Specialty Dining on Luxury Cruise Ships

Seabourn Ovation’s The Grill by Thomas Keller has a menu laden with updated versions of “down home” favorite foods and classics. // Photo Courtesy: Seabourn

As ocean waves lapped gently against its hull, Seabourn’s ultra-luxury Seabourn Ovation sailed earlier this year from such Southeast Asian ports as Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Luxury Travel Advisor was onboard as guests returned from their exotic adventures ashore and nestled into their floating luxury resort.  

Soon they were sipping cocktails, conversing with newfound friends about the day’s activities, strolling around the top deck, enjoying a massage or just sitting on their private balcony before freshening up for dinner. Certainly, excellence in dining is a hallmark of an ultra-luxury experience. 

Here are tidbits from our first-hand specialty dining experiences this year at the 600-passenger Seabourn Ovation’s The Grill by Thomas Keller, Silversea Cruises’ 596-passenger Silver Muse’s Atlantide and Crystal Cruises’ 980-passenger Crystal Serenity’s Umi Uma.

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The Grill by Thomas Keller 

Seabourn Ovation’s dining room, The Restaurant, performed admirably night after night. We also loved the ease and fresh-air experience of evening casual dining at the pool deck’s Earth & Ocean, not to mention our almost daily trip to Sushi, an intimate eatery on Deck 8; we’d highly recommend Sushi’s pork dumplings, but its freshly made sushi and sashimi were the big draw for many guests. Above all, though, The Grill by Thomas Keller was our favorite onboard dining experience. 

As the culinary genius behind the land-based, Michelin-starred French Laundry, Per Se and Bouchon restaurants, Keller’s approach incorporates fresh ingredients from artisan purveyors and a precise methodology of preparation. Whether a Keller-designed restaurant is on land or at sea, it must meet the same exacting standards of the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group. 

At the restaurant’s entrance is The Grill Bar. Simply put, guests gravitate here to see and be seen. It’s packed nightly. In fact, if there had been Hollywood film stars onboard our sailing, we’ve had envisioned them sipping a cocktail here. To look similarly cool, order the “Flame of Love Martini” which is concocted with vodka, fino sherry and flavored orange peels. 

Heading into the restaurant for dinner, guests will find a menu laden with updated versions of “down-home” favorite foods and classics. Inspired by 1950s and 1960s American restaurants, The Grill by Thomas Keller is American but also French — elegant but not stuffy. Guests are treated to tableside preparations of Caesar salad and ice cream sundaes. 

We started with the Maryland-style jumbo lump crab cake with spicy aioli. We’re picky about crab and this choice was brimming with chunks of crab and not laden with gobs of filler as one sometimes finds in even the best restaurants. Other starters included double consommé “Celestine” with black winter truffles and julienned crepes; New England clam chowder; and a steamed whole Calico artichoke, served chilled with garlic mayonnaise, among others. One starter special was the roasted beet salad with hazelnut, endive and lemon vinaigrette. 

As for the main course, the lobster thermidor is a signature dish that many guests love, but the selection of “plates” also includes Dover sole meuniere, roasted free range chicken with thyme, eggplant parmesan and, for two people, broiled, naturally fed veal T-bone steak or medallions of Elysian fields’ farm lamb. Opting for simple and succulent, we ordered the thick-cut prime New York strip steak, and had a choice of Bordelaise, Perigourdine, Paloise Gastrique, Bearnaise or steak sauces; the steak was “melt-in-your-mouth” and cooked to perfection. 

Dover Sole Meuniere is one of the main course specialties at the restaurant. // Photo Courtesy: Seabourn  

For side dishes, we sampled the macaroni and cheese, sautéed mushrooms scented with brandy and Kennebec steak fries with seasoned salt; the “mac and cheese” was an example of just how good a simple comfort food can be when a master chef gets involved. Friends we met onboard loved the crème fraiche whipped potatoes and the creamed spinach. We were too full for dessert, but The Grill by Thomas Keller had many enticing options. This restaurant’s service was attentive, professional and helpful with suggestions — with waiters always close at hand but not hovering. 

What’s ahead for Seabourn on the culinary front? It’s planning for two new ultra-luxury expedition ships setting sail in June 2021 and May 2022. 

Each will have eight dining experiences, including The Restaurant, The Patio, Sushi in the Club (for evening sushi bites) and the Colonnade; the latter will offer a more casual alternative for buffet or table service breakfast and lunch, as well as themed dinners served tableside with family-style menus by Thomas Keller.

Umi Uma’s Delicacies

Luxury Travel Advisor boarded Crystal Serenity in Lisbon, Portugal, a few months ago for a week onboard during the 2019 trade gala with top producers and other guests. Fabulously fresh after a 2018 refit, the ship has multiple dining venues, including Prego and Umi Uma. While we loved Prego (order its tasty mushroom soup in the bread bowl), our favorite was Master Chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s Umi Uma & Sushi Bar, which serves a tasty fusion of Japanese cuisine with European and Peruvian influences.

It’s a savory, upscale experience from start to finish. While the sushi is tasty, for a starter we’d also suggest ordering the soft-shell crab spring roll with Nanban salsa or, alternatively, the Nobu-style lobster tacos with tomatillo salsa. Other appetizer choices ranged from Monkfish liver pâté with Karashi Sumiso (a mustard-miso dressing) or Ponzu (a citrus-based sauce) to broiled eggplant topped with Saikyo miso sauce or various types of tempura (rock shrimp, lobster or vegetable). 

Soup-lovers can choose from spicy seafood, miso or mushroom soup. Salad options range from kelp (seaweed) salad with lemon-soy-bonito flavors to a Nobu-style sashimi salad with seared ahi tuna and field greens. For our entrée, we selected the Nobu-style lobster, stir-fried with garlic, asparagus, shiitake mushrooms and snap peas and finished with truffle-yuzu sauce. It was delicate, cooked superbly and tasty; we’d order it again.  

Prego on Crystal Cruises is known for its mushroom soup in a bread bowl. // Photo: Susan J. Young

Not surprisingly, many other entrées on the menu are fish- or seafood-focused — everything from broiled salmon to stir-fried shrimp and scallops and the restaurant’s signature Nobu-style black cod. But meat-lovers will also find dishes to please their palates, including a grilled Australian “Wagyu” beef filet steak with grilled onions and asparagus and a choice of anticucho, teriyaki or Nobu-style wasabi pepper sauce. 

After a robust meal, we appreciated the simplicity and “portion-size” of a trio of crème brulee-filled spoons (one each of sweet ginger, pink guava or passion fruit). Our take? It was just enough for tasting and a right-sized dessert after a robust multi-course dinner. Alternatively, guests can order buttermilk ice cream topped with whiskey cream, a chilled tropical fruit plate with lychee sorbet, among other sweet treats. 

Throughout our Umi Uma dinner, we experienced attentive table service with waiters eager to assist with suggestions or explain dishes. In addition, a professional yet friendly supervisor asked guests how they liked their meal and kept the operation’s flow nicely chugging along.   

The newest Umi Uma & Sushi Bar venue will launch in August 2020 on the line’s Crystal Endeavor, a new expedition ship. So, guests on that 200-passenger ship can come back from their expedition activities ashore and dive into sushi, sashimi and other Asian favorites. 

Choices Galore at Atlantide

In ancient times, the Atlantides, known as the seven nymph daughters of Atlas, were revered for their wisdom and beauty. In legend, they were granted immortality and today appear in the night sky as stars in the Taurus constellation. Tapping into that dreamy legend, Silversea Cruises serves up creative cuisine with choices galore in the specialty dining venue Atlantide, on Silver Muse, Silver Spirit and, launching in August 2020, Silver Moon. Sailing on Silver Muse last March, Luxury Travel Advisor dined at this elegant venue and several other people at our table — after exiting the restaurant — told us they felt it was now their favorite dining experience on the ship. 

For starters, we opted for the opaque-seared king scallops and strawberries lightly dressed with foie-gras, butter-coated whole wheat croutons, lemon butter, herb garden sauce, strawberry salsa, flat leaf parsley and miniature watercress. They were cooked to perfection. Some diners instead chose the Black Angus and artichoke carpaccio. Among veggie starter choices was “My Little Vegetable Plot” with buffalo mozzarella, courgettes, cucumber, carrots, beetroot, celeriac, asparagus, green peas, black beans, trasimeno beans, baby zucchini, shiso leaves and broccoli sprouts.

For entrées, Altantide offers five choices each in both the fish / seafood and beef categories, plus three for vegetarians. For example, fish-lovers can choose from Chilean seabass, Greenland cod, turbot from Spain, Mediterranean Sea bream, plus king prawn from Australia’s Spencer Gulf. Those are all served with grilled asparagus, spinach and parsley potatoes. 

Atlantide, the specialty dining venue on Silver Muse, serves creative cuisine. // Photo courtesy of Silversea Cruises

If one still has room for dessert, there are multiple choices in such categories as “fruit lover’s delights,” “chocolate cravings,” “variegature” (Italian frozen yogurts) and “gelati.” We loved that there weren’t simply one or two gelato flavors but eight. Opt for the yummy “Gianduja Arancia,” a traditional gelato hailing from Turin, Italy; it’s made with hazelnuts and Domori Cacao.

When Silver Moon debuts August 6, 2020 on an 11-day inaugural voyage from Trieste, Italy, to Civitavecchia (Rome), travelers will dine in Atlantide, among many other dining venues. But most notably, this new ship — sailing in the Mediterranean, Caribbean and around South America and Central America — also will debut Silversea’s pioneering new S.A.L.T. (sea and land tastes) concept, an immersive approach that drills down to the most local foods and drink — so that guests gain an understanding of a destination through its local food.

On Silver Moon, the new S.A.L.T. Lab will take the space of La Dame, which will be relocated to Deck 8 and nearly tripled in size. At the S.A.L.T. Lab, guests will learn about local ingredients and culinary techniques from local people in the port or region of sailing. Guests will participate in tastings and workshops, and watch demonstrations. There will also be a new S.A.L.T. Bar and S.A.L.T. Kitchen onboard and new shore options will also focus on the understanding of the destination via its food and drink. 

Think of this approach as more “Bourdain-style” (akin to what the late Anthony Bourdain, a chef and global explorer, would do on his television shows) than “Michelin-style.” The goal is to sample local foods, learn about recipes handed down from generation to generation and meet the locals — to experience the destination’s culture and heritage through local food.  

Prime 7 and More 

Many other ultra-luxury lines also have savory specialty dining, including Regent Seven Seas Cruises. For travelers who are steak-lovers, this line offers Prime 7, a steakhouse that will satisfy even the pickiest meat-eaters. It not only serves up a 12-ounce USDA Prime New York Strip, but also (all USDA Prime cuts) an 18-ounce or 32-ounce (for two) Porterhouse, 18-ounce bone-in rib steak, both six- and 10-ounce filet mignons or a slow-roasted prime rib of beef with freshly grated horseradish. 

Prime 7 on Seven Seas Mariner, is a classic American steakhouse offering contemporary fare. // Photos courtesy of Regent Seven Seas Cruises 

Guests can also pair their favorite cuts with the sauce they love, whether that’s Béarnaise, steakhouse barbecue, cranberry-port wine, Armagnac-green peppercorn, Jack Daniel’s, steakhouse chimichurri or, for something truly spicy and sweet at the same time, home-made habanero-maple. We’d suggest ordering a yummy side or two as well, perhaps the truffle fries, sautéed mushrooms, creamed spinach or crispy onion rings.

When it comes to ultra-luxury dining experiences, travelers have a slew of tasty options. Check out our sidebar below for more suggestions for several of the dining venues mentioned above, as well as the Culinary Tidbits and News story on page 40 for upcoming culinary developments. For all specialty restaurants, reservations are a “must,” and many lines allow online bookings, but often those end several weeks in advance, so reserve promptly. One can also ask the maître d’, concierge or butler upon boarding, as some reservations are typically held back. Just remember that for the most flexible timing, make reservations as soon as possible.

The steaks at Prime 7 are all USDA Prime and aged for at least 28 days. // Photos courtesy of Regent Seven Seas Cruises 

Culinary Tidbits & News

So, what else is new dining-wise for luxury cruise lines? Regent Seven Seas Cruises is now serving new menu items that feature locally sourced produce, artisan cheeses and rich cuts of meat. How about seared diver scallops in a cured pork belly confit with orange pomegranate sauce or veal rack loin with caramelized endive, grape chutney and a walnut veal jus sauce?  

Ponant and Relais & Châteaux have created new 2020 culinary cruise experiences on three itineraries sailing in Europe, Africa and Asia; more are expected in 2020. Hosted by Relais & Châteaux chefs onboard Ponant’s Explorer-class ships, the journeys will include two gala dinners featuring two new signature dishes that the respective chef creates, plus culinary demonstrations, cooking classes, lectures and market tours.  

Departures are Le Jacques Cartier’s “Treasures of Brittany” itinerary — with Relais & Châteaux’s Chef Mathieu Guibert of the two-Michelin-star Anne de Bretagne in Plaines-sur-Mer, France — from St. Malo to Nantes, France on September 20, 2020. The other special culinary sailings are Le Dumont-d’Urville’s “Canary Islands and Cape Verde” itinerary from Lisbon, Portugal to Dakar, Senegal on October 11, 2020; and Le Laperouse’s “China and Vietnam” sailing from Shanghai, China to Haiphong, Vietnam on October 28, 2020.

In the first quarter of 2020, The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection’s first mega-yacht will set sail with multiple dining experiences. Among those is Talaat Nam with creative interpretations of Southeast Asia cuisine, a sushi bar, a family-style table experience or al fresco dining. S.E.A. will be created by Chef Sven Elverfeld as a European à la carte restaurant; Elverfeld is renowned as the chef at the three-Michelin-star Aqua restaurant, located at The Ritz-Carlton, Wolfsburg, Germany. For lunch or a romantic dinner al fresco, the ship’s seafood bar will serve fresh catches and prime cuts to order from the grill with deck views for sunset watching. 

How about Jamón Ibérico, a 24-month aged pork from black pigs raised on acorns in southern Spain? Or, alternatively, Catalonian lamb chops served with a mint salsa verde, green apples, kohlrabi and manchego? Such inventive Spanish cuisine will soon be served at Windstar Cruises’ Cuadro 44, a new culinary partnership with renowned chef Anthony Sasso. Look for the new eatery to open on Star Breeze in February 2020, and on both Star Legend and Star Pride later next year. 

Scenic has accepted delivery of the luxurious Scenic Eclipse, its first luxury oceangoing Discovery Yacht; it has 10 dining options — from Asian fusion to French fine dining, a chef’s table, poolside buffet and more. Plant-based menu? Azamara has added a vegan menu for guests dining at the main Discoveries restaurant, and the specialty venues, Prime C and Aqualina. After a major update to Oceania CruisesSirena, guests will not only appreciate a fresher ship but also a new, original artwork by famed chef Jacques Pepin; it’s hanging in the re-styled Baristas, the ship’s social hub and coffee bar.

Setting sail this October, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ new Hanseatic inspiration, an international expedition ship with English and German spoken onboard, will offer flexible meal times, open seating and multiple dining venues — a 178-seat main restaurant and the 184-seat (indoor and outdoor) Lido Restaurant, a barbecue and a show kitchen. 

Regent Seven Seas Cruises’s new menu items include locally sourced produce, artisan cheeses and rich cuts of meat. Shown here is a plant-based Hawaiian poke bowl. // Photo courtesy of Regent Seven Seas Cruises

“Favorite Dishes” of Luxury Advisors

Luxury Travel Advisor chatted with several top luxury cruise producers about what they love when dining on luxury cruise ships.

“Having dined at sea on both Seabourn Encore and Seabourn Sojourn, I’ve been blown away with what Seabourn is now offering for their dining choices,” says Susan Reder, managing partner, Frosch Classic Cruise and Travel, a top luxury agency and Signature Travel Network member, in Woodland Hills, CA. Calling The Grill by Thomas Keller “as good as any favorite restaurant you would experience at home,” she recommends the Caesar salad, the special chicken that’s “to die for” and the New York steak. She also likes the Colonnade’s casual, themed dinner experiences and, for couples, she recommends a light romantic dinner outside under the stars at Earth & Ocean, the pool deck Patio venue. 

A recipient of Virtuoso’s “Ruby of Siam” lifetime achievement award, Ruth Turpin, owner, Cruises Etc. in Fort Worth, TX is a Crystal Platinum Alliance member who just returned from Crystal Symphony. “Anytime I am on Crystal, I make a reservation at Prego for the first evening, so I can experience my two favorite dishes at sea — the fabulous Prego’s mushroom soup in a bread bowl and the most marvelous Carpaccio in the world,” Turpin tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “I also always want to experience the famous Nobu’s Black Cod at Umi Uma.” 

Luxury cruise specialist Michael Consoli, owner, Michael Consoli & Associates, Atlanta, GA, is Cruise Planners’ top-producing franchise advisor, who has been cited as Viking Cruises’ top global producer for multiple years and is an American Express Travel Insider (serving top-tier customers). “My favorite meal is the Bistecca Fiorentina steak in Manfredi’s on Viking Ocean Cruises,” says Consoli, noting that it’s the house special — a thick cut rib eye coated in garlic oil and rubbed with porcini mushroom powder, kosher salt, brown sugar and red chili flakes. “It makes a memorable meal paired with a side of the Tortelli alle Tartufo,” a pasta with Ricotta, steamed asparagus and tomato herb butter.

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