Crystal: Foodies' Gem of Choice

| Tuesday, 05 Mar. 2013

After a thorough sampling, I believe Crystal serves some of the best food I have ever experienced at sea.

Swarovski has nothing on Crystal. Cruises, that is. I should know. I just ate my way from stern to bow, port to starboard and deck five to 12 on a two-week Crystal Serenity cruise. Back home, full for life, I concluded that this ship serves some of the best food I've ever consumed at sea.

I had wondered whether Crystal could sustain its much-lauded culinary program during recessionary times. I had also questioned if, as its demographics changed over the decades (Crystal is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year), the line is keeping up with the times. How do you please both veteran (usually elderly) guests who expect the food to never change and more sophisticated baby boomers? Then add in 30-and-40-something newbie cruisers. Beef Wellington and baked Alaska aren't even in their vocabulary.

Armed with curiosity and a laptop, I embarked on a Caribbean holiday cruise. (Hey, work is work.) And besides a full tummy, I found four words to sum up Crystal Cruises' culinary prowess: Quality, consistency, finesse and diversity.

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Silk Road Miso Black Cod   Buffet Bread Sampling

QUALITY

Quality of ingredients always comes first, because without stellar ingredients Crystal could never prepare top-caliber cuisine. A dish is only as good as its ingredients; this is a basic tenet of cooking.

Despite an economic climate where cuts are tempting, Crystal maintains high culinary standards. Even the lowly poolside burger -- often unmemorable, even on top lines -- transports me to a dripping-juice Carl's Jr.-like commercial, but with Spago Beverly Hills-quality beef. The filet mignon at Prego (Italian restaurant) is so big and buttery it would cost $40 à la carte at an equivalent land-based restaurant. And at buffets, prime rib carved to order exudes such rich beefy aroma, even vegetarians pause in awe.

Seafood equally dazzles. Sweet fresh lobster hails from Maine. Shrimp are jumbo. And when the ship can, it brings onboard local fish like Florida's delicious grouper. Crystal doesn't skimp on any luxury ingredient. Think slurp-worthy fresh oysters, silken goose liver pâté. With restricted imports on Caspian Sea caviar, Crystal often uses the much-celebrated (and pricey) Black River caviar from Uruguay.

Penthouse guests can order caviar, lobster, crab claws and other spendy hors d'oeuvres to their suite or cabin for free. Imagine, daily caviar and lobster-fests and no bill. That and the amazing butlers who present food as if you were royalty, make (if you can afford it) a Penthouse experience an unparalleled one.

But even if you're in the least-expensive stateroom, you will enjoy caviar, lobster and many other luxe treats often and throughout the cruise. (And if you're on a holiday cruise, the ante is upped further.)

Pastries are usually where cruise lines pinch costs. I've often mourned the dismal taste and texture of frozen, preservative-filled muffins and croissants "baked" onboard. Serenity croissants are different. Pick one up and inhale the sweet fresh butter aroma. Break one apart and watch the outside shatter into shards while the visibly multiple layers inside beg for jam. Croissants this flaky are made the cut-no-corners classic way, with elbow grease and superb (usually high-grade European or New Zealand) butter.

Muffins and other "simple" delicious sweets like chocolate chunk cookies possess similar made-from-scratch virtues. Even though they're everyday staples, they're prepared with first-rate butter and chocolate such as ├╝ber-expensive Valrhona (arguably dubbed the best in the world), featured in elegant evening desserts.

Crystal shows its devotion to quality countless more ways. Real maple syrup at breakfast. Hand-braided fresh-baked breads in the ever-changing daily basket. (I'm pining for the whole-grain rolls studded with sunflower seeds.) Fruity olive oil, well-aged balsamic, honey flavored with truffles -- you get the picture.

CONSISTENCY

Consistency is critical to culinary prowess and it's often elusive, even on luxury liners. Crystal nails consistency. Meal after meal, day after day. It's like robots are manning the kitchen. To accomplish this, chefs have to invest much time (which translates to much money) in seriously training cooks in Crystal's demanding standards of technique. Remember, cooks and chefs come and go as contracts end. But the food has to stay the same. Of course, not every dish is perfect. I came across over-salted vegetables, Asian chicken salad with bland dressing and pizza with a doughy crust. I also had salty soup and stir-fried lobster with an insipid sauce. And a froufrou dessert that looked better than it tasted. Perfection is only found in that great big cruise ship in the sky. But when you weigh the vast quantity of dishes (including lavish themed buffets) with the quality, you must be impressed.

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Prego Filet Mignon   Pate Display

FINESSE

Finesse defines premium cuisine and on the Serenity, it's always on display. Even the morning waffle is textbook-perfect. It has this fork-shattering crispy exterior and soft interior that soaks up every drop of maple syrup. This waffle of nearly unspeakable pleasure is more often experienced in a Four Seasons-style hotel or at a superstar chef's restaurant (I'm thinking Thomas Keller's Bouchon in Las Vegas) than on a cruise ship.

I'm still enamored with the simplest entrée I ordered, Florida snapper with steamed spinach. A whole parboiled peeled tomato in a blushing pink hue is spread atop the pale fish like a flattened heart. Crispy flash-fried spinach, strewn over the plate, contrasts the soft steamed spinach beneath the snapper. Simple? Hardly. Starters like sautéed frog legs on Meyer lemon risotto with glazed tomatoes, or entrees such as stuffed baked quail with porcini mushroom and brioche bread stuffing, are fancier examples of complex labor-intense dishes. (And yes, those old-timers, beef Wellington and baked Alaska, are occasionally served and well-prepared.) Displays of such skill are nightly feats throughout the ship.

I read in one prominent national magazine that a writer thought after a week or so onboard, everything tasted the same. Not true by me. For starters, the ship uses different stocks for different sauce bases, which ensure different tastes.

Plus, there's too much culinary diversity. A multitude of preparations that span the globe. The only commonality that prompts dish comparisons is that everything is made with finesse. Look, it's easy to be snarky. As a writer, you get more attention that way. But if the food is good, it's right to say so. I'll be the first to declare the opposite when it's not.

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Lobster at Gala Buffet   Tower of King Crab Meat

DIVERSITY

An anomaly for luxury lines, Crystal has two fixed dinner seatings in the Crystal Dining Room. Passengers who like the pomp and circumstance of multi-course dining, with assigned waiters who learn their likes and dislikes, gravitate here. Even at lunch, where leisurely (and usually heavier) meals rule.

But Crystal must also please guests who want dining freedom. Serenity offers two intimate restaurants, Prego, and Silk Road and The Sushi Bar. Both are complimentary (except for $7 per person suggested gratuities) and affiliated with star chefs or restaurateurs.

Silk Road and The Sushi Bar Silk Road and The Sushi Bar boasts superstar chef Nobu Matsuhisa as consultant. Matsuhisa is renowned for his Japanese fusion fare. His chic Nobu restaurants pepper the globe and reservations are hard to score.

To the younger, well, more hip cruisers who view Nobu Matsuhisa as a culinary god, dining at Silk Road or the adjoining (no-reservation) Sushi Bar on Nobu's signature miso black cod or a behemoth sushi platter is downright thrilling. Prepared by Nobu-trained chefs, much of the food is as good as at Nobu; worthy of a smug text to envious friends back home.

Prego Prego features some dishes from Valentino, Piero Selvaggio's legendary Los Angeles restaurant. The northern Italian-inspired Prego has only slightly changed its appealing menu since my last sailing a few years back. My least-favorite starter (and, ironically, most-requested recipe) is still around; rich, heavy mushroom cream soup in a bread bowl.

But it's thumbs-up for the "new style antipasti" plate. It stars lemon oil-poached lobster tail; Wagyu beef (American-style über-rich Kobe beef) and foie gras polpetti (meatballs) on white truffle-flavored celeriac (celery root); and grilled eggplant and bell pepper involtini (roll-ups). This elegant modern starter would be $25 at a similar restaurant ashore. I keep mentioning price comparisons to drive home my point that Serenity's cuisine throughout the ship is equal to top fine-dining restaurants back home, yet is included in the cruise cost (other than the private Vintage Room; see below). Many other cruise lines charge extra for any food outside the main dining room.

And There's More Guests wanting quick casual meals frequent the Lido Café on Deck 12 for breakfast and lunch. It's primarily cafeteria-style so it's my least-favorite dining venue. I prefer The Trident Bar & Grill or Tastes for lunch, both on Deck 12. At The Trident, juicy burgers and crispy sweet potato fries are midday fun.

Noontime choices are more upscale at the open-air Tastes. Chilled lobster and melon gazpacho with lime and sourdough croutons, and barbecued duck quesadillas set the bar. Tastes is open some evenings and you'll often find younger, casually clad guests enjoying surprisingly sophisticated dishes, like a duo of grilled filet and short ribs in Cabernet red wine sauce with truffle mashed potatoes, or a trendy Wagyu beef burger. Nothing beats dinner under the stars with a balmy ocean breeze.

Unless, that is, you're blowing the budget for a winemaker dinner in The Vintage Room. This is the only dining room that charges ($210 per person, including wine and gratuities; 10-guest minimum.) But the wines are serious and the food created for vintage bottles; this room is mostly for private parties.

The Bistro, for late-morning to late-afternoon snacks or meals, has a European feel. It's designed for lingering, over frothy cappuccinos heady with cinnamon, or a plate of prosciutto, smoked salmon and imported cheese. Presentations change twice daily, and offerings are top-notch.

At Palm Court, tea and scones are afternoon highlights. Sometimes the ship goes hog-wild with special teas, such as an all-chocolate. I'm fine with the take-me-to-England classic scone. And the clotted cream? Dreamy.

Themed Buffets On my two-week cruise we had five themed lunch buffets. The Deck 5 gala buffet is an embarrassment of riches, from caviar-topped smoked trout morsels to fresh lobster. Nuevo Latino's menu, a celebration of all foods Latin, includes some dozen breads, such as sweet onion flatbread, and orange-cumin; and coconut glazed sugarcane tuna on dried shrimp salsa. Asia Café wanders the Orient with exotica like Peking duck, Vietnamese fried rice and Indonesian-style saté. And the American Classic buffet, with barbecued ribs, seafood gumbo and chicken pot pies, is, well, finger-licking good.

Dialing for DinnerStateroom dining is 24/7. All guests can order from the Crystal Dining Room during dinner hours, as well as from the room service menu. Dishes arrive nicely presented, with restaurant-style flourishes. Penthouse guests can also order from Prego or Silk Road and The Sushi bar, an enviable perk.

Picky EatersOn a low-fat, low-carb, diabetic or gluten-free diet? Or perhaps Kosher-style cuisine rings your bell. Whatever the dietary penchant, Crystal will meet the demand.

JOIE DE VIVRE

I know I said four words characterize Crystal dining, but I'm adding one final thought. Beyond stellar service, it's the joy Crystal brings to the table (pun intended) that elevates its dining above most competition. I've rarely seen a culinary crew -- from busboys to chefs -- more obsessed over preparations and presentations, from the littlest latte to bountiful buffets. Even ship officers run around like beaming parents at weddings and bar mitzvahs, urging guests to take a taste here, a sample there.

Indeed, food is a binding -- and bonding -- element uniting passengers and crew. And in the repetitive world of a cruise ship kitchen, it's an art and a passion to present every meal as if the crew was cooking and serving it for the first time. This is an immeasurable asset, and perhaps, the very heart of Crystal's culinary success.

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