Culinary Quest Aboard Seabourn Odyssey

| Tuesday, 05 Mar. 2013
Our culinary editor gives this luxury line the palate test. Will the food tastes as good as it looks in these pictures?

I usually board ships with an open mind and an eager palate. Yet a rumor that Seabourn's luxury ships were fantastic in every way - but cuisine - had met my ear. Whispers from envious competitors? Perhaps, but also comments by paying-passenger friends. So in June I joined a seven-day Odyssey sail for my first Seabourn cruise with trepidation - and seven bags of peanut M&Ms (my favorite.)

I never did open those M&Ms. I was too busy eating the food onboard the 450-passenger, all-suite Odyssey (which launched in June, 2009). Food this fine means more work; it's hard to write a credible culinary article when there's so little to fault. I don't want to gush like a BP oil well. So here are the facts as I saw, or rather, tasted them.

THE RESTAURANT

The main dining room took my breath away. Sheer white drapes, theatrically descending from the ceiling, separated The Restaurant into intimate sections punctuated by crystal chandeliers. Exotic pale peach roses, their stems visible in "water-filled" glass vases, dressed each table. These faux flowers looked surreally real.

Every table appointment was thoughtful. And international. Sleek salt and pepper grinders were by France's Peugeot. Shiny Sambonet silverware hailed from Italy.

Dining in The Restaurant was a cruise highlight, and not just for the setting. The food was meticulous, from the black lava salt-sprinkled butter to soufflés perfumed by bourbon vanilla beans.

Celebrated chef Charlie Palmer ( Manhattan's Aureole restaurant put him on the map) is Seabourn's culinary consultant. (Seabourn calls him their "gustatorial guru.") Menus onboard embrace his modern American cooking style based on classic French techniques.

Seabourn Odyssey uses the finest ingredients. USDA Prime and top-tier Choice aged beef, New Zealand lamb, Valrhona chocolate and premium American farmed caviar (wild caviar has been globally banned) are among the fancy foodstuff onboard.

My dinners were infused with creativity, particularly dessert. Take petit fours popsicles, vanilla ice-cream bonbons, drenched in chocolate, jabbed onto wooden sticks. Grab a stick, slide the bonbon into your mouth and wham. Nirvana.

And the above-mentioned bourbon vanilla soufflé. The waiter cut a perfect triangle into the top, carefully removed it, poured raspberry sauce into the hole and then gently replaced the soufflé top. I could barely see the knife marks. That waiter should be doing plastic surgery.

Soups also displayed the kitchen's prowess. Presentations began with a bowl, empty except for a garnish. A waiter then poured broth or puree over the top.

One evening, a server showed me a sole stalk of white asparagus (in high season in June in Europe ) and then drenched it in velvety white asparagus soup. Another night, Pecorino cheese custard filled a bowl bottom before it melted, trembling, into a dousing of steaming double beef consommé.

Consomme usually makes me think of stomach flu or very old people on very old ships, but not this one. Made with short ribs instead of the usual stew meat, it had the intensity of short ribs' divinely rich flavor and none of the fat. This was très chic consommé, like one Rihanna or, say, Angelina Jolie might fancy.

Osso buco was also a boat-rocker. Think two plump veal shanks, bones loaded with marrow. (And the dish came with a marrow spoon.) With only gentle prodding, the meat tumbled off the bones and into veal jus as rich as most Seabourn passengers. Risotto was a delicious conundrum, creamy and chewy at once. Bits of turnips and carrots provided bursts of color.

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The Restaurant - Braised Veal Osso Buco, Shallot Marmalade, Porcini Risotto and Lemon Herb Gremolata   The Restaurant - Sauteed Escalope of Foie Gras, Roasted Apples, Caramelized Honey   The Restaurant - Herb-Crusted Rack of Lamb, Fondant Potatoes in Mustard Jus, Peas and Wilted Lettuce

The open-seating Restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. As in all shipboard outlets, wines and liquor are complimentary and gratuities are included.

The Restauraunt is not that busy midday as most guests were either onshore, noshing poolside or at The Colonnade buffet. I did lunch here once on a juicy fat lamb burger topped with feta cheese and grilled eggplant on a thick homemade bun. It was as satisfying as the long nap that followed.

During my week onboard, I found only a few off-putting dishes. Black bean soup was salty. Evening spreads, such as tahini or artichoke, were often bland. A cheesecake duo ( New York cream cheese, Italian ricotta), paired to contrast styles, tasted curiously similar.

RESTAURANT 2

Restaurant 2 is the most coveted reservation onboard. The tiny room was booked every night of my cruise. (I know guests who gave up Seabourn's complimentary evening concert at Ephesus just to score a table.)

I wouldn't give up Ephesus for any meal, but I'm glad I dined here. The look, with black leather chairs, red banquettes and purple pillows, was smashing. Sexy and romantic.

The seven-course tasting menu changes for every cruise. My menu was clever, creative and cutting-edge, reflecting the latest trends (including froths and foams of molecular gastronomy).

I loved the opener, "caviar in the cloud, foggy potatoes," which was about ethereal mashed potatoes (lots of cream), crabmeat and caviar.

A non-traditional trio of sushi soon followed; seared flank steak with sesame mayonnaise; barbecued salmon with jalapeno; duck confit with roasted pepper relish. It was good (particularly the duck confit), but the least engrossing course.

The next was the best. A "cappuccino" soup of porcini mushrooms and chestnuts (reduced to an intense essence) was brilliantly matched by honey-spiced squab and fig empanada. I didn't want this course to end. But then came beef tenderloin, paired with lobster, in a new age take on surf-and-turf.

Three dessert courses (tasting-size) included apricot beignets with citrus compote, and a "nightcap," a boozy blend of vanilla ice cream, Amaretto, Grand Marnier, Kahlua and who knows what other liqueur, crowned with foam. Good thing I wasn't driving. I drank it all.

THE COLONNADE

The Colonnade's breakfasts were my reason to get up in the morning. The ship's casual restaurant features breakfast and lunchtime buffets, and internationally themed sit-down dinners. But this eatery is far fancier than the typical Lido-style buffet restaurant.

The room, with indoor and outdoor seating, looks more like a smart city restaurant than a cruise ship café. Tables vary in heights and sizes. Tied-back drapes, soft neutral tones and breathtaking vistas add to the modern elegance. And rather than one or two long rows of buffet items, displays are positioned around the room, avoiding a cafeteria appearance.

Each morning the restaurant manager greeted passengers with a genuinely cheery "good morning". The name of a daily, cooked-to-order special was scribbled in chalk on a blackboard menu.

One day the special was granola-crusted French toast. It may be the best I've tasted. (Do not take this lightly; I've tasted a lot.) Thick slices of egg bread were soaked in egg custard, dipped sparingly in granola and softly sautéed until golden-brown-crunchy outside and custardy inside. It tasted improbably light, like it could float off the plate and out to sea.

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breakfast pastry   The Restaurant - Lunch, Grilled Lamb Burger with Feta, Grilled Eggplant and Homemade Bun   french toast

Another day, the special was waffles, but they were thin and limp. The following morning, a Spanish omelet special (more like a frittata) scored far better.

Breakfast pastries were nearly uniformly excellent; only bran muffins were dry and heavy. And I'm not convinced I loved the butter the pastry chef used; the flavor and texture were evident in baked goods, but not the aroma.

Still, almond croissants shattered into buttery bits. Brioche had French-bakery-perfect top knots and glossy egg washes. And darn those jelly-filled doughnuts. They tasted made-from-scratch with a pleasingly yeasty flavor. I had to have two each day just to affirm my conclusion.

Servers were everywhere, offering to fetch food, carry trays and pour coffee. If a guest was indecisive about what to eat or order, servers made special suggestions. Cooks stood guard over buffets, ensuring every platter stayed pristine. Fresh fruit was always ripe, even at the end of the cruise. (Most cruise provisions are brought onboard at voyage onset.)

Chafing dishes held the usual suspects, including nicely scrambled eggs and assorted bacons, and were refreshed often. Those serving vessels, however, were used sparingly. Most food was presented on lovely platters.

Lunch was standout. One sunny afternoon in the Greek Isles, the menu captured the essence of our locale. (I've never understood why ships do Mexican buffets on the Riviera . Or in China , for that matter.)

Sharp feta punctuated the ripe tomatoes and crunchy peppers of a Greek salad. Sundried tomatoes (yellow, red, orange) soaked up all the fruity flavors of olive oil-herb marinade.

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Bar Hors D'Oeuvres   breakfast brioche   The Restaurant - Galley Lunch Buffet, Baked Alaska

Golden spanakopita (spinach and cheeses baked in filo dough) flaunted the contrast between creamy cheese and flaky pastry. And grilled fresh sardines had a real ocean funk smell (that's a good thing).

Each day, a cook sliced a roast or fish to order. One afternoon, it was salmon, elegantly wrapped in puff pastry. Nearby, jumbo prawns, encased in prosciutto and woven on wooden skewers, fought for attention.

Even chafing dishes held unordinary fare, like black mussels steamed in coconut milk with dried red pepper, and grilled Mediterranean vegetables, meticulously arranged to showcase their vibrant hues. Specials like al dente spaghetti -- each strand coated with butter, adorned with big rings of tender calamari -- was, indeed, special that day.

Desserts were uniformly good. Cheesecake nailed the balance of flour to cream cheese, while éclairs were filled with pastry cream with the texture of silk. Only American-style cookies disappointed; oatmeal raisin and chocolate-chip were often dry.

While breakfast and lunch consistently excelled, themed dinners didn't always match the quality of The Restaurant and Restaurant 2. For instance, one night's osso buco was a less exciting version of The Restaurant's. On French night, the weak onion soup lacked caramelized onions.

The biggest lure of The Colonnade at night is dining outdoors, where the darkening sky and sunset weave their magic. One night, I lingered over exquisite foie gras terrine, chateaubriand and white peach sorbet, at one with nature and my meal.

PATIO GRILL

I only lunched at the poolside Patio Grill, although breakfast, lunch and dinner are served here. Lunch includes salads, pizza, burgers and hot dogs. It was all fine, and service, like everywhere on the Odyssey, was excellent.

COFFEE BAR

Situated in Seabourn Square (the ship hub, Deck 7), the Coffee Bar enticed guests looking for a morning or late-afternoon pick-me-up. A genial Frenchman worked a pricey machine, fashioning cappuccinos and espressos with impeccable foam. Guests perched on bar stools and schmoozed, or took away steaming joe in paper cups.

In the morning, chocolate chunk muffins, baby croissants and brioche beckoned from a glass case. In the afternoon, dainty sandwiches and pastries took their place. (These treats were all good and all complimentary.)

GALLEY LUNCH BUFFET

Seabourn smartly positioned buffet tables in the dining room to reduce the traffic flow into the galley. These tables were laden with breads, cheeses and desserts.

Inside the galley were "action stations," meaning chefs were cooking, finishing or garnishing dishes before guests, upping the fun and energy.

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The Restaurant - Galley Lunch, Fruit Tarts   The Restaurant - Galley Lunch Buffet, Beer Can Chicken   The Restaurant - Galley Lunch Buffet, Baked Alaska

A cook, brandishing a big knife, stood behind beer-cooked chicken (replete with Heineken cans on display). Another cook dipped skewers of bread chunks into bubbling cheese fondue. One chef stood by small skillets, stirring risotto, adding sautéed mushrooms or seafood upon request.

At the end, the cooks paraded out of the kitchen to generous applause. They glowed with pride. These men and women owned their work and the results were on our plates.

IN-SUITE SERVICE

As with all dining venues onboard, the emphasis was on service. One morning, my breakfast order was mixed up. That night, I received a bottle of champagne, chocolate-dipped strawberries and a handwritten note of apology from the hotel manager.

On another day, my fruit plate was presented like a still life painting; a long-stemmed cherry here, a thick slice of mango there.

Caesar salad had a real anchovy bite. Prosciutto and melon came with addictive parmesan bread sticks, and rosy smoked salmon was accompanied by lemon crème fraîche and caper berries.

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In-Suite Service, Caviar   In-Suite Service - Prosciutto and Melon, Breadsticks, Parmesan   Smoked Salmon

I didn't like everything; hash browns shaped into a greasy wedge looked and tasted like a chain diner's spuds, and one night, a steak arrived overcooked.

The crown jewel of in-suite service? Caviar and champagne. Complimentary. Whenever you wanted. But the caviar is not listed on the in-suite service menu. You have to know to ask, so I am telling any novice Seabourn cruiser that now.

Turndown chocolates were irresistible Belgian chocolate squares from Varda Chocolatier, in flavors like mint or orange chocolate. The packaging said goodnight in five languages.

I just wish the ship didn't use inexpensive-looking plastic covers for room service plates. They did not befit the Odyssey's otherwise, and overall, sensational culinary style.

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