The Bistro's Magnificent Housemade Cupcakes
I'd love to be the writer who discovers that the emperor, or in this case, chef, has dull knives. That maybe the wizard at the wok isn't a wizard at all. But Crystal Cruises isn't going to be that luxury line that makes this girl say plus ça change, plus ne change pas. This line isn't resting on its laurels. It can't. In an age where foodies feel faint if ketchup isn't homemade, a posh ship must whip up further culinary razzle-dazzle to keep fans.
Plus, new competition nips at its heels. Not from a luxury liner, but from upper-premium Oceania Cruises. Oceania has branded its newest ships (Riviera, Marina) as built from the ground-up for foodies. And they largely deliver; the company spends big bucks on premium ingredients prepared new-school-style, and has introduced at-sea culinary innovations, such as an olive oil menu and hands-on cooking school.
Without a new ship to broaden its culinary concepts, Crystal Cruises worked with the existing 1,070-passenger Serenity and 922-passenger Symphony (spectacularly redone in 2012) to up the gastronomic ante. Last year, the line went all-inclusive, meaning specialty restaurants, wines and spirits and gratuities are included in the cruise cost -putting it on par with competition such as Silversea and Seabourn.
Unlike most luxury lines with open seating, Crystal offered two fixed dinner seatings. In January 2011, they introduced "Perfect Choice Dining," allowing guests to choose between early or late seating nightly, if desired. Plus, besides specialty restaurants Prego and Silk Road & The Sushi Bar, guests can dine without reservations at casual cafes The Bistro and Tastes, now open nightly.
A few months ago, I sailed on Crystal Serenity on a Black Sea voyage from Venice to Istanbul, visiting exotic ports such as Yalta and Odessa in the Ukraine. (Crystal Symphony covers similar ground in July 2013 cruises - including one sail with superstar Nobu Matsuhisa, whose glam Nobu restaurants dot the globe. Crystal has the only affiliation with this chef at sea.)
Some two years had passed since I had last been onboard. What changed? Or perhaps more importantly, what hasn't?
SOURCING THE BEST
Even the best chefs can't cook six-star cuisine without utilizing six-star ingredients. Crystal still spends a small fortune on foodstuff. Fresh berries and herbs. Michel Cordon Bleu smoked salmon - ranked one of the best in America. Fresh lobster; some 80% of fish Crystal purchases is fresh. Seafood for Silk Road & The Sushi Bar undergoes intense scrutiny and is stored in a special freezer ordered by Nobu Matsuhisa.
Cupcakes, most pastries and bread (even hot dog buns) are made from scratch. Beef is U.S. Angus, with Wisconsin veal. Orange juice is fresh. Maple syrup is real and pure. Nearly all ice cream, sorbet and yogurt are made in-house, including fresh waffle cones. Some 30-to-40 stellar cheeses are onboard for each cruise. Valrhona chocolate, arguably the world's finest, goes into desserts.
Breakfast is served in multiple locations, in keeping with Crystal's goal of delivering choice. The Lido Café serves elaborate buffets, Trident Bar & Grill handles the late risers, Crystal Dining Room goes all-out on the service side and The Bistro lures the cappuccino-and-croissant crowd. I didn't love the croissants and Danish on my most recent cruise, although in the past I've raved. I really think it was the butter, which changes depending upon where the ship sails. Other than flatter-than-desired omelets, other morning specialties live up to high expectations. Fruit selections are particularly diverse and always served at their ripest.
Tastes is the alternative to Trident Bar & Grill's top-notch hotdog/burger menu. Barbecued duck quesadillas, tender meat with a tantalizingly sweet-and-spicy sauce, are awesome. Lightly dressed Asian chicken salad, a menu staple, still wins raves.
Barbecued Duck Quesadillas
Crystal Cruises once threw lavish lunch buffets on deck. The variety of dishes was astonishing, and I bet plenty went to waste. In a move more suitable for today (no one wants to eat that much midday), themed buffet lunches are now in The Lido Café and delivered in smaller doses.
The Asian buffet - with Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Malay influences - may be less froufrou but flavors still impact. Roast duckling, carved to order, has skin that practically crackles. Yum potstickers, served in wooden baskets, are steamy on top with brown bellies. Sushi, lychee soup and lamb curry are other standouts.
Yet the Mediterranean buffet is my favorite. Fresh sardines, top-notch pissaldiere (South-of-France flatbread with caramelized onions and anchovies), flaky spanakopita (Greek spinach pie) and cinnamony Moroccan chicken tagine (braised dish) top the list. Rustic lasagna, saffron-scented paella and syrup-drenched baklava (filo-nut dessert) also earn applause.
At cozy Avenue Saloon, hot and cold canapés are a luxe affair. A tony take on pigs in a blanket becomes flaky puff pastry encasing a mini-dog with good snap. Miniature quiche, with caramelized onions and topped with crème fraiche, tastes fabulously French. Golden crisp egg rolls go dressy in skinny cigarette shapes.
CRYSTAL DINING ROOM
Crystal Dining Room, the ship's main restaurant, still looks sparkly fresh. Could be those fancy tabletop appointments, which include Villeroy & Boch china and Frette linens.
Wisconsin veal chop
The continental menu with a modern American bent does meat proud. Take the veal chop, a mammoth slab of Wisconsin's best, cooked to a rosy pink hue. The carefully arranged plate displays artistry and complexity of preparation; an intense veal reduction for the sauce base, the slight chew of slow-cooked risotto, the crispness of broccoli, cooked just to bright-green. And any carnivore would swoon over Crystal's juicy prime rib and lamb chops.
Roasted Rack of Baby Lamb
Silk Road & The Sushi Bar is a culinary trump card for Crystal Cruises. Onboard chefs are trained by Nobu executive chefs and sometimes, by major domo Nobu Matsuhisa himself. While I don't recall the menu changing in the last couple years, I also have no complaints with signature dishes that endure.
I can't imagine that impeccably fresh salmon tartare sprinkled with caviar disappearing. Or the melt-in-your-mouth Wagyu rib-eye ever going away.
Black cod with miso did for Nobu what "National Velvet" did for Elizabeth Taylor; it launched his career. This dish is as timelessly tempting as ever; under the richly lacquered skin is white meat flaking into thick moist slices at the touch of a chopstick.
Nobu's Signature Miso Black Cod
Sashimi and sushi are first-rate. It's nearly unimaginable such quality appears on a cruise ship. Nobu-style lobster with truffle-yuzu (Japanese citrus) sauce is good enough to smartphone a pic and text to friends back home. As for dessert, dark chocolate soufflé cake with homemade sesame ice cream, is all you need to know.
Pristine Sashimi with Jalapeno
MEET ME AT THE BISTRO
For guests wanting light dinners, The Bisto stays open for grazers with fare such as European cheeses, exotic fruit, crackers, smoked salmon, prosciutto and other charcuterie and terrific homey desserts. (Love the banana cupcakes.) Yes, there's a chocolate fountain - such things are old news but guests love it. Munchies like beef sliders and mini-sandwiches are served until 11 p.m.
CHINESE COMFORT FOOD
Tastes at night is like a good neighborhood mom-pop Chinese restaurant - except al fresco and at sea. Crystal's food-and-beverage team spent more than a year researching chefs, sourcing ingredients and visiting dumpling and noodle houses throughout Asia to create the Chinese comfort food menu, which debuted in January 2012.
The efforts pay off; dishes like Singapore-style stir-fried noodles, dumplings, hot-and-sour soup and shrimp fried rice taste authentic. A big shout-out to mushroom-vegetable potstickers and steamed pork buns - they're excellent. Douse with as much chili oil (on each table) as you like.
You can also dine here on more Western fare like rotisserie chicken with matchstick-size roasted root vegetables and fluffy rice pilaf. The white meat can be a touch dry but I love the crisped skin and concentrated chicken jus.
To me, Prego, the Italian restaurant, has undergone the most change. Dishes seems lighter, more modern. Carpaccio of beef, with aged balsamic drizzled tableside is stunning. The bread basket rivals New York restaurants' best with diversity and quality, and specials, like spinach ravioli with mascarpone, quivers at a fork's touch as its dough is so delicate.
Black Angus Beef Carpaccio
I only wish someone offered a marrow spoon for the tender (but salty) osso buco, but I can't pout over lemon souffle with a sugar crust and pillowy-soft custard. And kudos to new petits fours, like lemoncello (Italian liqueur) jellies and butter cookies with dark chocolate "thumbprints."
ALL-INCLUSIVE WINES AND SPIRITS
Complimentary wines are generally impressive, such as Conundrum, a proprietary white blend with floral and bright tropical tastes. Most fall in the $20-to-$30 range. Don't like what's poured? Then request another bottle. Sommeliers make it easy.
Champagne Jacquart champagne is the bubbly (about $30-to $38 per retail bottle) throughout the ship, although Billecart-Salmon (about $45 bottle) appears in penthouses. All-inclusive spirits include premium brands like Grey Goose, Bombay Sapphire and Belvedere.
The Connoisseur List has impressive selections. (On lesser ships, many of Crystal's complimentary wines appear on such a fee-based list.) Wine geeks like me drool reading about Lafite-Rothschild 1982 (I've seen online for about $3,000), or Chateau Petrus 1988 (about $2,000). Of course, drooling over food or wine onboard a Crystal ship for one reason or another is practically de rigueur. www.crystalcruises.com