I flew to London just to try a new limited-time inflight meal. British Airways almost didn’t deliver
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I love the traditional British Sunday roast dinner.
It’s a fun, perfect comfort meal, defined by its roasted meat and iconic accoutrements, namely the gravy, the vegetables, the potatoes and of course, the Yorkshire pudding — the perfect vessel for gravy and deliciousness.
There’s no specific reason that I enjoy a roast dinner so much. I enjoyed it a few times when I lived in Scotland for graduate school, both at friends’ homes and in pubs, so nostalgia is certainly part of it. A streak of Britophilia adds to the allure, though I’m a fan of plenty of other iconic British dishes as well.
So when British Airways sent over a press release that I normally wouldn’t have given a second glance, the delicious-looking roast at the top caught my eye.
As international travel slowly reopens, albeit with fits and starts, British Airways is offering a limited-time “Best of British” menu in business and first class on long-haul flights out of London Heathrow (LHR). For September, that includes a traditional roast dinner with beef, and chicken pies (flights to India feature roasted chicken instead of beef).
I had to try it. And since the U.K. is now open without quarantine to vaccinated Americans, and the TPG team loves fun travel stories, I decided to take a flight to London to write a few pandemic-era flight reviews (stay tuned for those) and see if British Airways’ caterer Do & Co could really pull off a proper roast in the sky.
I flew in Friday night, and out on Monday. With the weekend to spend in between, I decided to go up to Edinburgh, Scotland, to visit friends who I haven’t seen in far too long. While I was up there, my friend Katie and I decided to spend our Sunday enjoying a proper roast, so that I had a good basis for comparison.
The best roast in Britain
I usually travel to or through the U.K. several times a year, whether for work, to see football, to visit friends or to do some or all of the above on the way to somewhere else.
Thanks to the pandemic, the last time I visited was a brief trip in February 2020.
The last time I had a proper roast, meanwhile, was in 2017, when a friend stayed with me and cooked one up in my Brooklyn apartment.
So for my roast Sunday before my flight, Katie suggested we make sure it was a good one.
We chose Kyloe in Edinburgh, a steakhouse above the Rutland Hotel at the edge of the city’s Old and New towns.
Kyloe was crowned Britain’s best roast dinner in 2013, and the best in Scotland in 2016 and 2017, making it a perfect option. The restaurant also offers a Sunday roast package for two for 65 pounds (about $88), which includes all the essentials: roast beef, Yorkshire puddings, roasted potatoes, creamed cabbage, and roasted root vegetables with gravy and horseradish sauce on the side. It even included dessert.
A few minutes after we sat down, a waiter came by to take our drink orders and ask how we wanted our roast (medium-rare). We decided to get a bottle of red wine, partly because that’s the best thing to go with a roast dinner (I’m standing by for your emails disagreeing), and partly because Kyloe had some good prices on bottles compared to the cost of two glasses each.
The roast would take about 30 minutes, the waiter said, so we started with a bread basket. Which was delicious, but a tactical error: We had a lot of food ahead of us.
The roast came, and it was a beaut.
The meal was phenomenal. The beef, a chateaubriand roast, was decadent: soft, tender, perfectly cooked and full of flavor. I spent my jet-lagged waking hours that night unable to forget how perfect it tasted — especially with the savory gravy.
Nearly stealing the show: the duck fat-roasted potatoes. Crispy and crackling on the outside, soft and steaming hot on the inside, teeming with flavor, these came close to besting the beef in the battle for star of the show.
Roasted root vegetables with a bit of horseradish sauce offered a nice sharp contrast to break up the decadence, while creamed spinach served as a palate cleanser.
Finally, the crucial Yorkshire pudding served as a delicious, crispy carby vessel to mop up every last remaining drop of gravy.
It took some hard work, but we polished off the meal between the two of us. But we forgot one thing: Dessert was included.
The warm vanilla cake, with a thin layer of what tasted like raspberry jam and marzipan on the bottom, was accompanied by warm, thin custard and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
By the time we finished dessert and settled the bill, we were stuffed.
Fortunately, Edinburgh is a beautiful and extremely walkable city, making it easy to burn off some of the meal.
The second-best roast on British Airways
To be clear, I would never hold an airplane meal — no matter the carrier or the cabin — to the same standard as an award-winning restaurant on terra firma. No matter how well prepared, the innate challenges of mass catering an aircraft — let alone preparing and reheating a dish, or serving it at 35,000 feet — create a unique set of difficulties that airlines and caterers use a variety of creative methods to overcome.
Instead, what an airline tries to do with a named dish like this is to provide a tribute and a close representation, while also supplying a dish that tastes good in the air, rather than an exact replica of an entree made fresh on the ground.
Particularly in international first class, my preference is always for something that’s done well, rather than something unnecessarily intricate.
So for the British Airways roast, based on the press release, I was looking out for a few things: Would the meat be flavorful and not overcooked or tough? Would the potatoes taste rich and have a crispy outside? And most crucially: Could the airline actually pull off the crispy and hot Yorkshire pudding? That seemed like the biggest challenge. And if the answer was yes, would this actually taste like a decent Sunday roast, or would it just be a vague likeness, a stand-alone dish featuring beef, potatoes and starch?
The roast is available in Club World — British Airways’ long-haul business class — as well as first class, although the airline did initially not elaborate on whether the meals would be identical or somehow different. It was simply described as featuring the “21-day aged beef,” roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, vegetables and horseradish cream with gravy.
The publicity photos published by the airline suggested that portion size might be the difference, as well as possibly the cut of meat.
A spokesperson for the airline confirmed that there were some differences between the two dishes. The first-class version offers “21 day aged roasted fillet of grass-fed Hereford beef with roasted rooster potatoes, buttered British runner beans and garden peas, honey roasted heritage carrots, Yorkshire pudding, red wine gravy and horseradish cream.”
The Club World, or business-class version, typically consists of “Slow roasted short rib of grass-fed scotch beef with roasted rooster potatoes, mashed swede, garden peas, runner beans and carrots, parsnips, Yorkshire pudding, red wine gravy and horseradish cream.”
TPG bought me a first-class ticket home to Boston, so I’d have the chance to try the higher-tier version and see how it compared to the real thing.
The flight started out pleasantly, despite a bit of confusion at the gate over COVID-19 test verification, with some time spent in the newly reopened Concorde Room at Heathrow. Nearly as soon as I boarded the plane, Rebecca, one of the first-class flight attendants, came by to welcome me onboard and offer a glass of Champagne.
I was seated in seat 2K — the second seat on the right side of the cabin — and watched as six other first-class passengers boarded. As they settled in, the flight attendants came around asking for dinner orders. Despite boarding first, mine was the last taken, and as I ordered the roast, Rebecca told me that they had already all been ordered — they had run out.
This was a not a challenge I’d expected to run into. A big reason to pay a premium for first class over business class is the higher level of service, including meal service, so it’s disappointing to see an airline fail to cater enough of each meal option for the cabin. Even if they don’t cater one of each dish for each passenger, they can usually successfully make an educated guess about how many of each meal they’ll need.
When the flight attendant asked my second choice, I asked if there was any way I’d be able to get the roast — I figured maybe one of the other passengers had offered a second choice. I did not want to take away another passenger’s first-choice dinner, but I also booked this trip for the express purpose of this meal! I didn’t want to go back to my editors empty-handed (though I did not say that I was a reporter or that I planned to write something about the dish).
So she offered to bring one up from business class, which worked for me, although she couldn’t explain the exact differences (“They’re pretty much the same, aside from portion size,” she said). Still, as long as I could try a version of it, the trip would work out.
The meal service started with a canape platter shortly after takeoff — I also had a glass of whisky.
Shortly after I finished the canapes, my table was set and my appetizer was brought out — I ordered the spiced carrot and barley salad, which was quite tasty, though obviously not roast-related.
I ordered a glass of the Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Classe wine. It was a softer wine than the rioja I had at Kyloe, but I figured it would pair well with the beef.
Finally, it was time for the main event.
The presentation was solid. Naturally, airplane food served in the air will never look as good as it does in promo shots taken on the ground. But it was a respectable effort. It was hurt a bit by the fact that these were business-class portions, meant to be served in a dish all at once on a tray, instead of replated on first-class dishware.
Nevertheless, it looked appealing and certainly harked back to the previous day’s roast in Edinburgh. And it actually tasted great.
The beef was quite flavourful, helped along by the gravy poured over it. It had the consistency of a standard short-rib dish — soft and pullable, falling apart with just a bit of pressure from my fork.
This was clearly the business-class version – and not the rare fuller cut offered in first. While the version I got from business class was a bit overcooked, that didn’t hurt the flavor, and worked perfectly well for the short rib. While I wish I had been able to try the 21-day aged cut with the first-class meal, but I still enjoyed this. I would have liked to see how the airline managed to heat rare pre-sliced meat without drying it out. I also wish there had been a bit more gravy served with the Club World version, but it was still plenty.
The carrots served alongside the beef were tasty. There was also a dish that seemed to be some kind of mashed vegetable — I later realized this was the mashed swede, or rutabega — with peas and runner beans, also pretty tasty. The horseradish sauce seemed to be missing, although it’s possible that it was mixed in with the peas and just not very strong.
The really impressive parts, though, were the other, more important sides.
Despite my doubts, the Yorkshire pudding was perfect. It was warm and crispy on the outside, and pulled apart perfectly. The first thought that I and many of my friends had when we saw the airline’s announcement was that the pudding would surely be soggy and gross. Not so. I’m not sure how they pulled it off, but it was a perfect version of the real thing.
The potatoes, too, were delicious, crispy and piping hot on the inside. The menu said they were roasted in beef fat, which would certainly explain the flavor. They were perfectly reheated, and while not quite as good as the ones I had on the ground, were certainly comparable. I only wish I had more gravy to enjoy mopping up with the potatoes and the pudding.
Finally, there was the spinach, which was perhaps the most boring and easiest of the sides, but certainly a pleasant contrast to the richness of the rest of the dish.
Dessert was an elderflower-and-white-chocolate cake with elderflower sorbet and “compressed apple,” which seemed to be gelatinous apple — it was actually quite tasty.
I enjoyed the roast on British Airways. Maybe I’m easily impressed — it was certainly nothing like the meal you’d find in first class on Japan’s All Nippon Airways, after all — but it was tasty and generally well presented. And the trickiest part of the roast dinner in the air — the Yorkshire pudding — was shockingly flawless.
The most disappointing aspect was the fact that the airline ran out of the meal for the first-class cabin. Frankly, that’s unacceptable. People pay for first-class to enjoy the comfort and the service. While it’s ultimately very much a first-world problem, it’s one that severely affects the passenger experience. Especially in a case like this, where the airline is heavily promoting a special meal, it must figure out a way to make sure an appropriate number are catered, whether that’s letting passengers select their meal in advance, catering enough of each meal and using the excess as crew meals, or something else.
The flight attendants were phenomenal throughout the flight, and I appreciated Rebecca’s efforts to find a way to make it work for me — ultimately snagging the business-class version from the next cabin and replating it along with the sides.
Thanks to her, this trip’s purpose was achieved. But if I were a passenger who was traveling for a special occasion on a once-in-a-lifetime flight, and who had paid full cash for the ticket, I’d be quite disappointed.
Featured photo by David Slotnick/The Points Guy.
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