Oceania Marina's Culinary Coup

| Monday, 09 Jan. 2012


I'm a cruise snob but only about the food. It doesn't matter how much a ship toots its own, er, horn, or receives glowing reviews. I'm a skeptic, and I'm jaded. So count me as one surprised - and yes, impressed - food writer onboard Oceania's 1,250-passenger Marina.

Oceania Cruises is ranked upper-premium, a relatively newish category between premium and luxury. Ships in this grouping are larger than luxury vessels, and charge for extras like alcohol so they can't be deemed luxury - yet still offer many luxurious touches.

Oceania Cruises debuted Marina in January 2011 as an evolutionary step beyond their Regatta-Class ships. Press releases made Marina sound like a food-lover's dream, making me a skeptic.

Bob Binder, Oceania's former President (now Vice Chairman, Prestige Cruise Holdings, parent company for both Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises), said: "Marina is the first ship purpose-built for epicureans. We are committed to serving cuisine that rivals some of the world's very best restaurants."

The first ship built for foodies? Never heard that before.

Oceania's Marina came out swinging with major marketing alliances. Bon Appétit and Wine Spectator magazines. Spa icon Canyon Ranch. Jacques, the first restaurant affiliated with master chef Jacques Pépin.

And no extra fee for any restaurant, including specialty dining. This is rare – if not a first – for upper-premium. Dining choices include six fine-dining restaurants and two private dining venues. The onboard culinary school is for hands-on cooking lessons, not the entertaining, but ultimately useless, demos. This is another huge first for any ship category.

Could Marina be as good for food devotees as it sounds? A few months ago, I took my first cruise to see what was marketing - and what was real.

OVERVIEW Marina's cuisine is equal to food on luxury lines - and in some instances, better. It blows other upper-premium lines I've sailed on, well, out of the water.

Ingredient quality is top-notch. Lobster is sweet and plentiful. Produce looks and tastes fresh-picked. Buffets – in presentation, variety and taste – rival any luxury cruise ships.

Dining rooms are beautifully designed – each radically different from another in ambiance and menus. Service is top-notch, even at buffets.

Much credit goes to Franck Garanger, Oceania's fleet corporate chef. Garanger was corporate chef for Silversea Cruises from 1999-2004, when that line's cuisine received nonstop wows. This savvy French chef – who has worked in Michelin-starred establishments – was hired by hands-on, über-smart Frank Del Rio, chairman and CEO of Prestige Cruise Holdings.

I accidentally met Garanger onboard Marina and couldn't believe his energy, enthusiasm and dedication. He was like a kid in a candy store.

This was no show. We had no scheduled interviews. I bumped into him, day and night. He was always running from kitchen to kitchen, checking the crust on the French bread (his personal passion), sauce consistency, plating. Garanger emphasized how he hires passionate chefs who trained or made their mark onshore. Smart move; career cruise chefs become too comfortable and out of touch; land-based chefs are edgier, more in tune with culinary trends.

Garanger has his finger on the food world pulse. He travels everywhere, tasting the best, and then transforms his experiences into dishes of his own style.

The hard work and talent shows. Marina cuisine should wow food connoisseurs everywhere, particularly those who embrace local ingredients, sustainable foodstuff – everything fresh and good in the culinary world. Honeymooners to baby boomers – this ship's for you.

THE GRAND DINING ROOM Passengers often make main dining rooms their last choice, for when specialty restaurants are booked or buffets are jammed. Not The Grand Dining Room. This venue is no fallback – it's a destination.

It's luxury-liner-lovely, with golden columns and a stunning crystal chandelier set in a soaring ceiling. Soft colors in cream and gold hues and rich woods add to the posh ambiance.

Menus are very much 2012. They meander the Med, emphasizing French technique and including Asian fare. Flavors are intense and pure, reliant on ingredients and technique rather than gimmickry. No old-school (heavy, outdated) cruise line entrees, no weird fusion fare. And no salad with raspberry vinaigrette. (Yes, they're still sailing on some ships.)

Presentations are elegant, sauces restrained. Hollandaise, for instance, is but a glaze on classic veal Oscar. Parmesan foam floats like a cloud above risotto Milanese.

In the morning, there's an "express breakfast" – great when you're dashing to shore yet still want table service. Scrambled eggs, toast and bacon with orange juice and coffee come quickly.

If you have the time, linger over smoked salmon and onion omelets, or paper-thin Swedish pancakes with fine turkey bacon. House-baked breads are wonderful, from muffins and brioche to croissant. (The 135-calorie apple muffin from the Canyon Ranch menu is delicious.)

Lunchtime, crazy-good sesame breadsticks (house-made) and light fare such as cured and grilled salmon in blini "pancakes" with potato salad hits the spot. The potato salad is made with minimal mayonnaise – another sign of Marina's finesse with the smallest of details, and how the ship keeps modern dining in mind.

The dinner menu changes daily and abounds with urbane twists. Count on five starters, two soups, three salads and some seven main courses. Vegetarians can choose from three starters and two entrees.

Canyon Ranch, the fabled spa, presents "Healthy Living Choices," which include an appetizer, salad and main course. Calories and fat and fiber grams are listed. Dishes like roasted veal rack loin with sweet potato gnocchi (405 calories), or pan-seared jumbo scallops with artichoke puree and tomato confit (225 calories) impress.

Main dining venues always offer plain-Jane steak-chicken-salmon entrees. But on the Marina, they are Jacques Pépin signature dishes and possess fancy flourishes, like hand-cut French fries or garlic butter rosettes (flower-shaped).

Good saffron makes the chicken tajine (Moroccan style) with dried apricots and chickpeas. And yay to the Riesling (German white wine) in the wine sauce for grilled fish and seafood with Alsatian (French province bordering Germany) sauerkraut.

Beef is Black Angus (USDA prime steaks are served in the Polo Grill) and lobster is from Maine. Foie gras pops up in several starters over the length of a cruise, from chicken ballotine (rolled and stuffed boned poultry) to handmade ravioli with leek and chive "foamy" sauce.

Chefs here have other foodie faves down pat. Seared tuna? Check. Crostata with goat cheese and mushrooms? Yup. And nice Latin accents, like blue corn tortilla-crusted duck breast with poblano chili sauce. Because that's how the kitchen rolls.

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Rich Chocolate Dessert   Chicken Tagine   Shellfish Appetizer

POLO GRILL Like all good steakhouses, Polo Grill is an indulgence. Pass your cardiology tests before you dine here, because the food can be rich. Beef is USDA Prime and dry-aged at least 28 days. And there's no extra charge for any dish, including the 32-ounce king's cut bone-in prime rib, and the 20-ounce porterhouse. Such a swanky dinner, paired with starters like lobster bisque topped with lobster morsels, or lump crab cakes, would cost big bucks on other upper-premium ships.

Light eaters can select salads topped with grilled chicken or tuna. But who can resist the plump veal chop or a thick rib-eye with truffle mashed potatoes and creamed spinach?

Stay awhile; the Polo Grill is a room for relaxation. (Anyway, who could move after such a big meal?) It's grand-steakhouse-style, with burgundy leather chairs and crisp linens.

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Beefsteak Tomato and Sweet Onion Salad   USDA Prime Dry-Aged Steak   Green Beans Almondine   Trilogy of Homemade Vanilla Marshmallows

JACQUES Created for, and with, legendary French chef Jacques Pépin, this restaurant feels so personal. An antique sideboard, planked wood floors and beautiful oil paintings are most inviting. And with French torch singer Edith Piaf playing softly in the background and a server from Marseilles so I can practice French - how perfect is that?

The original menu was simple bistro dishes like onion soup and rotisserie meats. Perhaps it was too simple; some guests didn't get it takes top ingredients and ship-shape techniques to make this food good.

The new, slightly tweaked menu is more crowd-pleasing. French classics, like truffle-and-pistachio sausage with potato salad, are replaced by dishes such as warm goat cheese soufflé with heirloom tomatoes.

The breads are excellent. Baguettes have a thick crust yielding to a yeasty soft center. This is authentic French bread, the sort that goes stale in hours. Smear a chunk with sweet butter for a taste of heaven.

Dover sole, sautéed with crispy bread croutons, lemon and caper-butter and filleted tableside, is a must-order. It's light, elegant and so very French.

Marveous madeleines (mini-cakes) are served warm from the oven, in fresh-baked flavors like pistachio, chocolate and vanilla. They're irresistible.

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Bread Basket   Olive Tapenade and Garlic Marinated Rotisserie Veal Rack   Madeleines   Dover Sole Sauteed With Crispy Bread Croutons, Lemon and Caper Butter

RED GINGER Red Ginger is red-hot. It's reportedly Marina's most popular restaurant, and certainly, the buzziest.

The décor is 180 degrees from staid or nautical. Think trendy urban, say Los Angeles or New York. Three Buddhas, each carved from a single piece of glass and lit from within, are unabashed drama. Black, red and gold hues pop throughout the room.

The menu roams Asia in a confident style. What would be fried calamari elsewhere, translates to ginger-laced crispy calamari - big sweet pieces – and zero oil. Caramelized tiger prawns are fiery – the heat's cranked up beyond the usual cruise ship level. But I don't taste the Vietnamese-style caramel as much as I'd like – perhaps it's hidden under the heat.

Salads, like avocado lobster salad with crispy lotus, and spicy duck and watermelon, are the respite you need from the bold flavors. And the textures - crispy, soft and crunchy at once - dazzle. Tempura vegetables, with a sheer supermodel-skinny coating, are excellent. Lobster pad Thai, rice noodles crowned with a giant lobster in its bright-red shell, is an eye-popping hit. Tender lamb tenderloin, encased in a five-spice crust, unfolds its deeply marinated flavors "like pages of a book," notes my husband. I couldn't have said it better.

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Green Asparagus with White Miso Glaze   Miso-Glazed Sea Bass   Caramelized Tiger Prawns   Asian-Spiced Lamb Tenderloin

TOSCANA Toscana is meant to celebrate the best of Tuscany. Many recipes supposedly originated with mothers and grandmothers of the Italian culinary staff.

It's hard to move beyond the breads; they're that good. Crunchy breadsticks, buttery focaccia and soft onion-tomato rolls appear with a bulb of roasted garlic. Servers wheel over a cart of specialty olive oils and vinegars, which have their own menu. Would you like hot pepper oil for dipping? Rosemary basil? Or balsamic vinegar with strawberry and wild black cherry notes?

Carpaccio of octopus, with aged Parmesan and champagne vinaigrette, is marvelous. The Caesar is less so; I know the presentation of oils and vinegars takes too much time for servers to make a Caesar tableside. Still, wheeling over a cart just to toss the lettuce with pre-prepared dressing is a letdown.

Velvety gnocchi is bathed in a gutsy pesto. Hand-fashioned tortelloni has a wonderful spinach and ricotta filling, but the sage butter sauce is bland. Pan-seared sea bass is perfect but pounded veal chop is slightly dry.

Tiramisu is mostly cream with not enough cake or espresso. No matter, a stellar chocolate "lasagna" dessert with a lightly roasted pistachio sauce makes up for every disappointment.

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Bread Basket   Octopus Carpaccio with Champagne Vinaigrette and Warm Potato Salad   Trio Toscana of Risotto, Tortelloni and Fettuccine   Toscana - Chocolate "Lasagna" With Roasted Pistachio Sauce

TERRACE CAFÉ Terrace Café is no ordinary all-day buffet. The staff handles nearly everything; guests don't touch most food, which is the way you want it. Presentations are five-star, making you wish you could try it all.

Even the simplest fare is good. Impeccable salads include marinated fennel. Pasta and ravioli are house-made and come with nuanced sauces. A giant haunch of Virginia ham, prime rib or lamb awaits at the carving station, and is sliced to order.

Dinner averages very good to excellent. One night, grilled (over coals) filet mignon, lobster tail and shrimp are the stars.

At breakfast, servers are noticeably cheery, greeting each guest with a warm "good morning." Servers happily deliver foamy cappuccinos, although you can help yourself from a machine. (They do not carry your trays, as they do on luxury ships.) Baked-from-scratch breakfast pastries include flaky croissants and toasted coconut Danish that could destroy any diet.

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WAVES Waves, a poolside hangout, is a food-lover's fantasy. Thick, juicy Wagyu (American-raised, Kobe-style beef) burgers on toasted house-made buns. Big juicy hot dogs, with snap to each bite. And my personal favorite, grilled lobster medallion and filet mignon on toasted ciabatta, with garlic roasted jus and Parmesan-dusted truffle fries.

Unless the tiny kitchen is slammed (which can happen when everyone returns from shore excursions at once), the food is fairly flawless. And hand-dipped milkshakes and malts from the next-door ice cream bar? Thick, rich and creamy, evoking the cool comfort of childhood. And there's no extra charge.

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Chocolate Malted   "Surf and Turf" Lobster Medallion and Black Angus Filet on Ciabatta with Garlic Roasted Jus and Parmesan-Dusted Truffle Fries   Vegetable Platter   Assorted Gelato

PRIVATE DINING VENUES La Reserve by Wine Spectator was created in conjunction with the wine connoisseur magazine. This wine-tasting center offers seminars and tastings by day, and seven-course dinners paired with premium wines at night. Dinners are $95 per guest plus 18% gratuity.

Privée is reserved for private parties, up to 10 guests. The stylish setting – oversized white throne chairs, lipstick-red swirled carpeting and backlit onyx walls – is dazzling. Menus are custom-created from Polo Grill, Toscana or a combination of both. The glam room is yours for the night for $250 – reasonable for a private party, especially since the food is included.

BON APPÉTIT CULINARY CENTER The Bon Appétit Culinary Center may be Marina's greatest coup. Many ships now offer culinary classes, but they're mostly demonstration only, and usually offer poorly written recipes.

On the Marina, you can actually learn to cook. The center mimics a real culinary school. And while it's serious, it's still designed to be great fun.

Each student dons an apron and is assigned a station complete with burners, cutting board, utensils and knives. Kathryn Kelly, the center's executive chef and Director of Culinary Enrichment for Oceania Cruises, is a Culinary Institute of America instructor and completed her doctoral studies in epidemiology from John Hopkins University School of Public Health. Three additional chefs assist, although she's so formidable, she needs little help.

Chef Kelly packs impressive knowledge into classes and commands instant respect. She spends much time teaching basic knife skills. She also tosses out great tips, like small eggs are tastiest as they're from younger chickens.

We each prepare our own potato torta (Spanish tapa) and pan of paella. And we get to taste the results of our work. (If you can call it work; we're simultaneously sipping sangria Chef Kelly whipped up.) Recipes are expertly written, styled for home cooks and teeming with tips.

The buzz is that 2012 shore excursions will include trips to local markets with the culinary center chef, to gather ingredients and cook them onboard. I'll keep you posted.

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Chef Kathryn Kelly, Director of Culinary Enrichment, Oceania Cruises and Executive Chef of the Bon Appetit Culinary Center   Potato Torta   Culinary Center   Happy Student

SUMMATION Oceania Marina's cuisine is giving luxury liners serious competition. I'd sail again for the spicy duck and watermelon salad at Red Ginger, toasted coconut Danish in the Terrace Café or lobster and filet mignon sandwich poolside.

And those are just for starters.

For the total luxury experience on an upper-premium ship, book accommodations on the Concierge or Penthouse decks. Room service is expanded, and private lounges (staffed by a concierge) offer beverages and small bites all day. Butlers on Penthouse floors are the icing on the Marina cake.

Riviera, Marina's sister ship, debuts in April 2012, and I'm curious what culinary refinements will be revealed. Frank Del Rio, Franck Garanger and the rest of this team are not going to rest on their laurels.

All photos copyright 2012 - Janice Wald Henderson

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