Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, SFO

I normally fly with One World airlines when I do international travel from SFO, but for a recent trip through London, I went with Virgin Atlantic, because it was much more affordable (and, honestly, I wanted to try something new).

This was my first time flying with Virgin Atlantic, and my first time visiting any of their lounges, er, Clubhouses.

I must say, I was impressed.  It wasn't anything like the ridiculous Cathay Pacific lounges in Hong Kong or the Qantas First Class lounge in Sydney, but, it blows every other lounge in SFO away, in nearly every dimension: comfort, decor, not too busy, good food (made to order), great drinks ... the only downside?  It is landside.  Ooph.

The Setting

Ojan and I arrived around 6:30pm for our 9:10pm flight.  We knew this was early, but, we wanted to have a nice relaxed meal in the lounge at a more normal hour, so we could mostly skip the meal on board, knowing it would be served close to 11pm, and that there is no way it would be as good as the made-to-order cuisine served in the Clubhouse.  Yup, full service restaurant in the SFO Clubhouse, radically better than anything other SFO based lounges offer (I'm looking at you crappy One World lounges with only pre-made sandwiches!

Since the lounge is landside, we needed to allow even more time to visit the lounge, in addition to wanting time for a full meal.  So, we just went on the early side, planning to not rush, eat a full meal, get some work done, and then eventually head through security.  This turned out to be a lovely plan, as the lounge had only a handful of other guests when we arrived.

It very quickly filled up, as guests clearly like to take advantage of the Clubhouse, pre-security and all.  They did make an announcement before our boarding time to warn those who wanted to purchase anything inside security that they should leave then, which we did, so we could grab some gum and take our time.  Given that we didn't have TSA-Pre for this flight, it was a good thing, as security took a while, and we basically just walked onto the plane moments after purchasing our gum.

Anyway, the lounge had a great vibe to it, was light filled, had a plethora of seating options, and was full of color.
Assorted Seating.
Anyway, back to the lounge.  Seating was quite varied, with regular square dining tables and chairs, or more comfortable living-room style chairs arranged around round coffee tables.  The living room feel continued with the floor lambs and small side tables.

There were vases with fresh flowers on most tables.
Runway Views.
The large windows had comfy looking red wing chairs along them, which quickly became full.  By the time we finished our meal at a regular table and set out to relocate to somewhere more comfortable, they were all full.
Bar.
The bar was stunning, and featured counter stools for seating for those who wished a higher perch.
Round Table Dining Area.
The final area was more dining area, this time with round tables, comfy white leather chairs, and a wooden bench all along the wall.

You really had your choice of any style of seating you preferred.

Here you can see the colored glass windows, with panes tinted shades of blue and purple.

Business Center.
The totally unused business center had a couple computers and a printer, and was located in a little alcove on the side.

Food & Drinks

Menus.
Food and drinks are all ordered from servers, who circulate the room regularly.  There is no buffet, no snack station, not even little nibbles on the side.  You can order from any of the seating areas, and menus are located on every table.

Local Shoutouts.
The first page of the menu calls out their unique partnerships with local establishments, like Whitechapel for the food, and Bourbon & Branch for the cocktails.

Drinks

The drink menu is impressive, matching the grandeur of the bar itself.  They partner with a local bar, Bourbon & Branch, for the cocktails, and feature tons of local beers and wines.

There was a wine list  (including Mumm! and 4 different dessert wines), local beers (21st Amendment and Anchor Brewing Company), juices, smoothies, soft drinks, and ... a huge cocktail menu.  The cocktail menu had at least 20 cocktails, half of which are Bourbon & Branch classics, the others are standard cocktails (tom collins, bloody mary, dirty martini, etc), and finally a few Virgin Atlantic classics.

It was hard to pick one, and my server was full of recommendations.  Amusingly, she told me that the cucumber gimlet was very popular.  When I said, "hmm, I don't really like cucumber drinks", she got very animated, and told me she totally agreed, but had to recommend it because it is so popular.  She said she cringed whenever people order it.  Lols.  She quickly started pointing me towards the bourbon section of the menu, her favorites.
Frank Lloyd Wright.
"Buffalo Trace, Laphroaig Quarter Cask, walnut & pear liqueur bitters.  Stirred."

This drink is on the menu at Bourbon & Branch, and mentioned on "The Big Drink SF" list too.

It was lovely.  A mellow drink to sip, really well balanced, smooth, and *way* too drinkable for a drink that was entirely bourbon, whiskey, and liquor.  I finished it way too quickly, and opted not to go for another cocktail, for my own good.  But I really enjoyed it.  My notes read, "yum!"

Food

Like the drink menu, the food offerings have a local touch too, with some items from Whitechapel.

The menu is broken into starters, mains, salads, and desserts.  There were a slew of dishes that sounded good, it was hard to narrow it down to just a few selections, particularly as we knew we'd have a full meal on the flight soon.

We opted for one starter, one salad, and two entrees.  Sadly, the dessert menu only had fruit salad, a cheese platter, sorbet, and a chocolate pot de creme, none of which I wanted.  Perhaps they saved me from myself, its not like I went hungry.
Starter: Bitterballen.
"Crispy dutch bar snack, slow and low pork, pickle and spicy brown mustarD." (sic)

For a starter, we went with the Bitterballen, mostly because it sounded the most unique.  This was a Whitechapel dish.

Other options were a cream of artichoke soup (meh), sweet pea bruschetta (maybe good), and "Henge fries", another Whitechapel dish that I certainly would have ordered if  I needed something more, as it included green garlic and serrano aioli.

I was pretty blown away when it was delivered to our table.  I wasn’t expecting presentation like this in a lounge!  The wooden board, with a slot in it for the little bowl of mustard with cornichons, and a slot for the copper (?) pot with the fried balls inside.

The order came with 3 balls, all super hot, freshly fried.  Ojan took the first one as I was taking notes, bit in, and told me it was hot.  I was glad I waited a few minutes.  He also told me I wouldn’t like it.

He was right.  On the plus side, it was super crispy, and I liked how crunchy it was.  But, it was just too porky for me.

Great presentation, unique dish, but, not for me.  Interestingly, Ojan didn’t like it either, and when I asked why, he said that he just didn’t like anything about it.
Clubhouse Burger, with Cheese, Chips.
“Toasted brioche bread, marinated plum tomato, lettuce, dill pickle, and chips.”

One minute after the Bitterballen arrived came Ojan’s main dish, the burger.  It was offered with regular or sweet potato fries.  We ordered sweet potato, and received regular.  No option for level of doneness was offered.  He was asked if he wanted cheese, but, it wasn’t clear what kind.

Presentation was again quite nice, served on a wooden platter, the fries in a metal pot.  The pickle was a full spear, staked on top.

The burger wasn’t quite as described.  I lifted the bun to add ketchup and discovered that it had some kind of special sauce.  I won’t complain about mayo sauce on a burger, so that was great, but, interesting that it wasn’t listed on the menu.  But even more interesting?  Two onion rings, also right under the bun top.  I grabbed one immediately, Ojan scowled at me.  I shouldn’t have grabbed it, as it was …. cold.  And a bit soggy.  Why did this burger have cold soggy onion rings on top?

The burger was crazy well done, as in, way too cooked.  Or, as Ojan put it, “cardboard level of overcooked.”  The patty was thin, not juicy, not seasoned, and really didn’t taste like anything.  The cheese was nicely melted.  The tomato looked a bit anemic.  The special sauce was tasty enough.

Overall, not a good burger, and after a couple bites, Ojan pushed it aside.

The fries error turned out to be in Ojan’s favor, as he wanted the regular ones anyway, it was me who wanted the sweet potato fries.  A little bowl of ketchup was served on the side.

I still snagged a fry while I waited for my entree, assuming it was coming soon.  The fries were thick, crispy, and ridiculously hot.  Clearly very fresh.  They maintained their heat for an incredibly long time.  Ojan loved them, I thought they were ok, but, not really what I wanted.
Starter: Greek Salad.
"Crispy red onion and black olive tapanade."

Ojan also wanted a salad.  Salads are available as starter size, or main courses, topped with proteins like chicken.  Other choices were a green salad with truffle dressing, caesar, and "shaved summer salad".  He loves Greek salads though, so, that is what he ordered.

It arrived after his burger, a good 5 minutes later.  The timing and pacing of this meal was very strange.  The starter came quickly.  The burger not long behind.  It took at least 10 minutes however for my entree to show up, and the salad came after the burger?

As with all the dishes, presentation was quite nice.

This was most certainly not a classic Greek salad.  The description did mention that it would have “crispy red onion” and “black olive tapenade”, which should have been an indicator that it wasn’t going to be quite as expected.

Anyway, what did we have here?  An assortment of greens, including frisee and arugula.  Shaved fennel.  Shaved cucumber ribbons.  Confit tomatoes.  Yes, it did have olives and feta, which were about the only elements recognizable as a Greek salad.

Since I don’t actually care for Greek salad, this seemed like an improvement to me over the classic, so, even though I didn’t plan to have any, I tried a few bites.  Mostly out of boredom, as my food was yet to arrive, and I didn’t like the other starter.  I liked the confit tomatoes, flavorful, soft, likely slow roasted.  I may have stolen most of them.  I also immediately stole one of the two crispy red onions on top, only to realize that, like in the burger, well, stone cold onion rings aren’t tasty.  They weren’t really crispy either, they were battered, and had been fried at some point, but were really just cold old onion rings.  Not a winning element.

Ojan wasn’t very excited about this fancy Greek salad.  “I wanted a normal Greek salad!”, he pouted.
Sweet Potato Fries.
When I pointed out to the server that we had ordered sweet potato fries, we were asked if we still wanted them.  Given that I didn’t like the starter, I quickly said yes, even though Ojan didn’t want them.  They arrived 10 minutes later.

I’m very glad I asked for them.  They were awesome.  Like the regular fries, they were delivered piping hot and fresh.  Seriously, right out of the fryer!  They really did a great job delivering fried items as soon as they were ready.

Unlike the regular fries, these were a thin style.  They were super crispy, I think battered in some way?  They had a nice sweet potato flavor.  They were served with ketchup, and I would have liked something else, like a honey mustard, or even the special sauce from the burger, but, still, very good.  I devoured the entire pot.  Ojan didn’t even get one.  He was done eating at this point anyway.

These were really, truly great sweet potato fries, and the best I’ve had in years.
Farmer's Cheese and Naan.
“Turmeric chili oil, roasted carrots, coriander.”

Finally, finally, 10 minutes after Ojan’s, my dish arrived.  It was … really unique.  Presentation-wise,  on the plus side, it too was served on a wooden plater, with a special area for the hot cast iron with the cheese inside.  But, on the minus side the “naan” was strangely torn into chunks along the side.  I felt my inner Gordon Ramsey coming out, thinking it looked like something someone else discarded.  It really was not appealing.

Anyway, the “naan” also wasn’t really naan.  It was almost really good though, a bit dense and doughy, a bit crispy, nice grilled flavor, slight char on top.  But it was crazy oily.  The greasy level ruined it unfortunately.

The cheese was unique.  I expected cubes of fresh cheese, like paneer, since it was called “Farmer’s cheese” and served with naan, but instead it was a soft cheese, and served hot.  It didn’t have much flavor itself, but, it was nice to spread on the naan.  It did make me wish it was burrata though, or a nice herbed ricotta …

The chili oil was fascinating.  It was very spicy.  This dish had some serious kick.  And there was tons of the oil.  At first, I’ll admit, it looked crazy.  Cheese in a big pool of oil?  But, the oil worked as a dip for the bread, and I found myself dipping the already greasy bread into the oil and almost enjoying it.  It really would have been better if the bread wasn’t as greasy!  I also enjoyed dipping the sweet potato fries into the spicy oil.

And finally, uh, carrots.  Disks of carrot, nicely cooked, not mushy. They were charred and had a nice smokiness.  The cheese was also charred on top. 

This was a really fascinating dish.  Grilled naan, soft cheese, spicy oil, and charred carrots?  It didn’t make sense, but, it almost really worked.  Good flavors, good textures.  I liked many aspects of it, and really, had the bread just not been as greasy, I really would have loved it.  Still, very unique, and not at all what I’d expect in an airline lounge.  Not quite a main dish, but, with our food, and an upcoming meal on the flight, it was more than enough.
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