Monday, May 14, 2012

not by bread alone

Cruise ship food should be a simple writing exercise.

After all, it is a thing of legend.  Some cruisers speak of their dining experiences as if they had supped wine with Epicurus himself.

As a writer, it is a tricky topic.  Nothing is more subjective than food.

But that is not going to stop me.

Despite the numerous feeding stations on the Voyager, where almost every hunger can be fed 24 hours a day, the food falls into two easily-defined categories.

The first is food prepared specifically for the diner from high quality ingredients -- after ordering.  There are only two places on board that meet that definition: Johnny Rockets and Portofino.  Not surprisingly, both impose a small surcharge.  $4.95 for Johnny Rockets.  $20 for Portofino.

I have already written in detail about Johnny Rockets -- the burger joint that serves up fun.  The food is simple fare.  Hamburgers.  Hot dogs.  Onion rings.  French fries.  Sandwiches.  Milk shakes.  Food from another era.

All of the ingredients are first rate.  And the cooks do their best to accommodate personal requests.  I convinced the cook to cobble together a chili burger for me.  With some help from Tabasco, the chili was just right.

At the other end of the dining spectrum is Portofino.  You read about it as part of my murder mystery experience.  It is the ship’s specialty Italian restaurant.

The meals are inventive. And because everything is prepared with prime ingredients specifically for individual diners, the experience is similar to dining at a top tier restaurant in any large city.  With the type of attentive service The Four Seasons once provided.

On most cruises I usually eat at least half of my meals in the specialty restaurants.  On this cruise, I didn’t.  Because I did not want to dine alone that often.  Instead, I opted for the company of other diners in the dining room.

And that brings me to the second dining category.  Lots of food prepared with indifferent ingredients for lots of people before they arrive to eat.

There are three venues in this category.  The first is the café in the Promenade.  Little sandwiches.  Desserts.  Pastries.  Pizza.  Coffee. Tea.

A perfect place for a quick snack and chat with acquaintances.  It is also one of the few WiFi hot spots.  As a result, during the day seats are at a premium.  It is also the source of my cold pizza for breakfast.

The reason I have reverted to frat boy breakfasts is the second venue: the buffet.

To be fair, I need to add a small disclaimer here.  Other than salad and fruit bars, buffets are the equivalent of television sitcoms.  Bland.  Redundant.  Unimaginative.  “All you can eat?”  How about: “All you can stand?”

When the cruise began, I tried a few spoonfuls from the buffet hoping this time all would be well.  It wasn’t.  The quality of the ingredients seemed to have declined.

The only exception is the evening sushi.  Well, California rolls.  But they are freshly made with a wide variety of flavors.  And a wasabi paste that opens my sinuses all the way to Pluto.

And that brings us to venue number three: the dining room.  A three-level warehouse tarted up to look like a blinged-out Versailles.

For anyone interested in high quality food, here are the realities.  Three thousand people are run through the feed lots in two sittings.

This is banquet food.  Exactly what you could expect to eat at a fund-raiser.  I always expect some overly-unctuous speaker to stand up, as dessert is served, asking us to reach for our checkbooks.

The standard three-course meals are served.  A starter.  The main course.  Dessert.

The presentation is always first rate.  But the quality and originality of the dishes are not.

This is food that offers no surprises.  Where spices are a stranger to the palate.  Only yawns are on offer.  It is as you were invited to dinner at Blenheim, only to discover the Duke of Marlborough purchases take away from Olive Garden.

What cannot be slighted are the waiters, who do everything within their power to provide a pleasant meal.  But they are good servants, not good magicians.

You may have caught that my primary concern is the quality of the ingredients.  But that concern needs to be placed in context.

For this leg of the cruise, I am paying just over $60 a day.  For that, I get the equivalent of an adequate hotel room, daily activities, nightly entertainment, and enough staff catering to my needs to shame Catherine the Great’s court.

If the food seems no better than Denny’s or Olive Garden, it is because I am paying less than their prices.

When I returned from China, the only place to eat near my motel in South San Francisco was a Denny’s.  I just checked Quicken for what I paid for dinner.  About $25 (with tip). 

Do the math.  Three meals a day at those prices would eat up my cruise budget -- just for meals.  I would then be left with a tent in a row boat oaring my way across the Red Sea using sock puppets for entertainment.

I am getting more than I paid for.

Writing that made me think of the American obsession with fare prices.  We want to ay hot dog prices and get beluga.  Airline deregulation gave us the first half of the equation; but we grumble because we are not getting the second.

That is a topic for another day.

Now, I need to wrap up.  My chili dog just arrived.


Cineguy said...

With all of our discussions about food quality and variety of the type of people being served--this was great fun to read. 

Andean said...

It certainly sounds like there are plenty of food choices. The menu reads a variety of substantial dishes.
And then even burgers, small sandwiches, and cold morning pizza and hot coffee, of course -- they'd have a place in my book. 

Steve Cotton said...

 It was a tough topic -- surprisingly.  As much as I like good food, I needed to put it into some sort of context.

Steve Cotton said...

 You can find almost anything you want to eat on this ship.

Andean said...

Any Egyptian fare... just curious.

John Calypso said...

Too short touring and mostly mediocre food does not make the idea of cruising appealing frankly. That coupled with the oft written up  mass illnesses that occur and the rare crashing into shore or an iceberg makes it totally unappealing.  I guess -what? - the camaraderie?

I missed the itinerary - do you fly back to Mexico from Dubai?

Tropical storm out there by home - so don't rush back,  Or maybe we are just getting all the rain from that here in Xico? Have fun in any case, and I know you will. 

tancho said...

When you try and make enough servings for the large masses, taste suffers.
 One of my friends got me to try a cruise, he raved about the midnight was tasteless, but very appealing to the eye. Sort of like some men and women I have encountered over the years....

Unless it is a special small boutique trip, it will be hard pressed to find real gourmet experiences.  After all you don't take the cruise for the you?

Steve Cotton said...

 I am finalizing my plans.  I should be back in Melaque on this (or next) Saturday.

Steve Cotton said...

 The food in the specialty restaurants is always superb.  The rest?  You get what you pay for.

None of the banquet food had a hint of spice.  I sat near a Mexican couple who made a superb guacamole each evening.  They were good enough to share it with me.  It was the only truly good food I ate in the dining room during my 30 days at sea.

Steve Cotton said...

Yes.  But no.  In Giza we had a hotel buffet that purported to be Egyptian food.  The chef could have been indicted for culinary treason.