Culinary Impressions on Silversea's Silver Whisper

| Tuesday, 05 Mar. 2013

The delicious Relais and Chateaux culinary experience onboard Silversea in the Baltic.

I'm in Baltic bliss, eating my way from Southampton to Stockholm. I've probably tried every bakery in Germany and Estonia. But the gustatory highlight is St. Petersburg, Russia, and three of our 11-day Silver Whisper sail is spent here. Lucky me; most ships spend only two days. And since Silver Whisper is so small (382 passengers), it docks on the Neva River in the city center.

This is huge. St. Petersburg's treasures, (including restaurants) are nearby. Big ships dock about an hour's drive away, which makes serendipitous sightseeing and dining difficult.

My husband and I purchased Russian tourist visas so we're on our own. Otherwise you can only debark on shore excursions. That translates to box lunches on buses or preselected restaurants for group meals.

But I'm jumping ahead. While I love discovering restaurants in port, I equally love dining onboard. On luxury vessels, all meals should be at least pleasurable. At best, they should rival top dining onshore. Often, it's somewhere in-between, with highs and lows along the way.

THE RESTAURANT

On the uber-luxury Silver Whisper, I'm eating well. This ship has four restaurants. The signature Restaurant serves three meals a day. Like most main dining rooms, the continental Restaurant is more formal and lunch can be a big-deal meal.

I'm trying to stay size 6. And stay awake. I can't eat roast leg of lamb or pork scaloppini midday. My husband can and he says they taste great onboard.

So the days we lunch in the Restaurant, I order starters that double as light entrees, like tomato and mozzarella wrap, or grilled eggplant "parcel." Servers are happy to ask the kitchen to hold the pesto mayo or whatever your dietary fancy.

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Asparagus in Puff Pastry Starter
 
Mussels Starter
 
Grilled Sea Bass with Shallot Cream

The evening menu could use revamping. Spinach and strawberry salad is dated. Ditto for duck à l'orange and macadamia nut-crusted mahi mahi. Sometimes, sauces are too much. And mid-meal sorbets should come in more inspired flavors than plain-Jane berry or lime.

Let me be clear. Silversea delivers some of the best food at sea. Premium ingredients abound and onboard chefs are proficient. But on a ship this luxe, menus need to acknowledge the way more of us eat today.

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Foie Gras Starter
 
Roast Chicken with Pearl Onions
 
Pasta with Pesto

That said, I eat and enjoy plenty. Lamb curry is so fragrant its aroma circles the room. Spices are powerful but not overpowering. Taste cardamom in one mouthful, ginger in the next. It's like a flavor rollercoaster, a thriller at each turn.

Grilled sea bass tastes impeccably fresh. Cream sauce is light and sweet with shallots, but too much is on the plate.

The beef is great. Kansas prime rib is juicy-beefy-fatty delish. Tender shoulder of veal, stuffed with sweetbreads, has a port sauce reduced to a glaze so silky smooth, I can nearly see my reflection. Layers of duxelles (sautéed minced mushrooms and shallots) and pate de foie gras, wrapped inside beef Wellington, are textbook-perfect.

Desserts shine, made with world-class Valrhona chocolate and other primo ingredients. Petits fours are my favorite. Each night, the presentation is a surprise. Tiny macaroons, perhaps, with velvety chocolate mini-tarts and nut bars. Teensy tarts are piled with raspberries; their glaze sparkles like jewels.

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Herb-Crusted Lamb Chops
 
Beef Wellington
 
Petits Fours

DRINK UP

Silversea is all-inclusive, so wines and cocktails (along with gratuities) are complimentary. Bartenders pour premium liquor and servers happily refresh drinks. (After all, no one is driving home.)

The Restaurant features one white and one red wine each evening. Feel free to ask for a substitute if you don't like the nightly selection. Sommeliers are quick to satisfy.

Some bottles are finds, ones I might not have otherwise discovered. A Gerard Bertrand Rhone blend from southern France and Billi Billi Shiraz from Australia get my attention. The latter might retail for $16 and be rated about 88 points. Many complimentary bottles are at similar price points. They're good quaffing wines and I love coming across new ones.

Silversea has a connoisseur's wine list of serious bottles with fees. Some are grouped into packages, from $125 to $650. Plan on shelling out $500 for a fab Tuscan trio, including the cult "Super Tuscan" Sassicaia. New World Pinot Noir package runs a reasonable $150 for four bottles; Oregon's well-regarded Domaine Drouhin is among them.

LA TERRAZZA

La Terrazza partners with Slow Food Promozione, an arm of Slow Food Italy. Slow Food is a global, grassroots organization with supporters in 150 countries. Its goal is encouraging people to embrace quality local food, sustainably produced. Kudos to Silversea for joining forces with this worthy movement.

I wish the ship would jazz up the room at night, though. Other than candles, little changes the daytime look. And the olive oil and balsamic presentations are the same as in The Restaurant. Still, you forget and forgive everything dining on the patio, mesmerized by starry skies.

Pasta, mostly house-made, enchant. Pappardelle (broad flat noodles) with duck ragout is rich and rustic. Delicate puffs of ravioli spill herbs and vegetables with each forkful. Fresh tomatoes brighten linguine tossed with perfectly cooked seafood.

Tiramisu may be a cliché, but at La Terrazza, its wild popularity is understood. The chef is fearless with espresso, which soaks deep inside creamy layers, a sharp counterpoint to the cake's richness.

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Hors d'Oeuvres Sampler
 
Pappardelle with Duck Ragout
 
Tiramisu

LE CHAMPAGNE

Love Kiwi maitre d' and sommelier Darlene Parker in this Relais & Chateaux-affiliated restaurant! She makes the romantic little room her own and guests feel instantly at home.

I know I do. The degustation menu costs $30 per person for the five-course meal. It's $150 with wine pairings if booked ahead through Silversea Special Services Department ($200 booked onboard). This elaborate meal is a steal without wine pairings. But you should go all out. At least, order wine from the connoisseur's list. (No complimentary wines are offered at Le Champagne.) Food this special deserves wine.

Le Champagne celebrates indulgence. Imagine the most luxurious ingredients, exquisitely presented. Each evening's menu is themed - to a world region, perhaps, or one posh ingredient.

I choose "Lobster Lavishly," because, well, why not? My five-course extravaganza is an ode to the crustacean and much excels. The amuse-bouche (palate-teaser) features four tiny tastes, but the cute lobster cone and lobster with mango and Jamaican pepper are bland.

Lobster terrine is pleasant while lobster nage knocks my socks off (were I wearing any). The aroma is briny. One whiff and I'm deep in the sea. The soup floods my mouth with lobster flavor and its texture is velvet.

Surf-and-turf, filet mignon and fresh lobster paired with classic sauce, is restraint and elegance - perfect after a mindblower soup.

Pre-dessert is a surprise of dark chocolate shells filled with berry sorbet. They're served too cold and my mouth goes ouch. The actual finale, "Citrus and Bacardi Indulgence," is aptly named and yummy.

Wine pairings are well done and Pommery Cuvee Louise 1999 and Corton Les Bressandes, Grand Cru 2006 are standouts. Parker is generous with refills. And should a wine not suit you, Parker "checks her cubby" and finds something else.

Parker provides guests with personalized menus as souvenirs, beautifully printed on keepsake paper. They're delivered to your suite, rolled and tied with ribbon. Dine here at least once. You won't regret it.

THE GRILL

Nights are magic at sea; no surprise the outdoor Grill is a popular evening destination. This casual venue is poolside, a cheeky transformation from the daytime Pool Grill & Bar. Guests cook their own prime steaks, prawns and chops over heated volcanic rocks.

It's fun and easy. And hard to fault the chef.

Veal porterhouse and Pennsylvania milk-fed veal chop are standouts. I don't try Berkshire (the best) pork chops, but they look luscious.

One night my baked potato (which I do not cook) is served cold and I can hardly taste the balsamic in the salad dressing (which I do not toss). Caesar salad and apple pie, however, are perfect. I tell the chef (who visits each table) that do-it-yourself cooking is such fun he should continue the theme with s'mores for dessert. He smiles and agrees.

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Veal Porterhouse
 
Sides at the Grill
 
Apple Pie

CULINARY ARTS AND WINE SERIES VOYAGES

During the year, some Silversea cruises are designated culinary arts and wine series voyages. Mine is a culinary arts sailing. Lyn Farmer, Silversea's adept wine consultant, leads some classes. "Postcards in a Glass" includes an impassioned, impressively detailed lecture and tasting of Italian, German, Spanish and French wine. (Next time, I'd love to see the names and vintages on the wine mats.)

Farmer brings wonderful Irish farmhouse artisan cheese he personally secured to the tasting. Hegarty's cheddar and tangy Knockalara are revelations. It's such pleasure to note how each cheese impacts the taste of the wine.

My husband takes the "Knife Workshop" led by executive chef David Bilsland. He comes back to our suite a new man. Or, perhaps, a new sous-chef. He says he now knows how to hold a knife and mince, chop and julienne like a pro. He even waves a handout, with detailed information on knife terminology, use and care.

"Vegetables need to be cut evenly, or they won't cook evenly," he says with a tone of authority. Hmm. Good to know.

I take a cooking class led by Executive Chef Bilsland. He both informs and entertains, two necessary qualities for a demo. I watch him cure salmon and whisk two different sauces. The recipe booklet, replete with a weight conversation chart and color photos, is impressive. The tasting is delicious. All in all, a good summation of my time at sea. (silversea.com)

DON'T-MISS ST. PETERSBURG RESTAURANT

Europe Restaurant at the Grand Hotel Europe in St. Petersburg is more like a life highlight than a meal. The iconic hotel was built in 1824 and is a national and cultural landmark. The signature restaurant is a culinary landmark.

Its history is amazing. The famous and infamous have dined here, from Rasputin and Bill Clinton to Prince Charles. Elton John reportedly jumped on stage during his dinner, commandeering the piano and giving guests a lifetime thrill.

The dining room is like magic, a trip back in time - as if you stepped into that fantastical car with Owen Wilson in Woody Allen's hit film "Midnight in Paris."

Everything is oversized; the ceilings, archways with wooden balconies - even the candles. Double-clothed tables are widely spaced, with views of a big stage backlit by stunning stained glass. Waiters are formally dressed and Old World-attentive.

The food astonishes like the décor. A tuxedo-clad waiter wheels over a cart of bread. The breads are so fresh, the aromas arrive before the cart does. Each slice is cut to order. I can't stop eating dark Russian rye studded with pumpkin seeds. Impossibly light rolls possess a near-ethereal smoky flavor from bits of artisan bacon.

Lobster "cappuccino" is an amuse-bouche charmer. And I've never seen king crab like this before, and I've dined plenty in Alaska. This Russian crab has legs like Rockettes - ridiculously long and shapely.

A shot of smoky smooth vodka pairs perfectly with truffle scrambled eggs, spooned into an eggshell, topped with Russian ossetra caviar. This caviar is no longer exported to the U.S. I had nearly forgotten its briny, complex flavor - far superior to what we have at home.

Veal medallions go first-class with black truffles and camembert-melted morels. Vodka-marinated salmon comes with black (squid ink) risotto and beet chips. This risotto is as black as a starless sky. I could have eaten a bowl.

Mango and raspberry sorbets are like concentrated bursts of fresh fruit. Classic cheesecake is the best I've eaten. Ever. Petits fours are beautifully presented, irresistible even after a three-course meal.

Two ex-St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra members, a violinist and pianist, play on stage while we dine. What a concert. What a meal. What a night. (http://www.grandhoteleurope.com/web/stpetersburg/restaurants_europe.jsp)

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King Crab
 
Truffle Scrambled Eggs
 
Europe Restaurant

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