Celebrity: Southern Florida Food Festival

| Tuesday, 05 Mar. 2013

The top "Lawn Deck" on the Solstice class offers delicious dining options.

Celebrity Cruises achieved an important coup at the South Florida Food and Wine Festival this year. The event, held February 21 through 24, typically takes place near the beach on AIA, amid the now internationally famous South Beach (SoBe) strip, but Celebrity Cruises enticed over 120 guests to pay $85 a ticket and take a coach to Miami Pier to sample some of its own unique cuisine.

To goal in showcasing the Celebrity cuisine at this particular event is to maintain the line's reputation as a cruise line for foodies. Leading the charge is Celebrity's Culinary Director, John Suley, who is no stranger to Miami Beach. He was previously the executive chef for Gotham Steak at the famous Miami Fountainbleau Hotel where he established his reputation as a James Beard Foundation "Rising Star" award nominee.

This year, from February 21-24, the likes of Paula Deen, Anthony Bourdain, Daniel Boulud, Bobby Flay and Guy Fieri were among the featured chefs. The venues spotlighted included Nobu and Bourbon Steak. So it was a definite feather in the Celebrity Cruises' cap when they once again hosted an afternoon event at the relatively remote port of Miami. About 120 relatively seasoned gourmets, took part in a tasting that spanned seven restaurants and two bars on board the ship.

Reflection, boasting a passenger count of 3,046 and drawing 126,000-tons, is the newest Solstice class entry. The ship was at her finest for the food festival - presenting a wide variety of recipes tasty and tasteful recipes.

The participants comprised a great cross-section of international travelers, locals who love dining, and some potential Celebrity cruisers who wanted a concrete preview before signing up for a full cruise.

Immediately after the pre-screening and ID check everyone was loosened up with a "Famous 20-year Martini," (devised in 2010 to celebrate Celebrity's 20 year anniversary) by head mixologist Junior Merino, who calls himself "the liquid chef."

This martini combines pear vodka, champagne, passion fruit and ginger foam, rosemary, and sage. Then we went to the Molecular Bar for an El Angel cocktail using liquid nitrogen at minus 160 degrees to create the chill in a tequila, mescal, lime concoction dressed with a hibiscus pepper rim.

The libations continued in Celebrity's new Michael's Pub, recently revitalized as a craft beer bar with a wide variety of international brews both on tap and in bottles.

The group was split up into smaller bands of 20, and one was escorted by Rufino Rengifo, one of the corporate executive chefs, who has been featured on Top Chef. He explains the notion of progress calorie count. It is "not just how many calories you take in during any given day, it's the quality of the calories, the nature of the food you are eating. Maybe we don't want people to leave the dining rooms stuffed; we're more health conscious and less calorie conscious." He intimated that Celebrity is getting a world-class nutritionist to reinforce the line's devotion to health. "Food is the pillar of Celebrity" according to Rengifo.

Like most Top Chefs, when Rengifo travels, he's looking for local recipes like a new version of the tuna tartare served in Qsine - one of the most unique restaurants onboard the ship. Qsine has a "family-style" service model where every dish that is ordered is delivered to the table with enough for everyone seated to enjoy. The menu is presented on an IPad instead of a paper menu. Grilled zatthar lamp chops and eggplant imam biyaldi were the two dishes sampled by the group, and it was explained to us that on board, diners can peruse the entire menu and "save" the items they want to otder in their "favorites" folder on the IPad.

The group went on to Blu, the mainstay of what Celebrity dubs "Aqua Class," a category of Sap-staterooms that entitles the cruisers access to the thermal spa onboard as well as their own restaurant, with no heavy butters or creams and more steamed vegetables. This tasting offered distinctly lighter fare with the crab martini that won the "Best in Show" at the same Food and Wine Event in 2009.

After a small side excursion to the bridge as an intermezzo, they were ready to forget calories and encounter the more substantial Tuscan Grill. Everyone got a chance to sample fresh shaved prosciutto, hand-cut at the center table, and Carpaccio di Manzo, olive tapenade, and fresh mushrooms. A block of Romano becomes part of the appetizer grouping brought to each table. Tuscan Grill is keeping the tableside Caesar Salad but moving to a traditional three-course meal, with an Italian flair brought to New York Strip, Rib Eye, and signature Branzini; the pasta remains homemade and the lobster pasta is their specialty. (There are 166 cooks on board and there is a daily tasting at 5:30 PM just to be sure all is up to par)

Everyone was excited about the appetizer course at Murano, the French restaurant with a strangely Italian name. The Muscovy duck breast was brought out, seared at 380 degrees for 4 minutes, along with an almond crusted French toast, complimented by a Gentle Reflection martini, (combining Beefeater's Gin, ginger, lime and Lillet Blanc.)

Back in the main dining room, and after a Kentucky Bourbon concoction, Celebrity reassures the food lovers that they're expanding the options for special dietary needs and that nothing is pre-made, so allergies and special diets can be easily accommodated.

"Great, not bulky" is the motto, with the possible exception of the dessert crepes at "Bistro on 5." But honestly, even the crepes seemed lighter there. It was truly fun to watch the crepe chef prepare the thinnest of desserts stuffed with bananas and drizzled with thin lines of chocolate or dulce de leche, folded and fruit-topped.

If it is even possible on a ship this size, Celebrity has created a sense of intimacy, and demonstrated to the industry that it is more than willing to move away from "how MUCH food is served" and concentrate on quality ingredients and exquisite taste. So, no longer will guests steps off of ships five pounds heavier and in a state of depression.

The Reflection and her sister Solstice ships all offer very similar restaurant choices, but with subtle differences in décor. The goal is to give passengers a brand like the Ritz or Marriott where they can return and expect consistency. With the tasting over, it looked like the brand stamp was really sticking as the sated food lovers stepped off the gangway, very, very impressed.

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