Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Sea Change: Ever Finer Cruise Dining

Cruise ship dining once conjured images of gluttons bellying up to the buffet. Now gastronomy trumps gluttony: A more discerning generation of foodies is selecting ships and itineraries based on culinary allure. In response, cruise lines — from mainstream to luxury — are going overboard to meet the more refined tastes of passengers.

The number of food-themed cruises, food-based shore excursions, and food market and galley tours is growing. Presentation has been upgraded too, with meals served on designer china, flanked by silver flatware and crystal, on tables sporting imported linens and fresh flowers.

"At every price point, cruising has never been as food-oriented," said Chuck Flagg, a frequent cruiser who owns a Cruise Holidays franchise near Atlanta.

Once upon a time, there were two choices: the main dining room or the informal, all-you-can-eat buffet. That landscape has changed considerably. On virtually all lines, cruisers can opt for open or reserved seating.

"You can pretty much choose when you want to dine, who you want to dine with and how you want to dress for dinner," said Naomi Kraus, cruise editor for Frommer's Travel.

"Food is so wrapped up in culture that it's an integral part of travel," added Bruce Good, public relations director for the Seabourn Cruise Line. On Seabourn's 200-person sister ships, Pride, Spirit and Legend, the 48-seat Restaurant 2 offers a "small plates" tasting menu at no additional charge. For those who prefer privacy, dinner can be delivered to your cabin piping hot course by course.

On the Queen Mary 2 and the Oceania and Regent Seven Seas lines, guests can choose from a health-conscious menu designed by Canyon Ranch. Royal Caribbean added seven new food venues when it relaunched the refurbished 2,500-passenger Radiance of the Seas.

Imagine eating a special meal hosted by the executive chef in the ship's galley during the busy dinner hours. For $75 per person one or two nights per cruise, as many as 10 Princess Cruises passengers enjoy a multicourse chef's table menu paired with wines.

The 1,250-passenger Oceania Marina has two private dining rooms (with surcharges) among six gourmet restaurants. La Reserve is an intimate 12-seat venue offering food and wine pairings by Wine Spectator ($75 per person). Privee, an ultra-contemporary small room, offers a chef's table with a seven-course tasting menu designed with the chef, for a flat fee of $1,000 for as many as 10 people.

Celebrity chefs also are lending their names and expertise to the trend. Jacques Pepin, executive culinary director of the Oceania Cruises line, has a French bistro called Jacques on the Marina. He is one on a long list of celebrity chefs linked to various lines. Cunard has a Todd English restaurant on two of its Queens; 

Seabourn's menu is designed by Charlie Palmer, and the menus of Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa are served in Crystal's Sushi Bar and Silk Road.

When a celebrity name isn't associated with a ship, guest chefs join certain cruises or replicate award-winning menus onboard. On Regent Seven Seas, television chef Michael Lomonaco conducted demonstrations, gave talks and led a wine tasting on a 10-day August cruise. Holland America has an exclusive agreement with Le Cirque to re-create the legendary eatery's whimsical experience on the 15 ships in its fleet.

Read the rest of the story here.

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