Tuesday, March 18, 2014

First Class on Virgin America

Update Review, January 2015

(You might wanna start with my earlier review below, then come back here ... )

Whenever I travel to the east coast, I always fly on Virgin America.  The wifi is the feature I just can't live without at this point, but the good food is a strong selling point too.  I've been shocked by the food quality, particularly the really good tuna salad and roasted pear salads I had in Main Cabin.  Sadly, my first experience in First Class was not nearly as impressive.

So when I was recently traveling and was offered an upgrade to First, I was a bit hesitant.  I had actually preferred my experience in Main Cabin Select more than First before, but, I really wanted to give them another chance.

While the service and seat were fantastic, the food again disappointed.
Spicy chili hummus chips.
To start, we were given bowls of very strange looking chips.  The description said they were "hummus" chips, but honestly, I have no idea what was supposed to be hummus-like about them.  They didn't taste like hummus, they didn't seem to be made of hummus, such a strange name.   This was fine with me, since I don't actually like hummus. They were however spicy, as promised, and I did like the crunch.  They were fairly light.

A quick Google search lead me to discover that they are made by Simply 7, a company that makes natural snack foods, preservative-free, non-GMO, gluten-free, etc.  They make 4 types of chips: the hummus chips, quinoa chips, lentil chips, and pomegranate chips.  While "hummus" chips don't make much sense to me, pomegranate chips make the least sense.

I didn't love these, but it was nice to start with something other than just nuts.
Menu.
For the main entree, I had 3 choices, which were honestly quite lame.  Both the hot and cold non-vegetarian options were chicken:
  1. Dijon Chicken with Wild Mushrooms
  2. Rigatoni with Fava Beans
  3. Roasted Chicken Salad
We were also given a few options from the Main Cabin menu:
  1. Green Goddess Sandwich
  2. Artisan Cheese Plate
  3. Protein Plate
  4. Southwest Veggie Wrap
Amusingly, you can guess what the protein was in the Green Goddess Sandwich ... yup, chicken.  The veggie wrap and the protein plate featured hummus, which, as I mentioned with the hummus chips, I don't care for. But I really hate chicken, so I went for the vegetarian pasta.

There was no choice of appetizer, and unfortunately for me it was a salad that contained watermelon, so I had to skip it, since I'm deathly allergic.  The rest of it sounded good though, with arugula, tomatoes, ricotta salata, and proscuitto.
Rigatoni with Fava Beans, Wheat Roll, Hail Merry Chocolate Mini Tart.
As before, meal service was done all at once, with the appetizer, bread, main, and dessert served on a single tray.

My platter is missing the appetizer, obviously.

My tray came with a roll, rather than a bread basket like most airlines, with no options given.  The roll was a hearty wheat roll with some seeds on top, served warm.  It was actually my favorite part of the meal, and somehow wasn't stale tasting.  Plain butter was on the side, along with the signature airplane salt and pepper shakers, so I was able to create salty butter to add, which was fairly enjoyable.

For the main, I selected the pasta, since I wanted nothing to do with the chicken options.  Described as "rigatoni pasta topped with fava beans, caramelized leeks, and roasted grape tomatoes in an herb garlic tomato sauce topped with optional shredded Parmesan cheese".

After my last disappointing pasta experience aboard Virgin America, I didn't have high hopes for the pasta dish, but, anything sounded better than chicken.

Sadly, it was about what I expected, not good.  The rigatoni was the worst component, but I can't say it was really their fault, what do you expect from pre-cooked pasta that is then just warmed up?  The sauce was a close second in the worst component category though, as it was mostly just oil.  I didn't taste any garlic.  Actually, I take it back, the fava beans were the worst part, incredibly overcooked, mushy.  So the pasta, the favas, and the pile of oil were all pretty gross.  As were the breadcrumbs, which were just mush.

But, the roasted grape tomatoes were quite tasty.  Nicely roasted, and I actually loved the flavor.  The parmesan cheese was also decent, and a generous amount was sprinkled over the dish.  I ended up using the tomatoes and cheese on my roll, and created a sorta pizza-like creation.  As for the caramelized leeks, which I was actually looking forward to, I think I only found 2 tiny slivers of leeks in the entire dish.  

And finally, my favorite part of a meal: dessert!

Described as "Rich chocolate ganache cradled in an almond crust with a hint of sea salt."

On my last flight, the dessert was kinda a joke, just a tiny little bar.  It was no different this time.  The dessert was a tiny little tart this time, served with a single blackberry and strawberry half.  The tart was made by Hail Merry, who also supplies the chocolate macaroons and seasoned nuts you can order in main cabin too.  I've enjoyed some of Hail Merry's products in the past, but they are just snacks rather than full desserts.  I believe this tart was from their line of "Miracle Tarts", which are vegan and gluten-free ... not exactly generally selling points for desserts.

I was really saddened by this, not only because I love dessert  but because I had heard that they were serving Humphry Slocombe ice cream on board in First Class.  But alas, I guess that partnership ended?

The blackberry and strawberry were fine, fresher than I expected.  They reminded me of the salad and fruit I've had in main cabin on Virgin America, where I've been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the produce.  But the tart ... really boring.  The chocolate ganache in the center was creamy and pretty good, but it was gone in a single bite, and I would have loved some whipped cream or something with it.  I didn't taste the "hint of sea salt".  The shell for the tart was very dry and I didn't care for it, I guess it was made from almond meal.

Overall, another disappointing meal.  If I ever wind up in First Class again, I really think I might just order from the main cabin menu, as I've genuinely liked their food in the past.

Original Review, March 2014

My Christmastime trip to the East Coast concluded with a flight from Boston to San Francisco, onboard Virgin America.  On New Year's Eve.  Not exactly when I wanted to be on a plane, but the prices were so much more affordable that day that we couldn't pass it up.

Ojan and I were booked in regular Main Cabin, but moments before takeoff, Ojan was approached and offered a seat in First Class, due to his high One World status.  Wow, thank you Virgin America!  But we were traveling together.  Others seated near us actually asked if I could join him, but they turned me down.  Ojan hesitated, and said no, not wanting to leave me behind.  I told him he was crazy, and encouraged him to go up front.  I was happy for him, and waved goodbye.

We took off, and then ... reality set in for me.  No, I don't mind being deserted for a 6 hour flight, nor do I care that much about the bigger seat.  But, I wanted the other perks: the food and drink!  I've never been in First Class on Virgin America before, but I've been seriously impressed with the food in Main Cabin, like the restaurant quality tuna niçoise salad I had on one flight, and the ridiculously tasty dressing from my arugula and roasted pear salad on another.  If they could do main cabin food that well, what would it be like in the wondrous land of First Class?

Now, not to go into too many personal details, but Ojan has some GI problems that prevent him from being able to drink any alcohol, and require a really strict diet.  His mother packed him all of the snacks and meals he needed for the flight.  He didn't intend to drink or eat a thing up there, while I was sitting in the back, and would need to order and pay for anything I wanted to consume.

So ... once we were airborne, I asked if he was willing to switch with me.  Since he didn't intend to take advantage of anything besides the free movies up there, he nicely agreed to switch.  But ... the flight attendants were not happy with this.  They said that the upgrade was for him only.  I explained that he couldn't drink and had his meals packed, so he wouldn't be using any of the First Class services, but the flight attendant insisted that it was for him only.  I promised we wouldn't try to switch back and forth or anything.  The people seated around me, the same ones who were championing to get me upgraded as well, made remarks about how it really shouldn't matter, please just let us switch, etc.  The flight attendant left, and came back with another attendant, who wanted to hear the story.  Long story short, lots of drama, and they were really not happy with us, but did allow us to switch, eventually.

I excitedly took my seat up in the first class cabin.  8 seats, only 2 others occupied.  Ok, yes, they really could have let us sit together up there, but I understand it was a special status upgrade.  It still would have been nice, given that it was New Year's Eve though!

Anyway, the experience was far from impressive.  The service was fairly non-existent, even though the cabin wasn't full.  Dishes were not cleared after the meal, even as they piled up on our armrests.  Ojan came up at one point in the flight just to say hi, and they actually yelled at him, telling him that he was not allowed up there.  I understand that it is against the rules for Main Cabin passengers to enter the First Class cabin, but they were quite nasty about it.  And he really wasn't bothering anyone, as that entire side of the cabin was empty, and he was just standing talking to me for literally 2 minutes.  Rules are rules I know, but it just wasn't the nicest treatment.

The seat itself was a major upgrade obviously, as was the dedicated bathroom, but besides that, I would actually prefer sitting in Main Cabin Select.

But the most disappointing part ... the food was not very good!  Honestly, everything I've ever had in main cabin is much better.
First Class Menu.
In regular Main Cabin, the menu is provided via the in-flight entertainment system, where you can browse the menu, and order from your seat electronically.  In First, the menu is printed and handed out when you sit down.  This is nice in theory, except that it is collected immediately after you order your meal, so you no longer even have a drink menu to consult for future orders.  The menu contains all of the meals they serve, not just the ones available on your flight.

While none of the food options in Main Cabin are hot, the options are plentiful.  In First, there is a single appetizer, a choice of entree that is either vegetarian or not, and a single dessert.  Just based on choices, I preferred Main Cabin dining.

The entire dining service really did not seem First Class worthy.  There was no preflight beverage offered.  No water bottles given out.  Not even warm nuts.  No after dinner drinks offered with dessert.

But even more strangely, once the meal was served right after takeoff (which is normal obviously), there was no later service offered.  In Main Cabin, you can order snacks anytime from your seat.  I could press my call button to order another drink, which I had to do since we were very rarely checked in on, but I had no menu to consult to even know what was available for drinks.  And, there were no additional snacks offered.
Appetizer: Roasted Pear Salad with Goat Cheese. 
Our appetizer was a salad, with roasted pears.  I was thrilled when I read the description: "roasted pear and gratin of goat cheese, served on arugula mesclun salad, with toasted walnuts, dried figs, grape tomato, and fig vinaigrette", since I had really enjoyed the two salads from Main Cabin, and the pear salad then had such memorable dressing.  This would be better, right?  Wrong.

The part that was better was the pears.  Two slices, decently poached but still a bit firm so they weren't mushy.  They were good enough, but I don't really like poached pears.

The other salad toppings were a bit laughable.  "Toasted walnuts" equaled literally one walnut half.  A great component, added a crunch factor, but a single half?  "Grape tomato" actually did mean a single grape tomato, which was actually nice and juicy, and I would have loved another.  "Dried figs", just like the walnuts, meant one half a dried fig.  Another ingredient that was a great addition, adding a chewy texture and complimentary flavor, but only one?  The "gratin of goat cheese" seemed pretty indistinguishable from just a regular slice of goat cheese.  And I don't like goat cheese.

I was fairly disappointed at this point, but the real failure was the dressing.  Not only was it not delicious like the other dressing I'd had previously, it just wasn't good at all, somehow both cloyingly sweet and sour at the same time.  And, it was drenching the entire thing.  In Main Cabin, the dressing comes on the side, here, it had been smothered for us.  This isn't necessarily Virgin America's fault, as I'm sure there is variance based on who is pouring the dressing on, but ugh.

The salad was a nice mix of greens, but they were just a pile of sogginess due to the excessive dressing.

Was this worse than any other airline salad?  Nah.  But it was worse than any First Class, or even Business Class salad that I've had, and it wasn't even in the same league as their Main Cabin salads.  Sadness.
Entree: Pumpkin Ravioli with Brown Butter and Sage.  Wheat Roll.  Dessert: Chocolate Coconut Bar.
Next came the main meal.  The entree and the dessert were served all at once, on one tray.  Again, didn't quite seem like First Class service, particularly as this wasn't a short flight, so they weren't trying to consolidate service.  No drink refills were offered with our main courses.

I picked the vegetarian option, as it sounded quite good: "pumpkin and sage-stuffed al dente ravioli, with roasted butternut squash, toasted hazelnuts, roasted tomato, and sage brown butter sauce – all garnished with fresh sage leaves and parsley."

This sounded promising.  I love pumpkin and butternut squash, and I had a really quite fantastic similar dish on board American Airlines a month earlier, and I know ravioli is something they can reheat decently on an airplane, compared to the meat option (steak).

It wasn't very good.  There wasn't much sauce at all, it was just oily.  The ravioli was glistening.  This would be fine if it was delicious brown butter, but it did not have the nutty characteristics of brown butter, nor did it even really taste like butter.  Just slick and oily.

The ravioli (five of them) were certainly not "al dente" as advertised, rather they were a bit mushy, although I did like the edges since they were more firm.  Inside was a pumpkin and ricotta blend, with a strange spicing that I didn't care for, and chunks of squash.  The chunks of pumpkin on top were well cooked and I enjoyed them.  I have no idea where the "roasted tomato" was, I certainly didn't see nor taste it. The hazelnuts were whole, and more burnt than toasted, adding an unpleasant bitterness.  I did actually like the fact that they garnished it with fried sage leaves, which was great in theory, but instead were oily and soggy.

I was pretty disappointed by this, and mostly just ate the squash.  However, since no one came to clear our plates, I had it sitting there for quite a while, and eventually I ended up picking at it again.  It turned out that it got better as it got cold, as the paste turned more al dente.  Anyway, still not very good.

The other entree option was Filet of Beef Saltimbocca: "Prosciutto-wrapped beef fillet, served with sautéed mushrooms, horseradish-chive mashed potatoes, onions, and green and yellow beans."  It was a large steak, and looked decent, but how good can microwaved steak really be?  Even though I didn't really like mine, I'm pretty sure I made the better choice.

My meal was served with a roll, a dark wheat roll, nice crusty outside, and a packet of generic Land O'Lakes butter.

Also on the platter was an adorable plane shaped salt and pepper shaker.  Ok, they win points for that.  So cute.

The dessert was a pathetic chocolate coconut bar, made by Sweet Lady Jane.  It was small, and perhaps the least interesting dessert I've ever had on a plane.  It had a strong coconut aroma, a chocolate drizzle on top, almonds inside, and a shortbread crust.  The filling was really mushy.  It wasn't that great, and it didn't standalone very well.  It didn't seem very fresh.  No whipped cream or anything was served alongside.  Well, actually, there was a half slice of strawberry, incredibly dried out.  Least remarkable dessert ever.  Again, American Airlines had them majorly beat, as they offer hot cooked baked on board, and ice cream sundaes.
Taster's Choice Instant Decaf.
There was no beverage offered with dessert, since it came on the same tray as the entree.  I wanted coffee to pair with my measly dessert, and went for the decaf.  It was just instant Taster's Choice brand, the same as what they have in Main Cabin.  It was totally awful, but I really wanted hot coffee with my dessert!  At least in First Class, it is served in a mug, rather than a paper cup.

My water glass was empty, and no water refill was offered.  I also tried the Circadia Chardonnay with my entree, it was ok, a bit too acidic.

Several hours later, when it became obvious that no additional food service was going to be provided, I called my flight attendant to ask if there were any snacks available, since I'd seen the listing back in Main Cabin.  She said she'd bring out a snack tray.  A while later she came around with a tray containing nuts, popcorn, cookies, and chocolate, all items included in the Main Cabin menu, but alas, not any of the Main Cabin snacks I actually wanted.  I asked if I could order a different Main Cabin snack instead, and got a very confusing answer.  I gave up and just had popcorn.

Since the beverage selection was the same, and the meal and snack selection actually greater in Main Cabin Select, I think I greatly prefer Main Cabin Select, which really makes no sense.  Besides the seat, First Class on Virgin America was incredibly disappointing.  I hope my experience was just a single bad case, but I can't say I have any desire to book First Class again to find out.
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