Saturday, May 09, 2015

food for thought

Most people who take cruises seem to be enthralled with the food served on ships.  The amount.  The variety.  The frequency.  And, for what seems to be a majority of my fellow passengers, amazement at how fancy the dining is.

It is an obvious topic, but I have been reluctant to tackle it.

My reluctance has its roots in my mother's rules of civility: If you can't say something good, don't say anything.  Of course, anyone who has hung around these pages knows that bit of social inoculation simply did not take.

A far more likely source of my style could be found on a little embroidered pillow that once adorned Alice Roosevelt Longworth's couch in her Embassy Row house: "If you don't have anything good to say, come sit by me."

And I have very little good to say about the food on this particular cruise with Celebrity.

Food is served at three quite different venues: the buffet, the formal dining room, and, in the case of this ship, at two specialty restaurants.  On most ships, the quality of the food served can be ranked just as you would expect: buffet at the bottom; specialty restaurants at the top.  But not this cruise.

Our experience in the dining room went from one mediocre meal to another to ultimate disasters.  The worst was the night most of our table looked forward to a dish listed as "Kobe Meatloaf."  What could be better?  A traditional comfort food constructed out of a premium meat.

What arrived at the table looked as if it had been pushed out of an Alpo can.  It was three small rounds of -- indistinguishable provenance.  To my surprise, it tasted even worse than the presentation.

The next night I looked forward to one of my favorite dishes: prime rib.  It was left extra rare (my preference), but it was cut thin, and had almost no taste.  I tried to resurrect it with fresh horseradish, but the the preparation contained so much water that there was no zest left.

That was our last night in the dining room.

But starve we did not.  We found solace in the arms of an unlikely substitute -- the buffet.

There is not a buffet I have encountered that rises above the level of school cafeteria.  Steamer tables and sterno burners cannot begin to disguise the fact the food on offer was prepared long ago from processed foods.  There was the usual melange of mashed potatoes, pork loin, and over-boiled vegetables.

Fortunately, there was more.  Early on, I discovered the Asian table.  Sushi.  Red Thai curry beef.  Chicken tandoori. Lamb masala. Curried vegetables.  Plus, one of my favorites: miso soup -- which has become a staple for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for me.

Buffets are my salvation at breakfast.  My breakfast tastes are not conservative.  A plate of eggs, bacon, and toast doesn't interest me.  But watermelon, grilled vegetables, and ham proved to be my regular red breakfast (as I called it), until I switched over to a self-made ham sandwich with miso soup -- and watermelon.

But even Asian creativity has its limits.  And that is where the specialty restaurants come into play.

We had dinner at the Olympic restaurant a few days ago.  Everything about the service and food were exactly what the dining room is not.  The choices were creative -- and fresh. 

I had venison.  Roy had lamb.  The dishes were as good as any expensive restaurant on shore.

Of course, there is an expense that comes with quality dining.  In the case of the Olympic, it is $50 per person.  But well worth the cost for a dining experience that is memorable -- even without cast members being present.

One thing I am not going to miss during my two-year travel hiatus is the general decline of both the food and service on cruise ships.  But I will feel a bit sorry for people who sign up for cruises believing they are going to encounter the culinary experience of their life.

They may.  But not quite in the manner they anticipated.

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