Come on… Confess… It’s important that food on a cruise be really really good, right? It is for us – and we’ve sailed on more than 40 cruises now.
At the end of the day – whether exploring ancient ruins, shopping for souvenirs or curling up with the latest bestseller on your ship balcony – there’s nothing nicer than sitting down in refined surroundings, sipping a fine glass of Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir (poured at just the right temperature, naturally) and savoring a delightful, artfully presented dinner.
When we heard that Oceania Cruises claims to serve the “finest cuisine at sea,” we were intrigued. Would they offer the best cruise for foodies? Oceania, as you might know, is a casually elegant cruise line with six mid-size ships sailing to Asia, Tahiti, the Med and elsewhere around the globe.
So we did a little digging (careful not to salivate too much over our computers). Here’s what we learned…
Warning: Reading this post may cause severe mouth-watering and cravings for foie gras or truffles. Do not read on an empty stomach.
Best cruise for foodies
First, Oceania Cruises isn’t whipping up bold claims out of thin air. The line has won a slew of awards for its cuisine – “Best for Dining” for 2017 as voted by Cruise Critic readers (mid-size ship category), “Best Cuisine” in Travel Weekly’s 2016 Readers Choice Awards, “Best for Food” according to Town & Country Travel, “Best for Food” in the 2016 Cruise International Awards, “Best Main Dining Room Cuisine” in Porthole Cruise Magazine’s 2016 Readers’ Choice Awards and so on.
No doubt having legendary Master Chef Jacques Pepin run the kitchen, so to speak (he’s officially Oceania’s executive culinary director) has helped the line to achieve gastronomic excellence. Once personal chef to Charles de Gaulle, Pepin is the talented French American celebrity chef who rose to fame cooking on TV with Julia Child.
Something else that whets our appetite: Every single plate is made-to-order.
That means your meal is given that extra bit of attention – which can make the difference from “okay” to “fresh from the sauté pan, piping hot, OMG this is delicious!”
Where are we going for dinner?
Tough decision! On Oceania’s two newest ships – the 1,250-guest Marina and Riviera – five full-service restaurants serve different cuisines from around the world. (That’s in addition to the informal, inside or alfresco dining venues.) And there’s no extra charge for the specialty restaurants.
Let’s start with the Grand Dining Room, the main restaurant on all ships, which serves Continental cuisine.
As befits a fine dining restaurant, tables are set with Versace bone china, Christofle silver and Riedel crystal.
The menu features four or five appetizers (you’ll find Sturgeon caviar), two soups, two or three salads, five or six main courses and three Jacques Pepin signature dishes (his French classic, five-peppercorn beef filet with a light brandy sauce, is always popular). If you’re watching your waistline, Canyon Ranch spa selections are available too. (The steamed Maine lobster looks pretty yummy – and it’s only 330 calories.)
If you’re in the mood for Italian, you can indulge in your own 6-course menu at the Tuscan-inspired Toscana, beginning perhaps with artichoke-and-parmesan cheese timbale with black truffle sauce, followed by a light Minestrone soup, then hand-rolled gnochi in a creamy pesto sauce or fresh spinach fettucini with duckling ragu. A Caesar salad prepared tableside then veal scaloppini should also hit the spot.
And for dessert, well, for us, it would have to be the classic Italian tiramisu.
Then there’s the Polo Grill. Its high-back burgundy leather chairs and dark wood furnishings set the stage for a true steakhouse. All the beef is USDA prime from Black Angus cattle, dry-aged for a minimum of 28 days.
Marina and Riviera have two additional specialty restaurants as well.
Jacques looks like a Parisian bistro, with heirloom antiques and art from Jacques Pepin’s own collection. This is the place for frog legs, escargots with garlic butter, mussels in white wine, duck breast with orange sauce, lamb loin in a Cabernet Sauvignon sauce, and most everything else delicious to eat that’s French.
Cheeses are flown in from France, and a custom rotisserie slowly turns roasted chicken, duck, pork, beef and veal.
Red Ginger is the most sought-after specialty restaurant. Guests say it’s the equivalent of a delicious pan-Asian dining experience you’d find in San Francisco, New York or Seattle. The food here is bold and spicy – caramelized tiger prawns, seared tuna with a sesame crust and wasabi cream, creative salads like spicy duck with watermelon and cashews. Mmmm… Need we say more?
Culinary discovery tours
Eating is one pleasure; learning about different local culinary cultures is another. With Oceania, you can delve into the food traditions of many of the destinations you visit on their popular “culinary discovery tours.”
First you get a little orientation about the local cuisine. Then, accompanied by an Oceania chef instructor, you explore local food markets, restaurants, vineyards, farms and cooking schools. Of course, some grazing and sampling is on the activity menu too.
When you stop at Marseilles, you stroll through the daily colorful market of nearby Aix-en-Provence, bursting with hand-made sausages, vegetables and cheeses, before being treated to a one-of-a-kind cooking demonstration by Michelin starred Chef Reine Sammut. Then you get to eat what she’s whipped up. In Catania (Italy), you learn how to make cannoli from a Sicilian pastry chef; in Cozumel (Mexico), you visit a cacao plantation and see how chocolate is made; in Sydney (Australia), you buy fresh local oysters from the famous Sydney Fish Market.
Hands-on cooking school
Now, you’re probably keen to try preparing some of these wonderful dishes yourself, right?
Well, on Marina and Riviera, you can do just that at The Culinary Center – the first hands-on cooking school at sea. Everyone has their own fully-equipped workstation. Roll up your sleeves, because you’re going to have fun mucking about with your hands!
Unlike some cooking schools at sea, at The Culinary Center you’re not only learning how to cook, you’re sipping wine, hearing personal stories from the chef and learning about the local cuisine. Discover the secrets for making the perfect mojito, brush up on your knife skills, master the art of working with rice paper and revel in creating one of the most-requested desserts – the drunken limoncello cake. Sadly, the only problem is that cooking back home is going to seem, well, boring, in comparison.
None of this would matter a whit, though, if the service was only so-so. On Marina and Riviera, 800 crew members look after 1,250 guests; on Oceania’s four other smaller ships, there are 400 crew for just 680 guests. That staff-to-guest ratio is pretty high.
We hear they remember your name and your likes and dislikes. Seating is open at all restaurants – dine at the time you want. And if you want a romantic table for two, just ask. (No being forced to sit with that dreadful couple from New York, or was it Toronto?) Butlers – yes, suite guests have butlers – are trained by the Guild of Professional English Butlers, which certifies staff for the royal palaces of Britain.
Okay. We’re ready to twirl chopsticks and use lobster forks on Oceania Cruises! How about you?