Holland America Evening at Le Cirque Dining

| January 7. 2011

According to Holland America, I was the first writer to experience "An Evening at Le Cirque" aboard the Oosterdam in mid-November.

It's all about the food. As cruise lines across all market segments ratchet up the quality of their cuisine in a never-ending quest for culinary supremacy, the battlefield has become a gourmet zone. And in this modern-day epicurean sea scuffle, Holland America Line has fired the latest shot across the bow of the competition. In a recently-announced partnership with the celebrated Le Cirque restaurant, the line aims to impress foodies, jaded veteran cruisers and plain folks alike with a culinary experience heretofore available only in New York or Las Vegas. According to Holland America, I was the first writer to experience "An Evening at Le Cirque" aboard the Oosterdam in mid-November.

So, you ask, do I have the chops to weigh in on this subject? You bet. I've been covering the cruise industry for over twenty years for several publications, including travel trade magazines TravelAge West and Travel Weekly, paying particular interest to cruise cuisine. I'm also a frequent contributor to Travel Weekly's Las Vegas beat, where, as you probably know, celebrity chefs now outnumber Elvis impersonators. And I've had the pleasure of dining at Le Cirque (Bellagio) in Las Vegas, which enables me to use that experience as a basis for comparison.

Although Holland America (HAL) has vastly improved the quality and presentation of their cuisine since I last sailed the line several years ago, I was initially skeptical about the authenticity of a seagoing Le Cirque. After all, owner Sirio Maccioni's famed French restaurant has achieved legend-in-its-own-time status, and pulling off the experience at sea - in the relatively confined environment of a shipboard galley - was an ambitious goal.

Although the logistics were challenging, HAL's Master Chef Rudi Sodamin (himself a wunderkind in the cruise industry), worked diligently with Le Cirque Executive Chef Craig Hopson - at sea and ashore - to recreate the legendary eatery's award-winning dining experience onboard the line's vessels.

For now, "An Evening at Le Cirque" is offered at least once per cruise aboard HAL's ships. The venue is the Pinnacle Grill, the ship's alternative restaurant, where, on the other nights, passengers pay a $20 cover charge to dine in a more intimate setting than the ship's grand Dining Room. Although the standard Pinnacle Grill menu delivers on good quality cuisine and personalized service, the Le Cirque experience notches both up substantially.

Beginning with table settings featuring Le Cirque's whimsical orange Bernardaud china (on loan from New York), the meal that unfolds here is a study in perfection and authenticity.

In order to maintain product standards while remaining true to the cuisine, Sodamin and Hopson wisely agreed to limit the onboard menu to a select set of Le Cirque signature dishes. The wisdom of that strategy is validated by the lone menu appetizer, Lobster Salad "Le Cirque." Plated gorgeously, the half poached lobster sits atop a nest of green beans, surrounded by avocado, potato and grapefruit slices. Softly drizzled with citrus vinaigrette, the dish is sublime.

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Lobster Salad   Sweet Corn Soup

The 2nd course, Sweet Corn Soup, is gently decanted from a kettle into a bowl already laced with mushrooms and a corn fritter. Rich but not too sweet, the soup is a fitting prelude to the 3 choices offered as mains.

While the wild halibut will likely satisfy non-carnivores, the meat-of-the-matter takes center stage here. Double-thick cut Rack of Lamb is seasoned perfectly and served medium-rare - just as God intended. But it's the signature Cote de Boeuf, a 40-oz., aged prime rib strip steak, carved tableside, that's the star of this show. Marbled with just the right percentage of fat, this juicy steak for two makes the transition from plank to plate to palate like a queen ascending the throne. And she's a beauty, too. Accompanied by sides of perfectly prepared and seasoned vegetables and lighter-than-air Pommes Dauphine, the main courses all achieve perfection.

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Beef Presentation   Cote De Boeuf

Wine selections -sourced from Le Cirque's cellars - complement the meal. We enjoyed two Sicilian vintages, both reasonably priced: Feudi Del Pisciotto Chardonnay and Feudi Del Pisciotto Merlot ( both $8 glass/ $39 bottle).

After such a marvelous meal, dessert can often be anticlimactic. Not here. While the chocolate souffl� is passable, the Cr�me Brulee Le Cirque matches up to the menu's brilliance. It's creamy consistency - richer and silkier than typical for this dish - along with its smooth, sweet flavor cap off the night perfectly.

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Topping off the good news is the restaurant's surcharge. Guests enjoy "An Evening at Le Cirque" for only $39 per person. It's the culinary steal of the century. If this wasn't a floating resort, it might be considered highway robbery.

As of late December, Holland America Line had deployed "An Evening at Le Cirque" to all 15 ships in the fleet.

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