If there’s something I love as much as good food, it’s travel. As frequent readers know, I was recently in Hawaii, visiting some friends. I got there by flying on a United Airlines flight from Newark to Honolulu, in “United First”. Overall, the food was pretty good, though getting a vegetarian option was quite the challenge…I called United well ahead of time to request a vegetarian meal. (Typically, airlines require you to request a special meal at least 24 hours in advance, although I’ve had some success getting airlines’ attention on twitter with less than 24 hours to go.) The conversation I had with United’s customer service was among the most bizarre I’ve had in a long time. It went something like this:
Me: I’d like to request a vegetarian meal.
United: Okay, I can offer you an Asian meal or a Jain meal.
Me: No, just a regular vegetarian meal is fine.
United: I can offer you a Jain meal.
Me: I’d just like an ovo-lacto vegetarian meal. Isn’t that an option?
United: The Jain culture is an ancient culture going back thousands of years…
Me: I know what the Jain culture is! I just don’t want a Jain meal!
So… yeah. It was pretty weird. In the end I didn’t request any special meal and just took my chances, hoping that one of the standard options would be vegetarian. I was half-right (more on that later).
The service started with some warm nuts, which are de rigueur in premium cabins for some reason. I actually don’t understand why; I find the nuts typically way too salty and not that great. But in any case, that’s what we started with.
The first course was a salad, which was fairly limp and uninteresting. I understand that in “first class”, there’s some pressure to serve what purports to be a three-course meal. But getting a bowl of wilted lettuce isn’t really all that impressive. And it’s not clear in this picture but the tomato and cucumber were still frozen. What the what?
The meal picked up from there, though. There was, in fact, a vegetarian option on the regular menu–a cheese ravioli with a nice tomato sauce. The sauce was tangy and had a hint of basil, which really picked it up. I thought the ravioli were unusual, though: some of them seemed to be made with basil (or some other herbs), and others were not. You can see the contrast in the picture below; the ravioli in the center is plain but the others seem to be a little more exotic.The basil ravioli was definitely better than the plain, which came off a bit one-note. But the tomato sauce really picked up the slack, playing the role of the sidekick who overshadows the main event. The asparagus was a nice, and simple, touch.
Then it was time for dessert, which came in the form of a coffee-and-ice-cream-sundae cart. Nice! I had an ice cream sundae with “everything” (hot fudge, nuts, whipped cream, cherry), a coffee, and an after-dinner drink.
I think airlines like these sundae carts (I’ve also seen them on Delta’s BusinessElite) because they’re a fairly easy way to present an interesting dessert. I like the ice cream carts because I so rarely have ice cream — I think the last two times I’ve had ice cream have been on flights — so it’s a nice treat.
I said earlier that I was “half right” about the airline offering a vegetarian option among its standard options. UA15 is an eleven-hour flight, so it offers two food services: a lunch, which I described above, and a pre-landing snack. The pre-landing snack was a chicken sandwich of some sort, and there was no vegetarian alternative. This meant I was really hungry landed in Honolulu.
Overall, my experience with United was… weird. Trying to order a vegetarian meal was such a Kafkaesque experience that I just gave up. I was happy to find a vegetarian option among the regular choices, but I was disappointed that there was no pre-landing snack. On the merits, the food was a mixed bag. The salad was basically worthless, but the ravioli was actually quite good, and the ice cream sundae was a nice ending to the meal. I wonder what would have happened if they’d actually had a vegetarian meal on board for me! I won’t assign star ratings to airplane food, but the short of it is that United’s effort was just acceptable. Not bad, but nothing to brag about. In the coming weeks and months, I’ll expand on the “Airplane Food” category and review some of the vegetarian options on other airlines–including Alitalia, whose “Magnifica” (business class) was recently voted “Best Airline Cuisine” by Global Traveler magazine. Stay tuned!