In the comments to a recent post about food (in which I wax philosophical about chili coconut shrimp), Mike and kd5mdk engaged me in a lively (7 comments long!) discussion about steak on domestic airplanes.
My position is that steak on domestic planes is disgusting. It's overcooked, difficult to eat with the not-sharp-enough knife they give you, and is never a decent cut of meat. For all those reasons, the meat tastes crappy and results in an unpleasant eating experience.
Mike and kd5mdk argued that the steak is actually pretty decent given the context ("a 1980s era MD80"). They also claim that steak — because it is inherently delicious — pretty much always tastes better than the alternative.
On a recent flight from YYZ to LAX, a golden opportunity presented itself. When the flight attendant presented me with a menu, I found the following main course choices:
- Beef Fillet with Gorgonzola Mushroom Sauce: Grilled fillet of beef offered with a porcini mushroom and Gorgonzola cheese sauce, accompanied by wax beans and whipped potatoes and turnips.
- Stuffed Shells Pomodoro: Pasta shells filled with a four cheese blend, accompanied by a red roasted tomato sauce.
Of course I had to have the beef, if for no other reason then I wanted the opportunity to talk about it here on upgrd.com.
After greens topped with an "artichoke, wild mushroom and pea salad" and a chicken appetizer ("cajun-style roasted chicken breast offered on a fresh corn salad") this main course was served to me:
Before I get to steak itself, I should address the accouterments. The wax beans were green and crisp and appeared fresh. And the potatoes were plentiful. That's about all I have to say nice.
The wax beans were steamed (presumably to keep them looking green and fresh-looking) so that the flavor was sucked out of them. They tasted like nothing. The potatoes were over-whipped. When you over-whip potatoes, the starches congeal and you're left with a pile of potatoes the consistency and flavor of paste. The menu listed turnips, and there may have been one or two little chunks, but I sure didn't notice them. Furthermore, the sauce — which was supposed to have porcini mushrooms and Gorgonzola cheese — was a sticky goo made from over-salted reduction of beef jus and a healthy dash of a thickening agent like arrowroot or corn starch. To top it off, the menu-recommended ONEHOPE Zinfandel didn't stand a chance. It tasted flat and boring.
As for the steak... A properly cooked piece of fillet should be seasoned, then cooked over high heat. This sort of treatment (on the grill or in a ripping-hot pan) allows the outside of the meat to sear, leaving a brown color that equals flavor. (Foodies call this the "Maillard reaction.") This also allows the inside to cook slowly, but not too much. A well-made steak is brown (even a little black), almost crispy on the outside, and soft and tender (and pink, if not red!) on the inside. The steak I got was well-seared, but that's the only nice thing I can say about it.
The plate was served piping hot right out of the oven/warmer, which was disastrous for the steak. First, steak (fillet no less!) should never be served well-done. Doing so results in a piece of meat that's gray and flavorless. It also leaves you with meat the texture of shoe leather. Second, steak needs to rest after it cooks and before it's served. This allows the juices to "chill out" so that they don't come gushing out as soon as you cut into the meat. It also allows all the flavors in the meat to sort of "come together."
This particular steak was pre-cooked at the catering facility. Then it was loaded onto the plane and reheated and immediately served to me. So I had a steak that was cooked twice and not allowed to rest. As a result, here's what I got (photographed after I cut off a chunk):
As you can see, the meat is gray in the middle. The picture doesn't do the texture justice, but trust me... it had the mouthfeel of a pair of Doc Martens. And see that watery puddle sitting on the plate? That used to be inside a juicy piece of meat.
I had to hack at the meat with the stupid knife they gave me. The resulting hunks of meat were misshapen and extremely chewy. One "bite" of steak took two or three minutes to chew.
I ate about three bites of this abomination and then signaled to the flight attendant that I was done. She asked if I'd like the pasta instead, but by then I'd lost my appetite.
Steak on a domestic airplane = fail.