Street Food At Sea

| Thursday, 30 Jan. 2014
Re-imagined Tastes on Crystal Serenity
Article and Photography by  Janice Wald Henderson
Count Scottish cured salmon as one reason why poolside Tastes is now a dining destination after dark
Manners be damned; I may be sitting next to the new Crystal Cruises president, but I’m sneaking a dunk of grilled bread into paprika-stained, garlic-drenched olive oil in a shared bowl.  And, while confessing – I used my, well, used fork to spear more sugar and salt-cured salmon from a communal plate.  The journalist to my left notices, but I shrug it off.  As any food writer knows (I am the only one at this table), when discovering good eats, you tend to dig in first and think later.  And I think Crystal Cruises’ new dinner menu at Tastes (onboard the line’s two ships, Serenity and Symphony), rates two-forks-up.
Tastes was recently transformed from a default evening meal solution (don’t want to dress for dinner; can’t score a res for Prego or Silk Road) to a Lido Deck dining destination as part of a recent $17 million redesign on Crystal Serenity.   Tastes now looks nicer, too.  Like an easy-breezy, rather romantic al fresco restaurant.  Dramatic lighting makes new trees, plants and decorative screens look sexy at dusk.    
The menu is street food at sea.  Of course that’s an oxymoron.  The essence of street food is grittiness.  Terroir on a skewer.  The funk of lamb stewed in a 50-year-old tagine, the sweat of a cook stirring scorpions in a skillet, the furious frying of fish in a dumpy wharf bucket.  But how many cruisers eat street food?  
Western tummies struggle with differing hygienic standards where ships dock.  Plus, most of us don’t crave sheep heads, wok-fried larvae and other exotica on faraway stops.  Still, tasting authentic cuisine of a region is a privilege and a wonder.  Our intentions are good but sometimes the ship is sailing during dinnertime, or we’re too busy touring to explore cuisine onshore.
Tastes’ new small-plate (tapas-style) menu is just for those times, showcasing global culinary specialties prepared with superior ingredients for a cruising crowd.  I assumed the flavors would be muted, filtered through a please-everyone cruise ship mentality.  I was wrong.  
Having eaten my way through 75 countries (some several times over), I can say that although Tastes caters to its audience (meaning insects will not be menu stars), it delivers authentic tastes of signature standouts in many locales with, dare I say, a rather cool hipster edge?
“My new personal favorite restaurant onboard is Tastes,” says Edie Bornstein, president and COO of Crystal Cruises, who calls herself a foodie.
I believe her.  Her eyes sparkle just speaking about food.  And she eats joyfully.  How delightful for Crystal cruisers to have a culinary devotee as a cruise line president.  
 Lebanese flatbread with vegetable tagine, humus, yogurt and wild arugula
Of the menu items I taste, Lebanese flatbread is a standout.  Crisp-edged and freeform, the bread is baked with vegetable tagine (Moroccan-spiced stew) and topped with hummus, Persian-style shallot-flavored yogurt and wild arugula.  Crispy and chewy meets creamy and crunchy, adding up to irresistible.  Would you find this dish in Lebanon?  Probably not.  But if Moroccan street food met Middle Eastern in an edgy eatery, it could and would taste like this.  
The rustic flavors of this small plate are contrasted by the delicacy of the above-mentioned Scottish cured salmon.  How clever the accompaniments – crisped turnips, oatmeal crumble and lemon-shallot crème fraîche (French-style sour cream).  This is modern Scottish cooking, surely served at some hotspot gastropub in Edinburgh or Glasgow.
I sample other plates, like deep-fried chickpeas (think of it as an exotic amuse-bouche), playfully served in a mini deep-fryer basket.  Chili flakes, fresh lemon juice and zest make the garbanzo flavor pop; frying turns the beans crunchy.
Baby beet salad evokes the Middle East again with shanklish (yogurt cheese) and dukkah, an Egyptian spice blend.  The spicing is subtle but distinct, tempting you to take yet another bite until the plate is clean.
Argentinean chimichurri steak with black beans, sweet potato fries and herb sea salt
Tastes menu traverses the globe, delivering a fine representation of Argentina, for instance, with chimichurri steak.  This gaucho-style (cowboy) dish is all about the startlingly green, fragrant olive oil-garlic-parsley sauce, spooned generously over juicy beef.  (If the herbs look and taste fresh, they are:  Crystal now has an herb garden "living wall" onboard the ships.)
The menu also meanders through California  for street tacos, Hawaii for tuna poke (marinated raw chopped fish) and to France for a savory Alsatian Gruyere cheese tart with bacon-leek jam.  The complimentary wine list features Beringer Chardonnay, a perfect companion for the tart.  
Tastes’ wine selections deserve a lift of a glass.  Les Domaniers Sélection Ott 2012 from Provence, France is a lovely rosé – ideal for sipping on a balmy evening outdoors.  Its exotic fruit and white peach flavors work well with the menu.  And cheers for the Austrian pours, like food-friendly Grüner Veltiner – fruity, subtly spicy, moderately acidic – from Schloss Gobelsburg, a historic winery founded by 12th century monks in Austria’s Kamptal wine region.  Someone spent much time and thought on the wine list; it’s the quality found at a good tapas restaurant onshore.   Not necessarily pricey wines, but less ubiquitous, interesting artisan wines that are food-friendly.   
 Bananas Foster bread pudding
I sampled one dessert, bananas Foster bread pudding.  I don’t particularly care for bananas Foster or bread pudding.  But together?  Like Brad Pitt in a bowl.  Specks of vanilla bean dance in freshly churned ice cream, its chill heightened by the warm pudding.  Someone spooned just enough caramel sauce and candied pecans into the glass to make me swoon.  
Tastes’ flavor authenticity comes from hard work.  “Tastes was a long process,” says Toni Neumeister, Crystal Cruises’ vice president of food and beverage operations.  “We started thinking about it three years ago. And then we spent another year seriously talking and food tasting.”
The menu was created in association with Sapphire Restaurant in Laguna Beach, California and its chef Azmin Ghahreman, who specializes in globally nuanced dishes prepared with local artisan ingredients.  Chef Ghahreman was born in Iran and educated in Switzerland.  As an executive chef for five-star resorts around the globe, he cooked for more than 30 kings, presidents and heads of state, including former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.   The noted chef and his team will be onboard the ships every three months to maintain high standards.
Crystal Vice President Toni Neumeister mentions the onboard chefs’ intensive training to understand the philosophy and taste of the concept – let alone the extensive training for execution.  It’s challenging to launch this style restaurant on a ship.  No open fire (much street food is cooked over flame), and with public health rules that differ from restaurants onshore.
“The menu has 20 dishes and we’ll change some every couple months,” says Neumeister.  “We want a menu that reflects a sense of place, to travel around the world, following flavors.”
The soft opening of Tastes was December 5, 2013.  Guest response?  “Incredible,” reports Neumeister.  “It’s fun exciting food.”
I concur.  I see the menu as a global gastropub.  As the type of food I often eat onshore and wish I could at-sea – clean tastes, vibrant flavors, unusual spicing, distinct and differing textures.    
Crystal Cruises is reportedly reinventing its (main) Crystal Dining Room menu, too.  Expect two concepts, one traditional and one modern, side-by side.  Classic favorites kept, perhaps, for Crystal’s longtime clientele, and contemporary offerings for younger, more adventurous, diners?  The new Crystal Dining Room cuisine should debut on Symphony in late February, and on Serenity in early May.  I’m waiting, fork in hand, to step into the modern side.  (    

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