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The Best Meal I've Ever Had (On An Airplane)

Updated: Jan 2

I've had a lot of memorable inflight meals. I can vividly remember a succulent (and well prepared) peppercorn steak with wild mushrooms and rice pilaf on an American Airlines flight, a little less than a decade ago. I put a lot of stock into airline food quality and presentation because, second to the cabin environment and customer service, a great inflight dining experience can make an otherwise ordinary flight, extraordinary.

When I fly on North American carriers, I am not expecting Michelin Star service or meal quality; after all, most meals are cooked on the ground and reheated in the air. I do, however, appreciate attention to detail. I have been flying between the USA and Japan quite frequently this year, most of the time in business class. I have had United’s and American’s Japanese and western dining services on both routes multiple times, and was pretty used to the food quality both leaving the mainland USA and Japan. While the flavors and presentation are generally good and much better than (most) domestic offerings, it has never blown me away.

For these reasons, I was completely caught slightly off guard by my most recent trip back to the USA from Japan. The logistics of my travels brought me to United. A 9.5-hour flight on their Dreamliner service between Narita and Denver with plenty of time to connect, stop in the lounge and take one more quick flight to Albuquerque. These flights are usually full of United’s top tier status holders. As the airline does not currently offer meal pre-ordering, beyond special dietary restrictions, meals are awarded primarily by status. This usually means I can expect to eat the western dining selection, as the Japanese meals are by far the most popular, and limited in number.

I was pleasantly surprised to be awarded my first choice of meal for this flight – the Japanese Dining Service. United’s service begins roughly 25 minutes after wheels up, with hot towels (oshibori style), then linens, then the main meal service.

In United Polaris, United has started using draped full-sized bar carts. Although I will miss United’s previous Polaris specialty carts, I did appreciate having every drink choice available to me instantly, without the wait while the cabin crew went back to the galley to prepare it. I am a little saddened that United does not serve Japanese whisky on this route, as they do serve Asahi Japanese beer and sake. I am certainly not complaining about the Buffalo Trace.

Starter


The starter tray included Zensai, Sakizuke and Kobachi.

Zensai below- A selection including pike-conger sushi in Kosode style, grilled pork with shishito pepper, stuffed cherry tomato, and summer vegetables "tofuyose" style. The first thing that struck me about this dish, was how incredibly beautifully presented it was, especially for an airplane meal. I spent a good few minutes, admiring the dish, and briefly wondering, were it not for the dish-ware and seats, whether I had, in fact, accidentally boarded United’s Star Alliance partner ANA.


Sakizuke below– Swordfish, shiso, cucumber-tuna roll, with a ponzu gelée. I found the swordfish to be light and quite fresh by both smell and taste. The cucumber-tuna roll was crisp and refreshing, all contrasted by the intense (and surprisingly salty) ponzu gelée. For those unfamiliar with ponzu, it is a citrus based sauce, usually of the same watery consistency of soy sauce. It can be tart in flavor, and it is not to be confused with soy sauce or Mirren. It is often mixed with soy sauce (Ponzu shōyu) which is what I suspect was done to it before it was made into a gelée (hence the saltiness)


Kobachi below- Pureed edamame square, soymilk sauce (the surprise star of this plate), steamed shrimp, chive and radish. I really cannot express how much flavor the soymilk sauce had. It went perfectly for the comparatively flavorless edamame square.


Accompanying all of this was a small ramekin containing pickled vegetables and cucumber, which I suspect is meant for the rice portion of the upcoming main course.

The main course was Grilled red sea bream, yuzu sauce, bamboo leaf, carrot, pickled ginger root, lotus root, pumpkin, spinach served with rice, miso soup. The dish looked incredibly well cooked, and not overdone, as is often the case with some aircraft ovens. The fish skin looked crispy while the yuzu sauce formed a nice glaze. Yuzu is a citrus fruit, similar to an orange or tangerine, but much more tart.

The rice itself was well presented, packaged in a neat wrapping, that gave the feeling of opening a present. When opened, it revealed nicely steamed rice, none of which felt dried out or overdone. The overall quality of this meal was excellent and satisfying, with very few in the manner of textural issues.

At the conclusion of the service, I was offered cheese and Seasonal Japanese wagashi off the dessert cart. I declined the cheese but indulged in wagashi, and some warmed Sake before tucking into a sake induced coma at my seat.

For a single meal, I was impressed by this version of United’s Japanese dining service and would recommend it to anyone seeking to either jumpstart their Japanese experience, or to end it on a high note before reentering the USA. When United Polaris Business Class was launched in 2016 by United CEO Oscar Muñoz, it promised to develop new and elevated culinary experience for its business passengers. I’ve had several Polaris flights since then, and for the most part can attest that the meal choices are better than the carrier’s previous business product. However, I can now truly say, that I’ve had a meal worthy of the vision established in that beautifully lit hall in 2016.

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