News Flash: Old-school cruise cuisine has been tossed overboard! The ship has sailed on cruise classics like veggies smothered in hollandaise and floating baked Alaskas. Top lines now partner with celeb chefs, iconic food magazines, and revered cooking schools. Shipboard chefs obsess over primo ingredients, sense of place (so long, Mexican buffets in the Mediterranean), and the latest trends. Now, many at-sea restaurants are as cutting-edge and quality-driven as the crème de la crème on terra firma. Even shore excursions stoke gastronomic passion—think cooking with a countess in a Venetian palace. So next time you’re contemplating a bon voyage, consider these ships. You won’t want to go ashore.…
Crystal Cruises was the first luxury line to ally with superstar chefs and restaurateurs, promising top-notch dining from stern to bow. And the 1,070-passenger Serenity, which just underwent a $25 million redesign in May, still delivers. Crystal Dining Room, the main restaurant, nails intricate preparations nightly while rarely repeating menus. Prego has dishes from Valentino Los Angeles’ and Vegas’ venerable Italian restaurants by Piero Selvaggio— and the best Caesar salad at sea. Nobu-ites flock to Silk Road and the Sushi Bar, where Nobu-trained chefs turn out tuna tataki and miso black cod as pristine as those served in Nobu restaurants from Los Angeles to London.
Winemakers’ dinners in the Vintage Room are over-the-top blowouts, with rare bottles like 1959 Château Lafite-Rothschild. But even the simplest food at casual venues shine: Croissants evoke France, Kobe burgers drip juice, and house-barbequed duck quesadillas are smoking. During Wine & Food Festival cruises, Alan Wong (his Honolulu Alan Wong’s restaurant is a President Obama fave) is among the star acts. Shore excursions, including classes with an Italian countess and exploring terroir at Europe’s great vineyards, stand out from the pack. Come 2012, Crystal Cruises goes all-inclusive, meaning fine wines and spirits, and all dining and gratuities are complimentary.
Silversea Cruises, an all-suite line with all-inclusive fares, upped the luxury-ship ante by debuting Silver Spirit in 2009. The 540-passenger vessel touts six fine-dining venues, an industry first. There’s no chance of gastronomic ennui as restaurants radically differ. Seishin, a teeny Zen sanctuary of polished marble and rich wood, presents fanciful Asian fare. Its nine-course tasting menu, with Petrossian caviar sorbet, tempura oysters, and teppan-grilled Wagyu beef, is a boat-rocker. Stars is a buzzy Deco-inspired supper club where guests party over eclectic small plates and play with table condiments like Himalayan rock salt. Under starry skies at the open-air Grill, passengers sear Berkshire pork chops and Colorado prime rib eye over red-hot lava rocks. Le Champagne is an octagon-shaped, Brazilian cherrywood knockout. The room, menu, and wine list were designed with the prestigious Relais & Châteaux, Silversea Cruises’ culinary partner. Guests go gaga over elaborate six-course menus with exquisite wine pairings; Culinary Arts Voyages feature this exclusive hotel-and-restaurant association’s Michelin-starred chefs. The main Restaurant excels in modern international cuisine, while La Terrazza, which showcases the Slow Food philosophy, serves hand-sliced prosciutto that’s the stuff of dreams. But perhaps passengers’ biggest rush comes with the fancy room service, served course-by-course by butlers with polish and aplomb.
This ship put the sexy back in dining. The main Restaurant sports sheer white drapes, theatrically descending from a soaring ceiling. Restaurant 2 dazzles with black leather chairs, red banquettes, and purple pillows. And you know the typical cruise ship buffet restaurant? Here it’s called The Colonnade and it resembles a smart Miami eatery with stunning ocean views. But don’t think the 450-passenger, all-suite, all-inclusive Odysseyrests on its movie-star looks alone. Big-shot chef Charlie Palmer, who owns Manhattan’s Aureole as well as the Charlie Palmer steak house chain, is Seabourn’s culinary consultant.
Menus onboard embrace Palmer’s modern American cooking style prepared with French techniques. USDA prime beef, Valrhona chocolate, and premium American-farmed caviar are lavishly used. And every meal exudes creativity. In Restaurant 2, chestnut and porcini mushroom soup, reduced to an essence, is paired with a honey-spiced squab-and-fig empañada. And the Restaurant has house-made chocolate-drenched ice cream bonbons on wooden sticks. Passengers linger over foamy cappuccinos and golden brioche at the barista-manned Coffee Bar in the morning, and while away afternoons on deck with complimentary caviar and Champagne. Evening indulgences include, yes, you guessed it, more caviar and Champagne, in lounges, on guest verandas, and back on deck.
Oceania Cruises Marina
The newly launched Marina isn’t a luxury ship (it’s ranked “upper premium”), but the 1,250-passenger vessel rocks food fashion. The Bon Appétit Culinary Center (affiliated with Epicurious’ sister magazine) offers hands-on instruction, with 24 impressively equipped cooking stations. Long counters allow passengers to tackle everything from fresh fettuccine to chocolate-hazelnut ganache tart in single or multiple sessions. But gustatory rewards can be reaped without donning an apron at all of Oceania’s restaurants.The cream-and-gold-hued Grand Dining Room serves both modern continental cuisine and dishes from spa partner Canyon Ranch.
La Reserve by Wine Spectator, another magazine partnership, offers wine tastings and seven-course wine-pairing dinners. Jacques, named for consultant Jacques Pépin, is a charmer; this bistro plays French chansons and displays art from the master chef’s personal collection. Rotisserie veal rack with olive tapenade and duck leg cassoulet are standouts. At Red Ginger, multicolored glass Buddha heads, orchids, and ebony wood dazzle up the décor. The menu romps through Asia, with Thai vegetable green curry, tempura sole, and clay-pot caramelized chicken. And there’s more: Polo Grill for USDA Prime roast beef aged 28 days; Toscana for Italian cuisine, featuring regional balsamic vinegar and olive oil menus; Waves for upscale poolside treats. But dinner in Privée, the $1,000 up-to-eight-guest custom extravaganza in an all-white room with one marble table and crocodile-skin chairs, may be Marina‘s crowning wine-and-dine experience.
The world’s first all-suite, all-balcony ship affiliates with a legend, Le Cordon Bleu of Paris. This culinary academy trains Signatures restaurant chefs for this 700-passenger all-inclusive Regent ship, and consults on the menus for all of the restaurants: Signatures feels posh and Parisian, with floral upholstered chairs and tall tapered candles. Its classic fare, such as Camembert, celery, and walnut quiche, and rack of lamb with morels, issuperbe. And on select sailings, chefs teach hands-on classes at Le Cordon Bleu Workshops.
Gears switch dramatically at Prime 7, where guests tuck into prime steaks. This clubby room has an intoxicating aroma of buttery leather and juicy steaks. And the 36-ounce porterhouse, sizzling on a marble slab and wheeled tableside, is the jewel of the joint. Enjoy the foie gras slider starter and splurge on truffle fries, because indulgence is balanced by Canyon Ranch SpaClub dishes at Compass Rose, the main dining venue. In La Veranda, guests are wowed by blistering-crust Margherita pizzas cooked in wood-burning ovens. This buffet restaurant gives a sense of where you are with the food reflecting the ship’s locale at the very moment you are enjoying it. And past and present converge beautifully at the Pool Grill. Oversize burgers are grilled to order, ice cream is hand-dipped, and milk shakes are blended in old-fashioned ice cream parlor machines. Not surprisingly, this hangout is shipboard nirvana.
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