Everyone knows eating is a big part of the cruise experience, but these days there's more to the story than pizza, prime rib, and baked Alaska. In the spirit of more is more, intimate alternative restaurants serving specialized cuisine are standard cruise ship fare nowadays along side the more ho-hum main dining room and casual buffet venues. Alternative dining spots typically seat somewhere between about 50 and 150 guests at a time and offer plenty of tables for two. Most suggest reservations and you'll have to fork over $10 to $30 per person cover charges. Here are our top picks:
Crystal Serenity and Symphony
Both Crystal ships have chic restaurants called Silk Road and The Sushi Bar which are overseen by Master Chef Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa. Totally authentic (remember, Crystal's parent company is Japanese container shipping giant Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK) and that certainly can't hurt), dishes in the Pan Asian Silk Road include Nobu's signature Japanese fusion cuisine, from stir-fried lobster with truffle-yuzu sauce to chocolate soufflé cake with sesame ice cream. As for sushi, the yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno and the salmon tartar with caviar are yum.
This romantic venue at the QM2's stern has cozy dark-red banquettes, gilded accents and crisp white linens. Named for the chef of Olives in Boston, Todd English's tasty creations include a black pepper gnocchi with broccoli rabe and pecorino cheese, a roasted rack of lamb with black olive jus and a pan seared sword fish and grilled shrimp dish with cipollina onions, spinach, carrot and coconut sauce. It'll cost you $30 a person to dine here.
To me ambience is everything, and here the room is as appealing as the food. Nostalgic types especially will fall for the Millennium's Edwardian-style Olympic restaurant. Walls are adorned with several dozen hand-carved French walnut wall panels that once hung in a restaurant aboard Titanic's sister-ship Olympic nearly 100 years ago. Doting service and tableside preparation of many dishes turn dinner into an event. The five-course meals include the likes of a goat cheese soufflé with tomato coulis appetizer to a flambéed scampi served on a bed of rocket leaves for the main course, and for dessert, crepes Suzette or chocolate soufflé.
If you have kids, drop them off at the Oceaneer Club or Lab and let loose on the decadent adults-only champagne brunch in Palo's, the ships' alternative dinner venue. A buffet spread included the works, from French and Italian cheeses to fancy pastries and heaps of seafood. Especially memorable are the mouth-watering homemade gourmet pizzas with toppings like gorgonzola cheese and grapes. Offered on sea days only, a $15 per person cover charge includes a glass of champagne.
Open most evenings for dinner, this romantic, candle-lit restaurant offers delicious Italian fare complimented by excellent complimentary wines. Maybe start with a plate of antipasto -- fresh Parmigiano and prosciutto imported from Italy, olives, sun dried tomatoes and marinated eggplant -- and then move on to a tasty mushroom tartlet or buffalo mozzarella with fresh tomato and basil; gnocchi filled with gorgonzola; and a juicy pork loin. The focaccia and flat breads, made right on board, are impossible to enjoy in moderation. If mille foglie is on the menu (flakey puff pastry layered with creamy filling), start your diet tomorrow.
The alternative restaurant aboard the three Seabourn ships goes simply by the name of 2 and has outdoor seating at the ship's stern just feet above the churning wake below. Soothing surf sounds, sea breezes and the starry night sky are the setting for five- to six-course tasting menus. Enjoy the likes of a lobster martini with watermelon gelée and vanilla champagne froth or roasted duck breast with mango and chili mint oil. The experience won't be complete without a good ending, maybe a yogurt lemon mousse with crushed raspberries and almond brittle, or better yet, a sweet coffee sandwich with sea salt caramel ice cream and hazelnut foam.
For anyone who doesn't want to get dressed up or try to pronounce fancy French fare or take a chance on tasting something new, then the classic American fare in this diner hits the mark. From onion rings to milk shakes and burgers, this 50s-style diner is complete with red vinyl booths and lots of chrome.
Serving steaks, chops, and seafood, these stylish venues with their bright white linens and Bulgari place settings offer diners a sophisticated setting along with great food. Top picks include the tasty Dungeness crab cakes with cucumber and sweet chili sauce or mixed greens tossed tableside with pecan encrusted Oregon blue cheese and pear. For the main course, choose a filet mignon or a classic porterhouse. There are lamb rack chops with apple-spice chutney or a seared King Salmon from Alaska. Complement it all with a wine flight -- groupings of four different Pacific Northwest wines (equaling two full glasses) designed to go with the menu.
Norwegian Dawn, Jewel, Pearl, Spirit, Star, Sun, Gem, Jade, and Pride of America
Most of NCL's fleet has a Japanese teppanyaki venue where chefs chop, dice, fling and have fun with ingredients while passengers seated around the grille enjoy the show. Open daily for dinner, choose from filet mignon and jumbo shrimp, steak and chicken or other combinations. The dining experience also includes miso soup, seaweed salad with ginger dressing, grilled shrimp, garlic fried rice and Japanese vegetables.
As innovative as you'll find at sea, Latitudes serves Indochine fare, authentic Vietnamese and pan Asian specialties. Served in the traditional family-style, the set menu invites sharing and tasting among table mates. Sample appetizers like sesame shrimp and Malaysian-style beef satay, then move on to delish main courses ranging from aromatic lobster with lime leaves, carrots, apples and curry to galangal-marinated chicken thighs.
Star Cruises Star Virgo
In the spirit of simple is best, on the Singapore-based Star Virgo, the Hainanese chicken rice dish in the Blue Lagoon café, one of the ship's nine dining venues, is straight forward and delicious. Considered the national dish of Singapore, the rice is boiled in chicken stock and the chicken is cooked in ginger and garlic, and the two are served with chili sauce and dark soya sauce.
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