The college cafeteria has come a long way. Think trays laden with helpings of mystery meat, mashed potatoes, and frozen vegetables. Today, fresh and wholesome are mantras in campus dining halls (and many don't even use trays anymore, reducing waste and lowering energy costs). For a snapshot of Boston's college dining scene, two hungry Globe correspondents who attend local universities swapped campuses for dinner. Here are their impressions:
Northeastern: The mess hall of the future
Many students sit in bunches, inches off the floor on scarlet sofas and chairs. They talk, chew, and scoop colorful morsels off of white square plates.
The new International Village at Northeastern University boasts the mess hall of the future, beaming out onto Tremont Street from walls of glass.
I always thought my school, Boston University, led the city when it came to cutting-edge campuses. But the 20 computers and 11 mounted flat screens in the Village dining hall made me reconsider on a recent evening. And I was still just in the entrance.
|Falafel on flatbread|
Immediately, I realized this was fine college dining. First offering: “Meatloaf Panini with sautéed red onions and spicy ketchup” -- an out-of-place twist on Mom’s special.
I moved on, inspecting the 10 dining stations, amused at the countless signs offering advice. “Learn your limits, trust yourself,” one read. “It’s your life, make it happen,” another encouraged.
Next up, the vegetarian headquarters. Nathaniel Francis, a server in a black Oriental robe, flashed a smile: “What’ll it be?”
He was serving crepes filled with vegetables. The stuffing of broccoli, squash, mushrooms, and carrots was served with our without salsa. On top, Francis ladled on coulis, a creamy puree of more vegetables.
Around the corner, veggie burgers and falafel patties sizzled in two pans. I ordered a falafel on flatbread, garnished with tzatziki, tomato, and scallions, served with a side of rice and lentil pilaf. Francis estimated that each dish contained about 100 calories.
The crepe was manageable as a finger food for one bite, before collapsing all over the plate. Despite its untidy looks – a mess of yellow and red – it was rich in flavor. Plus, it contained a day’s worth of veggies in one dish.
The falafel was also delicious, though much was a thick slab of flatbread. The lentils and rice were dry and tasted of soil.
Round two drew me to the Tandoor, a counter featuring all Indian fare. I asked for a bit of everything and was handed a dish piled with pork vindaloo, teriyaki tofu, yellow rice, and curry chicken, beans, and potatoes.
The vindaloo was stocked with flavor, heavy and spicy. The tofu gave me a strong teriyaki kick. But the chicken and potatoes were cold and bland. Both were charred, but that heat and flavor were missing.
Stuffed, I headed to a secluded corner of the high-ceilinged cafeteria, where a multi-tiered conveyor belt accepted my dirty dishes. Before it, two wide buckets accepted even more; signs encourage diners to ‘go green’ and dump nearly everything into the compost, including napkins.
To be sure, unhealthy options abound – burgers, waffle fries, pizza. For dessert, many diners snatched up handfuls of freshly baked cookies or mixed soft-serve sundaes for dessert.
Ten cereal dispensers hinted at students' breakfast preference: Eight options that included whole-grain and bran offerings sat full; tubes of Cocoa Krispies and Cap’n Crunch were empty.
Boston University: Amid fresh array, a mixed grade
I am not one to turn down a free meal, and I didn't have to at Boston University's Claflin-Sleeper Dining Hall.
Credit card in hand, I approached the register attendant and asked how much dinner would cost. Although I said I was not a BU student, I was waved through. Money saved: $11.95.
I was amazed at the number of options waiting to be taste-tested. I was greeted by aromas of the wide array of foods cooking, the sound of friends chatting, and the hustle and bustle of staff. Now to see if the food tasted as good as it smelled.
I began with the macaroni and cheese. It was 300 calories for an appetizer-size serving, the attendant said. The macaroni was made, while you watched, from several types of cheese. On a cold night, the tasty dish felt like a meal I would eat at home after a long day of sledding. Many students seemed to agree.
Another popular stop was the make-your-own quesadilla station. Students lined up and created their own dish with such fillings as cheese, chicken, onions, and peppers. The attendants worked five skillets at once. Both delicious and convenient, this dish was served piping hot and the chicken tasted super fresh.
In fact, fresh food was what I was after. Fresh Food Co. manages the dining hall, which boasts many healthy options.
There's a huge fresh food and veggie bar, and the brick oven pizza station offers whole wheat pizza dough. But it seemed as though many students veered toward the barbecued food and cheeseburger stations. When I asked food preparers how many calories were in a certain dish, many shrugged their shoulders.
Vegan options are plentiful -- from soft-serve, chocolate-and-vanilla vegan ice cream to veggie burgers – which, as a carnivore, I tried and thought tasted just like a regular cheeseburger, a nice surprise.
The barbecue food station was so popular that I overheard one cafeteria worker telling a colleague that he had run out of barbecued ribs and was about to run out of barbecued chicken.
I tried the chicken with a biscuit. The meat was coated in a tangy sauce and the chicken was fresh, but the biscuit was stale. The beef stew with white rice was a better option -- the stew was freshly made with vegetables and sauce.
The turkey scallopini was a disappointment. Although the breast chunks were delectable and piping hot, they came with runny noodles, which made the meal as a whole bland-tasting.
Overlooking the calorie count, I ventured over to the dessert station.
Overcooked brownies and stale cookies were among offerings that night. The better -- albeit none-too-healthy -- option was a rich mud pie, served in a large gardening pot with a spade as a server. Filled with chocolate cake, pudding, whipped cream, and gummi worms, this almost made up for some of the lackluster entree options.
At the very least, it made a free meal more satisfying.
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