Luxe Lunch Aboard Crystal

| Thursday, 06 Dec. 2012

The entrance to the Crystal Symphony Dining Room

I was invited for lunch and a tour of Crystal Symphony when it docked at the World Cruise Center in the Port of Los Angeles a few Sundays ago. This ship hadn't been on my radar for ages. It's been years since I was onboard, and while I knew about several dry dock upgrades, I had only seen the results online. So despite having laundry and other weekend chores, I decided duty beckoned and I'd drag my husband along.

"We're going to lunch on the Crystal Symphony this Sunday?" said my spouse, when I proposed the idea. "There's a big football game I want to watch."

He was not a happy camper but he agreed to make the drive, about an hour or so from our home. When we reached the pier - both of us cranky, thinking of what we wanted or needed to do, instead - our moods lifted when we saw the ship. Our memories of Crystal Cruises were fond, although most relate to sails on what was once Crystal Harmony, and the Symphony's signature sibling, 1070-passenger Crystal Serenity.

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"Look," he cried out. "There's a Disney ship, too." We watched happy families dragging their luggage, kids running ahead, the parents bedraggled, all eager to board. We felt their excitement and suddenly we were excited, too. We were like Pavlov's dogs, salivating, in this case, at cruise ships.

After receiving visitors' badges, we were permitted onboard the 922-passenger luxury ship. The crew smiled and welcomed us warmly, as if we were sailing, too. Happy couples strolled by; the size of their smiles told me they were passengers. My husband and I glanced at each other; yup, we had cruise-envy.

After meeting a few other journalists, we went on the tour. I had clearly become a West Coast girl, because I kept saying, "Wow," at each new sight, no doubt annoying many.

I couldn't believe the changes since I was last onboard - this $15 million redesign was the last phase of a $65 million, five-year plan to redesign every aspect of this ultra-luxury ship.

The Symphony looked radically different. Sleek and glam. Brighter. More open. More residential than nautical, with Art Deco flourishes that spoke to my Art Deco-loving self. So many interesting pieces, from lamps to rugs. Rooms looked like they were sprung from the pages of Architectural Digest. The devil is in the details, and every detail here looked utterly high-end.

Three different interior design companies from the UK and U.S. created the visions for the new spaces. Inspiration was culled from classic icons like Manhattan's 21 Club and Hollywood's Coconut Grove. Premier lighting consultants worked with the designers; if you're into design you know lighting is critical to transforming spaces.

Pretty much every room - from cabins to public areas - had stylish redos. Palm Court was a head-turner. The former staid tearoom still had its signature palms, but it was way more glam. The stainless and hand-tiled mosaic bar. The floor, a mix of white, laser-cut Calacatta marble, soft grey swirling wood and bold graphic carpeting.

New lighting, including faceted Lucite wall sconces and Murano glass table lamps, made the space much sexier. The rock crystal, branch ceiling light fixture resembled one I was coveting for my dining room, only larger. Suede wall upholstery, electric window shades and a larger, spiral-design dance floor amped up the new electric look.

Avenue Saloon, my favorite Crystal bar, had gorgeous new lamps, inset rugs reminiscent of manor-homes and more conversation areas (the piano was relocated) including tufted booths and antique-style trunk tables. Cozy and elegant.

The Hollywood Theatre was a jaw-dropper. New smoked wood-grain walls, velvet curtains and high-back ivory-hued leather seating made the once functional room astonishing. The football game was playing on the giant screen as we entered. I looked over anxiously at my husband, figuring he'd want to bail out of the tour. But he was too busy exclaiming over the beauty of this screening room to notice the tie-score.

The Bridge Lounge looked very Palm Beach-y back in the Gilded Age. Frosted mirrors, saffron panel-covered walls, built-in wood pieces - the inviting design made me wish I knew how to play the game.

The staqe was expanded in the Galaxy Lounge, providing better visuals to guests. Custom starburst-designed carpet, black marble flooring and modern mohair seating made the showroom look so chic.

Even the tender embarkation area (an eyesore on nearly all ships) was redone, including these cool five-feet-tall travel photographs from around the world and aged teak, plank-style flooring.

My favorite revamp may be the Lido Café. The contemporary Hamptons-style furnishings were admirable, but the real highlight was the switch from long cafeteria lines with food in big chafing dishes to upscale "food islands," which reduce or eliminate line waits.

Prego looked dramatically new with chocolate suede walls and red wine-colored upholstery. Silk Road and The Sushi Bar also appeared transformed, with sleek new seating, a gorgeous colorful glass wall and Zen fountain.

My husband, who has always cared more about ports than ships, turned to me and said, "You know, I can see where people come onboard just to be on the Symphony rather than caring where it goes. This ship is a destination, like a fine hotel." Me, the cruise ship fanatic, couldn't have agreed more.

After all the touring, we worked up an appetite for lunch. Actually, that's not true. One, I always have an appetite. Two, we had passed The Bistro, the all-day dining venue, which caused me to drool.

"Psst," I said to my husband, calling him over to my side as our group marched on. "Look," I said, "the smoked salmon looks just as rosy and silky as the salmon we ate on Serenity. And check out my favorite chocolate chunk cookies." I love those cookies. Although not made onboard (Crystal is very open about what they make and what premier purveyors supply), they are baked fresh daily and are delicious. The big thick chunks of chocolate are killer.

I was thinking of pilfering a couple, but the other journalists were looking at me oddly. Clearly, they were not food writers. I reluctantly left The Bistro and joined my group.

We entered the Crystal Dining Room to lunch on a tasting menu comprised of dishes from Symphony's signature restaurants. First up was a lobster spring roll from Silk Road by Nobu. (Nobu is like Madonna; one name only for this superstar. The famed chef, who rocketed to international stardom for his South American tweaks on Japanese cuisine, consults for the Asian restaurant onboard both Crystal ships.)

This spring roll was skinny and crisp; so crisp, it crunched unladylike between my teeth. I admired its greaseless taste and loved the tart flavors of the accompanying Maui onion tomato salsa. So many spring rolls come with sweet fruity sauces; this take was refreshing.

Next up, risotto "con Zucca," risotto with roasted butternuts squash, baby beets and shaved pecorino cheese from Prego, the ship's Italian eatery. This carefully cooked rice dish (it must be stirred constantly as it simmers, with liquid slowly added) was as rich as Warren Buffett. Too much butter for me but I admired the creaminess of each grain and gobbled the perfectly cooked golden and red beets, instead.

My husband was beaming with each sip of paired wine. Our main course was 72-hour prime beef "persille" (parsley), with truffle parsnip mousseline (full of cream and butter, like a decadent mash) and caramelized shallot demi-glace (rich brown sauce with a reduction of veal stock) from the Crystal Dining Room. The luscious parsley and spice-crusted beef was slow-cooked until it melted in your mouth, much like short ribs.

The beef was paired with Edge, a 2009 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. We admired its classic berry flavors, hint of spice and smooth tannins. It paired beautifully with the beef.

Valrhona, pricey French chocolate rated one of the world's best and a Crystal staple, was showcased for our dessert. A delicate chocolate "box" was filled with creamy mousse and topped with raspberries so big, they looked like they were on steroids. Despite their plump size, they were sweet and juicy.

It was time to leave the ship but we weren't ready. We had totally fallen into the cruise groove. Frankly, it was disconcerting. "I keep thinking you are going to the gym and I'll meet you back in the cabin," I said to my husband. "I know," he replied wistfully. "I don't really want to get off."

We lingered in the Atrium, watching passengers board, enjoying their excitement. We peeked in the shop windows, and yes, we returned to The Bistro. My husband shot me a big smile. "This afternoon was way more fun than I imagined," he said. I grabbed a napkin and wrapped two chocolate-chunk cookies to go. Maybe we weren't going on a cruise, but at least we could take a taste of the cruise with us.

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