Another season of sailing is complete here at Cruise Critic, and we’re wrapping up our hits and misses for the year. Today, we examine our best cruise dining memory of 2015 and invite you to share your own:
On my Celebrity Cruises vacation through the Norwegian Fjords on Eclipse, my husband and I, along with our traveling companions, splurged for AquaClass. The upgrade ended up being our best decision, thanks to our sommelier, Jelena, from Serbia. After we met her at an extra-fee wine tasting, she went out of her way to stop by our table and offer pairings at every meal. The service was so great — and her choices so on point — that we enjoyed the included restaurant much more than the extra-fee specialty meals.
I’m new to cruising and fear I may have peaked too soon in terms of top-notch dining experiences. On Viking Star, I tagged along with the head chef to shop for ingredients at Barcelona’s La Boqueria market. We picked up (and tasted) Manchego cheese, Iberico ham and tons of seafood which was served later in the evening at the Kitchen Table, a private dining room adjacent to one of the ship’s bustling kitchens. The chef served tapas dish after tapas dish (including boiled barnacles, a strange but delightful delicacy) and cooked up a storm in a paella pan. I left feeling full of food, joy and cooking tips.
Gluten-free meals are rarely on anyone’s list of top dining experiences, but the gluten-free chocolate chip pancakes the chef onboard Pearl Mist made for me on my St. Lawrence and Canadian Maritimes cruise were to die for. It’s probably a good thing I discovered them later on in the voyage, since once I’d had them, I wanted them for breakfast every morning.
Windstar’s Deck Barbecue Gala, held once a cruise, is a not-to-be-missed smorgasbord. On a cruise around the Caribbean on Wind Surf, and then again on a Mediterranean sailing on Star Pride, the bountiful offerings represented the regions in which we cruised (lobster and bouillabaisse on respective menus, for instance). The food was delicious. Even better: What made the experiences both stand out was the convivial mood of passengers onboard, all mingling together, music in the background, and a spectacular backdrop as ships anchored, whether off a lush tropical island or the mountainous Riviera.
On a Disney Dream cruise during Halloween this year, I dressed as Vanellope Von Schweetz, my favorite character from Disney movie “Wreck-It Ralph.” Coincidentally, Dream had just launched a Vanellope-themed sweet shop onboard. When I went inside to take photos — in my Vanellope costume — the crew members working behind the counter insisted on giving me free gelato, complete with a dish that looked like Vanellope’s racecar. It was a memorable experience, and the gelato was pretty tasty, too.
You know you’re having a great dining experience when your entree — in this case, the pasta of the day, a truffle potato ravioli — is so amazing that you order a second plate of it and all your dinner companions demand to try some… and then, your friends special order several more plates for dinner the next night, so they can repeat the experience. This was exactly what happened when dining at Manfredi’s, the Italian specialty restaurant on Viking Star. I also enjoyed a salad and a beautiful mushroom soup. Too bad I was too full to eat dessert.
It’s a toss-up between P&O Cruises’ Britannia’s Epicurean restaurant, and Food Republic on Norwegian Cruise Line’s latest ship, Norwegian Escape. The former is best defined as ‘fine dining meets molecular gastronomy’ — so you have all the trappings of a traditional high-end cruise ship restaurant, such as smart surrounds, attentive waiters and a menu that looks traditional, but is anything but. A classic dish such as chicken liver parfait will be served on a platter with liquid nitrogen billowing out; amuse bouche might come in the form of bloody mary lollipops, with a tiny dash of Worcestershire sauce in its center; a starter of salt-and-pepper oyster and jumbo prawn tempura comes with an artist’s paint tube, filled with sweet pimento sauce; and a ‘poached egg’ is in fact made up of a mango ‘yolk’ and a ‘white’ of coconut milk. But I also adored Food Republic on Norwegian Escape, for completely different reasons. It’s a concept that originated from the Pubbelly Restaurant Group in Miami, combining the best cuisine from its four restaurants. The food was simple, honest and plain delicious: Korean spicy chicken wings, wagyu beef, chorizo and dates, sushi — all ordered via iPad.
Nobody does seafood fresher than Windstar in Tahiti. I watched as a little boat pulled up next to Wind Spirit and fishermen handed over two massive tuna to the crew, supervised by the chef. Hours later, we were eating it at a barbecue on Bora Bora. ‘Poisson cru’ — the Tahitian specialty of raw tuna, coconut milk and lime juice — might just be my favorite meal in the world, and Bora Bora might just be the most beautiful place in the South Pacific. Combined with sunset on the beach and my boyfriend by my side, it was a dining moment to savor forever.
Probably the ultimate cruise dining experience at sea is Viking Ocean Cruises’ The Kitchen Table — led by your chef, the excursion is a combination tour of a local market/cooking demo/education on a culture’s cuisine/multicourse love letter to the region’s food. On my Viking Star sailing I was lucky enough to catch glimpses of two Kitchen Table experiences (typically held about once or twice per cruise). Shopping in Ajaccio, Corsica with culinary director for Viking Cruises, Chef Anthony Mauboussin, was a rapturous lesson in knowing what to look for but trying new things (he knew what meats and cheeses to watch for, but we came back with chestnut honey and a Corsican lemon marmalade, which were both new to his palate). On a separate night I experienced the Kitchen Table restaurant, celebrating the gastronomy of Barcelona — three hours later I left full of food, wine and appreciation for the Catalonian way of life. Now that I’m home I have to put that paella recipe to the test (too bad the ingredients will be from the grocery store in New Jersey).
“Try not to eat with your eyes,” someone told me before heading to Barcelona a few days ahead of my cruise. Clearly they’ve never been confronted with authentic Catalan cuisine. It’d be obnoxious to say my best dining experience was every meal I ate in Barcelona, so I’m going to narrow it down to pintxos (or tapas) at Sagardi. This restaurant in charming El Born actually you to eat with your eyes. Tapas are on display — sort of like a buffet — and you walk around grabbing each one you want by a toothpick. When we were finished, our server counted our toothpicks to determine the bill. It was well worth the money.
I love a good steak, and Regent Seven Seas Mariner’s Prime 7 delivered one of the best I’ve ever eaten. I frankly can’t remember what I ordered, because there was a lot of sharing going on at our table, but I loved the buttery filet mignon and juicy NY strip. I even broke my personal cardinal rule — never order seafood at a steak joint — and tried the tuna tartare, which was exceptionally fresh. Even the seafood sampler was incredible, with sweet lobster and perfectly prepared scallops. My mouth is watering with the memory.