).  If I'd been out at any restaurant, I would have been very excited for this.  Gnocchi!  Squash!  Cream Sauce!

But, I was on a plane, and I knew it.  So, I didn't have any real expectations.  In fact, I didn't really think I'd eat much of it.  I had a bag of snacks with me in case.

When I saw the gnocchi, I still had no expectations.  The sauce wasn't really evenly covering the gnocchi.  The sauce looked like it was swimming in oil.  I was a bit sad, but still dug in.

To my delight, looks can be deceiving.  The dish was good.  Legitimately good.  Not just acceptable for being on an airplane, but actually good.  In particular, it was incredibly flavorful.

First, the gnocchi itself.  Large, fluffy, potato pillows, that were actually stuffed with pureed butternut squash as well.  I was not expecting the filling at all, I thought they were plain gnocchi, and that the squash was only the chunks also in the dish.  The flavor of the filling was wonderful, slightly spiced.  The texture of the gnocchi was good, soft potato outside, creamy filling.  Sure, I do like freshly pan seared gnocchi more, but this was very good for something on a plane.

The sauce, although it was oily, was also quite good.  A cream sauce, with plentiful sage to season it.  Just like the gnocchi filling, I was impressed with the seasoning.

The only component I didn't like were the chunks of squash.  Most were very overcooked, and just mushy.  Others were really stringy.  I love butternut squash, so kept trying more chunks, but eventually I gave up, as they were just not good, and were easily avoided.  There were enough other delicious parts to enjoy anyway.

This dish just screamed, "I'm a fall dish!"  It reminded me of all of my favorite parts of a Thanksgiving dinner, in one package.  See, I actually don't like turkey, at all.  So for me, Thanksgiving is all about mashed potatoes, squash, gravy, and stuffing.  And, I basically had that here.  The potato gnocchi was like mashed potatoes, the creamy sauce was like gravy, and the roll, which I didn't think was awesome on its own, was perfect for dunking into the sauce, like stuffing with gravy.  Maybe I'm stretching here, but that is really what it reminded me of!

So, I liked this.  It was good enough that I was sad when it was all gone, which shocked me, because originally the portion size looked quite large, as I'd just been chowing down on assorted snack mixes in the Admiral's Club, and my previous flight had served a late second lunch.  And I shocked myself further when I ate the entire roll, just as an excuse to keep soaking up the sauce.  Well done American Airlines!

Side note: A month later, at Christmastime, I had a similar sounding entree when flying first class on Virgin America.  It was not good.  So no, it isn't just the case that pasta dishes with squash always come out well on flights!
Vanilla ice cream with almond streusel.
After the decent dinner, I was pretty happy.  But of course, there was one thing I was REALLY looking forward to ... dessert!  I recalled one of my earliest American Airlines first class flights, from SFO to JFK.  On that flight, the dinner service concluded with ice cream sundaes.  With Ben & Jerry's ice cream, no less.  And, it was a sundae cart, with assorted toppings, including hot fudge and whipped cream.  Made to order.  I had never flown first class before, and that was my introduction to it.  I couldn't believe it.  I loved it.

So this time, I was a bit sad to see that there wasn't an ice cream cart.  I guess the sundaes are just on the longer flights?  But I was still given an ice cream option (or, a very sad looking fruit and crackers platter).  I obviously picked the ice cream.

I was eager to dig into my ice cream, but alas, it was frozen so solid that it would take a while before I could possibly even get a spoon into it.

I kept trying every few minutes, and at first, I thought it wasn't very good.  Just plain generic vanilla ice cream, topped with some rather burnt almonds.  No options for other toppings.  Sadness.  This was nothing like the ice cream sundae I remembered!

But, as it melted, it got much better.  Creamy.  With nice crunchy nuts.  But of course, I had to jazz it up a bit.  As my after dinner drink, I ordered cognac.  It was nice to sip the cognac, and then take a bite of ice cream, but somewhere along the way, I decided to pour a little over my ice cream.  I loved it that way!  Now my ice cream was boozy, which paired really well with the nuts.

This turned out to be a very satisfying, successful meal, something I never expected on my flight!
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