Celebrity Silhouette, dining

Porch restaurant
Caesar salad (anchovies optional!) at the new Porch restaurant

The Japanese have a business philosophy called kaizen, which means continuous improvement. No matter how slick a process is, kaizen says that constant small improvements can – and should – always be made.

I have a deep suspicion that Celebrity Cruises are practising kaizen.

I’ve been invited on the inaugural cruises for Celebrity’s last three Solstice-class ships. These enormous floating palaces are the largest and swankiest in Celebrity’s already pretty large and swanky fleet, and although plenty of what’s on board will be recognisable across all four ships, there have been changes in each new launch – some, like the tweaks to Murano’s cheeseboard, so small you might not even notice; some surprisingly large, like the wholesale transformation of Michael’s Club from a cigar bar to a craft beer venue. If you read my reviews of the previous ships in the fleet, you might remember my bafflement at the inclusion on the last three ships of a glass-blowing studio. That’s gone on Silhouette, to be replaced by a prepossessingly calm and comfy cabana area on one of the ship’s lawns (these ships all have lawns – an amazingly difficult thing to maintain in the salty atmosphere at sea, but maintained they are, and handsomely) and a new barbecue restaurant.

I only had two days on board to explore all the changes, and two days is nothing like long enough to work your way around all the menus on board. The standard dining, and unlimited standard drinks (a variety of beers, wines and spirits) are all included in the price of your cruise. The included dining covers the huge formal dining room; the buffet, which stretches over nearly an entire deck; the pool deck grill, serving chilli, nachos, hot dogs and other poolside goodies; a terrific gelato bar down on deck 5; sandwiches, patisseries, tea and coffee in Cafe al Bacio; cocktails and nibbles in several bars; and the odd little treatsome canapé left in your room if you’re travelling concierge or Aqua class.

Lawn Club Grill
Lawn Club Grill being set up for the evening crowd

All this means that once you’re on board, there’s really no reason to spend any extra money on eating or drinking – but if you’re reading this, you’re probably pretty motivated by food and don’t mind spending a little more for something a bit different. For those who are looking for something special, Silhouette houses a number of other drinking and dining venues, all with different ambiances. I wrote about Qsine (an additional $35 per head) at the restaurant’s launch on Eclipse, and the whole interactive eating experience has proved so popular (you have to admit that a burger is much more fun when you’re squizzling your own sauce on it and draping it with your own idea of the right amount of fried onion) that they’ve introduced another interactive dining venue on Silhouette. The Lawn Club Grill, up on the top deck, where you’ll pay an extra $30 per person, has DIY pizzas for the kids, and DIY flat breads for you. The real draw, though, is the barbecue element where New York strip, filet mignon and rib-eye steaks, snapper, salmon, veal, lamb and a big selection of kebabs are available for you to grill yourself to your own liking at your own table. If you’re not up for barbecuing your own dinner, the chefs will do it for you – but where’s the fun in that? There are some pretty special accompaniments on offer, which will be delivered to your table. Allergies prevented me from trying it myself, but I’m told I must encourage you to sample the lobster macaroni cheese in particular.

Also up on the top deck, you find The Alcoves, a pretty little lawn with eight cabanas which can be rented by the hour or the day. Picnic baskets are available here for a price, and there’s also waiter service for drinks and snacks. These new venues replace the glass-blowing studio that’s been on the top decks of previous ships (I have never been able to get my head around the presence of a seagoing glass-blowing studio), along with a $5 dining venue (one of a few on board), The Porch. Here, you’ll find paninis and salads. It’s a lovely quiet spot if you’re looking to get away from the hurly-burly of the pool area, one deck below.

The Alcoves
The Alcoves

Tuscan Grill ($30), Blu (complimentary for Aquaclass passengers), Qsine ($35) and Murano ($35) are still the first-class restaurant lineup at the back of the ship on the fifth deck, which is the deck where those with a care for their stomach will be spending most of their time. There are changes down here – Murano is now offering a champagne afternoon tea, with some terrific little finger sandwiches, strawberries, pastries and the inevitable scones, jam and clotted cream. In the spirit of kaizen, little changes have been made to dishes I’ve eaten in these restaurants on previous ships: I’m not quite sure exactly what’s happened to Qsine’s Disco Shrimp, but it’s gone from a merely-quite-good dish to an absolute must-order, sweet, tender and very, very tasty. Ceviches are also very good now, and any dish which has its origins in the SW of America is pretty much guaranteed to be worth ordering: Chef Jaques van Staden’s Las Vegas roots do show now and then! Murano’s duck foie gras and rilettes dish has turned into a foie and confit plate, the confit appearing in a Moroccan pastilla, crisp, paper-thin bric pastry doing great things to its texture. What used to be a tomato coulis in this dish is now candied mango. On my first visit to Murano, two ships ago, I didn’t feel it was really competitive with top-class restaurants on land, but it’s now pulling its weight: witness the sea bass (picture at the bottom of this post), previously a bit tired, salty and dried-out; now succulent, elegantly sauced and good enough that you’ll be dibbling your bread on the plate when you’ve finished the fish.

Murano is probably the most romantic spot on board for dining, with private-feeling booths and a clever layout to make you feel remote from other diners. I’d especially recommend it to those cruising to celebrate a honeymoon or anniversary. Portions are still enormous. This is a direct result of the ship’s American ownership and international clientele. This feels a bit odd in a fine-dining restaurant, but when someone feels like giving me a gargantuan portion of foie, I am not going to complain.

Get chatting to your server. The staff on board these ships are universally friendly and helpful – and if you make friends, as we did with the utterly charming Anne Toures, a chef de rang at Murano, you might find the service elevates itself to superhuman levels. Anne, after a couple minutes’ chatting about blue French cheeses (I’d been wittering on about how it’d be nice to see a blue that wasn’t a Roquefort on the large chariot de fromages), disappeared and came back with a piece of Rochebaron from Auvergne for us that hadn’t made it to the cheeseboard – soft, blue, with an ash-rolled rind and completely new to me. A real treat.

I love watching the way these ships evolve. I love being surprised every time I visit by the force-ten smiles of every single member of staff, the shimmering cleanliness of everything on board, and the clever little features like the ice bar, and the Enomatic machines in Wine Masters (charge a swipe-card, and organise your own tasting – there are some really exciting wines on offer in here). I love waking to the sound of the sea, I love that I can retire to a Deck 11 treehouse, of all things, if things get too much; and I love the fact that there’s an iLounge and a Bulgari shop on board. Keep at the kaizen, Celebrity – you’re doing a great job.

Ceviche trio
Ceviche trio, Qsine. Three beautifully balanced ceviches, and a rather random helping of chips.


Sea bass
Sea bass at Murano


iPad menu
Another iPad menu at Qsine. I swear: you have never in your life seen a cleaner and more smear-free iPad than these.


Veal chop
A very good veal chop at Murano, sized for American appetites. Fantastic accompaniments - breaded cauliflower and little garlic spinach cubes.


Les Six Etoiles de Murano
Les Six Etoiles de Murano - Murano's signature desert. To be shared!


Maltese flag
A lovely view to take in over an evening gin and tonic at the Sunset Bar, located right at the back of the ship.



Celebrity Silhouette

A big thank you to Celebrity Cruises, who invited me and Dr W on the inaugural sailing of their new Solstice class ship, Silhouette. We spent the weekend swanking around the Mediterranean, drinking far too much champagne, soaking up the sun and nibbling on canapés.

I’ve got a few hundred pictures to edit, fifteen twinkly decks and a whole weekend’s overeating to write about. While I’m busying myself about that, you might like to whet your appetites for the post I’ll be putting up later in the week with some photos.

In port at Citavecchia, near Rome
In port at Civitavecchia, near Rome


View from our table in The Porch Restaurant
View from our table in The Porch Restaurant, a new addition to the regular Solstice lineup


The wine list and menu at Qsine are handed to you on an iPad.
The wine list and menu at Qsine are handed to you on an iPad. Wish I could have kept it!


Cocktail waiter perfecting his Tom Cruise impression
Cocktail waiter perfecting his Tom Cruise impression


Pool deck at night
Pool deck at night


Dr W and yours truly in a gargantu-chair on the lawn deck
Dr W and yours truly in a gargantu-chair on the lawn deck


A trio of ceviches, served with a really great smile.
A trio of ceviches, served with a really great smile.


Celebrity Eclipse – dining

Table setting, Blu
Table setting, Blu

My excuse for being aboard Celebrity Eclipse (see previous post) was the launch of Qsine, a new speciality restaurant. Each of the Solstice class ships has a clutch of four speciality restaurants at the stern end of the fifth deck. Murano, the flagship (sorry) restaurant which I covered last year, appears on each of the ships built so far, alongside Blu and the Tuscan Grille. Qsine takes up the space filled on the previous ships by Silk Harvest, a pan-Asian joint.

Chef Jacques van Staden, whose minute attention to detail is reflected in the décor, plates and even the staff uniforms in each restaurant, was at the head of the table to talk me through this very curious menu. Billed as “uniquely unordinary”, Qsine’s philosophy is all about food as play. Now, this approach isn’t really unique – I’m reminded of some of David Burke’s more frivolous moments, and Sam DeMarco’s frankly mental (and surprisingly successful) reinterpretations of American favourites. (You haven’t lived until you’ve eaten DeMarco’s Philly cheesesteak dumplings). But I like JVS’s take on it, not least because he seems so serious about making sure his diners spend a meal being anything but serious.

Enomatic machine, Wine Masters
Enomatic machine, Wine Masters

Qsine’s menu warns you something’s not quite normal here. It’s presented on an iPad, to start with, from which you will be able to order directly; and there’s no structured starter/salad/main business, just a solid block of text describing each dish. The dessert menu arrives on a cross between a Rubik’s cube and a Jacob’s ladder. It’ll take you a bit longer to work your way through than a standard menu because of the undifferentiated block of text you’re faced with, but the staff (“culinary tour guides”, insists Chef JVS), are here to advise you on the size of each of these sharing plates, and on which dishes will work well together. You’ll need their advice, because some of the dishes will serve two as an entire meal; others are much smaller. The staff know their onions, though, and will guide you through the menu.

Van Staden is determined you will have fun. There are no molecular techniques in use here, but there’s plenty of very curious presentation. Apparently, 75% of the tableware was commissioned especially for the restaurant and custom-built. I’d been running around the ship all morning taking photographs, and I was hungry. And I was a bit nonplussed to be greeted by a tray of strawberries which had been dipped and decorated to look like mushrooms.

Sushi lollipops
Sushi lollipops - the Dorito ones are at the back.

If I’m to be completely honest, my first thought on seeing what arrived on the table was that this feels just like the sort of restaurant a very imaginative and slightly malevolent nine-year-old might have come up with. There are cupcakes in a little tiffin box, with three piping bags full of different frostings to squizzle all over the tops, and a dish of toppings to sprinkle over, including pop rocks (which gave the lady next to me a horrible shock – she’d not encountered them before). Disco shrimp is a shrimp cocktail in a cone of glass that comes set on a bed of ice – but it’s ice packed with flashing blue led lights. There are sliders – tiny Kobe burgers on brioche – but these come disassembled so that you can fill yours with exactly what you fancy. Baby back spring rolls come to the table served in a nest of – you guessed it – springs. There are sushi lollipops, served on sticks and rolled in seasoning. Mine was rolled in benign black sesame, but I’ve spent the last few days wondering how the one that was rolled in crushed Doritos could possibly have tasted. There’s fish and chips for the English audience too – but it’s presented as little fried “popcorn” nuggets, and you can choose between malt vinegar and aioli to anoint them before you get down to eating.

Private dining room, Murano
Private dining room, Murano

So, clearly, Qsine isn’t offering up haute cuisine. But unexpectedly, the experience turned out to be extraordinarily good fun – I was prepared to scoff at the idea, but I haven’t giggled over dinner so much in a good long time. Outside the over-processed trilogy of meatballs (three fist-sized meatballs in different sauces), which I can’t see staying on the menu for much longer in their present form, everything we ate was well-prepared, and everybody at my large table ended up looking a lot more cheerful than they had when they came in, hungover after the previous night’s celebrations.

Potato salad, Blu
Potato salad, Blu

There are plenty of places to eat on the ship, and you’ll inevitably find that some suit you better than others. I enjoyed Blu, which is set up with a spa-type menu (there are also some stodgier dishes for non-spa-visiting partners) – macadamia-crusted scallops and lump crab risotto were particular standouts. And if you’re not a fan of buffet breakfasts, it’s worth heading down to the 5th floor cafe, where breakfast crepes are available for a small surcharge, alongside some good strong coffee. You can pick from the menu, invent a crepe from a list of breakfast ingredients, or, as I found to my very great pleasure, ask for fillings that don’t even appear on the menu – if you just want lemon and sugar, or fancy a particular kind of fruit, the staff will be happy to find some for you.

Jeff Koons sculpture, restaurant area
Jeff Koons sculpture, restaurant area

The logistics of providing food on a cruise ship were something I covered last year when I wrote about Murano, and they still create certain finicky problems that you might not even notice if you’re not a force-12 foodie. Every steak I encountered, flash-frozen and then defrosted very slowly under controlled circumstances, was curiously soft – and legislation that forbids the use of naked flames on board means that they have to be cooked on an electric grill. (I am not sure I enjoy living in a world where we can’t grill our steaks over a flame, but we can have seagoing glass-blowing studios.) In the gargantuan Moonlight Sonata restaurant, which seats hundreds, it’s hard for the staff to accurately control the cuisson of dishes, simply because so many are coming out at once – a long-winded way of saying “don’t have the fish”, at least if you find fish difficult when it’s overcooked. (That said, we had a few very good courses in the Moonlight Sonata restaurant, including an excellent celeriac soup, a seasonal salad with a fierce blue cheese and candied pecans, and a terrific little cone of dense chocolate mousse with lemon curd.)

There’s plenty of food on the ship that I didn’t get a chance to sample – there simply wasn’t time. If you find yourself travelling on Eclipse or either of her sister ships, and have a comment or tip about dining, please leave a comment – I’d love to hear from you!

Celebrity Eclipse

Pool deck, Celebrity Eclipse
Pool deck, Celebrity Eclipse

There’s no ship’s biscuit or pemmican in sight – but there is plenty of rum. I’ve just spent the weekend at the naming celebrations on Celebrity Eclipse, a cruise ship you might have seen in the news last week, when she staged an emergency rescue of British holidaymakers stranded in Spain by the eruption of the Icelandic volcano.

Eclipse is the spanking-new sister ship of Solstice and Equinox, which I travelled on last year for a press overnighter. This weekend’s trip was spread across two nights, giving me much more time to explore and enjoy the whole ship – and you’ll need at least that time to get to grips with this enormous floating resort. For those of us whose entire seagoing experience before these Solstice-class ships has been scabby old car ferries, the sheer size and gloss of something like Eclipse is a little overwhelming. There are nine restaurants to choose from (requiring a weekly bacon delivery that is measured in tonnes – you’ve got to love an organisation that measures its bacon in tonnes). There’s a bar for every mood – a wine-tasting room with Enomatic machines to make sure your glass is perfect; a club that’s like something from Captain Scarlet; a quiet, wood-lined cigar bar; a bar up by the pool where you can drink in your bikini; an ice-bar specialising in Martinis; a cocktail joint specialising in molecular techniques; a lounge like Star Trek’s Ten Forward. You can graze on coffee, crepes, patisseries, superb gelato (I recommend the coconut), hot dogs – you can shop in one of 19 boutiques, swim in one of three pools, bob up and down in one of six hot tubs, climb a virtual mountain in the gym or go and get your hair done in the spa. A three-storey theatre hosts a nightly acrobatics show and some variety acts, as well as talks about the ship and the destinations it will be visiting; there are live musicians all over the ship, and you’ll find something to every taste, from Manilow to Mozart, to sit and listen to for a while. There’s a small casino with table games with pleasingly low minimums and slot machines. Like Equinox and Solstice, Eclipse has a lawn club on the roof, with putting, croquet and quoits. And, for some reason which is still totally opaque to me, a glass-blowing studio. There’s so much to do that apparently, many travellers end up staying on board for their whole break rather than going on shore excursions.

Moonlight Sonata restaurant
Moonlight Sonata restaurant

I worked my way around tastings at several of the restaurants (not all of them – I was only there for a couple of days) – I’ll be posting pictures and notes on some of the food available later in the week. For my tastes, the 5th floor Ensemble Lounge and the 4th floor Wine Masters tasting room were the most attractive places to sit with a drink, partly because they’re rather more quiet and intimate than some of the other bars – if you like a bit more excitement with your Cuba Libre, head to the 4th floor Martini Bar, with its ice countertops and beautiful ladies in sequins, or to Quasar, the small and very spangly nightclub.

Accommodation on board is comfortable and surprisingly spacious; the staterooms have all been designed to pack in as much storage space as possible, and even in the smallest rooms you’ll find a desk, a decently sized settee and a superbly comfortable queen-sized bed that can convert into twins. Rounded edges on the beds and the other furniture maximise space in all the staterooms and mean there’s nothing to knock into when you stagger back from the club at three in the morning – and if you need a hand coming round in the morning, there’s a shower with body jets and a rain head to get you ready for breakfast. The cupboards are stocked with Frette dressing gowns, slippers, umbrellas, shopping bags, lighted make up mirrors, binoculars and a fierce little hairdryer, but we still found there was room for several suitcases’-worth of your own belongings in our Deluxe Veranda room. (Leave some space, though – there are, after all, nineteen shops on board to visit.)

Deluxe Veranda Stateroom
Deluxe Veranda Stateroom

There are several classes of stateroom – Celebrity have a run-down of the features of each on their website – most of which have a very private balcony with sun loungers and a sliding picture window. We found ourselves leaving the window open a crack at night to allow the sound of the sea inside and slept blissfully, being rocked gently by the waves. There’s great charm in being woken by a kittiwake on the balcony in the morning and drinking your first cup of tea on a lounger – I recommend it.

Part of what makes Celebrity so successful is the staff, who bend over backwards, forwards and sideways to make your trip a good one. Milk pods for the tea and coffee in the state rooms hadn’t arrived on time because the flight they were on had been stopped by the volcano (Eyjafjallajokull – I really ought to get used to spelling that, because I sure as hell can’t pronounce it) – and about two minutes after we rang to ask for some, a lady appeared at the door with four half-pint cartons for our fridge. There’s a smile on every face, and somebody polishing something around every corner – the place positively glistens. Every time we left the room, we came back to find a new surprise – some flowers, a tray of canapes, a bowl of fruit, a bottle of fizzy wine – I could get very used to being looked after like this.

Lawn Club
Lawn Club (a great spot for a glass of Pimms)

Eclipse is based in Southampton, the first of the Solstice-class ships to have a UK home port. Alongside the outside pools, which I found an absolute joy – I love swimming, and it’s particularly good fun when the pool is bobbing up and down in the sea – there’s an enormous enclosed solarium with another large pool, hot tubs and relaxation pods that you can snuggle up in with…a good friend, which means that even in British weather you can get some sun and swimming in the warm. The tea and kettles in the room are a nod to the UK clientele, and although the food on offer has an American bent, they’ve squeezed fish and chips onto at least one of the menus.

The best recommendation I can give the ship is in the fact that as soon as we disembarked, Dr W and I started to talk about which of the forthcoming cruises we should shell out to go on. Many thanks to Celebrity and Siren PR for putting us up for this inaugural weekend – and watch this space for more on the food later this week.

Celebrity Equinox, Murano restaurant

Cruise ships are (floating) terra incognita to me. The closest I’d managed before being offered last weekend’s very lavish freebie was a number of trips on cross-channel ferries, where the food is always so bad you’re almost obliged to pack a picnic; and my friends’ houseboat in Cambridge where we mostly eat packets of biscuits and drink tea.

I’d imagined cruise ships to be petrol-smelling, slippery-decked, claustrophobic white things, lurching gracelessly between icebergs and tugboats, and occasionally spearing clumsy whales on their prows. “We’ll have bunks,” grumbled Dr W, “and we’ll be in steerage, like Leo Di Caprio. There won’t be any windows.”

Happily, Celebrity Cruises have positioned themselves firmly at the luxury end of the market, so the cabin – sorry, state room – that we’d been apportioned turned out to have king-sized bed with a supremely comfortable pillow-top mattress; thick linen sheets; not only windows, but a private balcony for seagull-spotting; and a shower with those fantastic boob-washing jets in the wall.

The public areas feel like an attempt at a theme park crossed with a Vegas casino and Terminal 5 at Heathrow. I say this as someone who really, really gets a kick out of Terminal 5, which is sick and wrong – you have to admit, though, that the place does gave a certain delicious gleam to it. On Celebrity Equinox, two glistening atriums stretch the whole height of the ship to relieve the sense of low ceilings you can’t really escape in this situation, one with a live orange tree in a big glass pot suspended halfway down the 14-storey space. Up top, the decks are tiled with swimming pools, hot tubs, lawns, a glass-blowing studio (I’m still scratching my head about this one) and a jogging track. Inside, it’s all state rooms, cafes, bars, restaurants, a spa, a solarium, an enormous theatre, clubs, gyms and an ultraloungy sort of observation suite, all circular couches and swanky LED lighting. Everywhere you turn, somebody dressed in white is washing or polishing something.

Cruises of the sort Celebrity runs are generally all-inclusive, but for the four premium restaurants, where you’ll pay an extra $35. (It’s an American company, and the currency on board is the US dollar.) I’d been invited (with Douglas, Andrew and Julia) to lunch with Chef Jaques Van Staden. We were served a six-course tasting menu with wine pairings in Murano, the ship’s top French restaurant, all dark woods and white linens. Here’s JVS (the chap in focus), beaming at something fatuous I (on the right) have just said.

There are constraints on restaurants at sea that I hadn’t even considered before talking to him about the restaurant’s operations. The ship has capacity for 2850 guests, has to feed all these people without recourse to daily markets, and on occasion will go several days without being able to restock. This is an enormous number of people to be feeding – in one year, the company will spend $4.5m on bacon alone, so food sourcing is all centralised. Produce is loaded in shipping containers from three ports around the world, and some clever work on the menus means that the culinary team (of 1253 staff on the ship, more than half work in food and beverage) are able to assemble some surprisingly classy meals which in no way resemble ship’s biscuit. JVS is aiming very, very high in his ambitions for this restaurant, and I’m not quite sure it’s there yet; there were a few slips in what we ate for lunch. But this is a restaurant that’s barely been open for ten days, and as such, there were bound to be a few rough edges that needed smoothing over.

If there’s one thing they’ve licked at Murano, it’s the presentation. Everything was terribly, terribly pretty on the plate; the plates themselves were selected by JVS to match the coppery, woody decor (“No rims. I don’t like a plate with a rim.”) Behold a perfectly pretty amuse – jumbo shrimp in a saffron risotto. Really, really salty, but packed with saffron.

There’s a necessary reliance here on preserved ingredients, so a wild mushroom cappuccino which arrived shortly after I’d spent five minutes banging on about my hatred of foams – oops – used a lot of dried mushrooms and was accompanied by a porcini ice-cream (melting into a small pool by the time it got to my plate, but darned tasty), a clever way to extend the flavour life of the fresh mushroom. The 07 Puligny Montrachet by Louis Jadot with this course was golden and honeyed, a good match with this and, apparently, with the lobster bisque (“Very dense, very flavourful,” said Andrew from Spittoon when I asked him how it was – I have to be careful around lobsters because of the whole anaphylaxis thing, but made up for it by stealing everybody else’s foie gras later in the meal).

Spinach salad was topped off with a disc of pork rillettes (more clever use of preserves), a chicken’s egg (“I think we should use quail here,” said the chef, frowning at my plate – I’m with him on this – a chicken’s yolk is just too much with something as fatsome as rillettes) and a sliver of black truffle, all scattered with dehydrated shallots and shards of crispy pancetta. Before tasting the dish, I asked JVS how they cope with something as perishable as a truffle at sea. He responded with the full force of his giant grin. “We preserve them in port.” Surprisingly successful, and the truffle vinaigrette was a well-balanced foil to the heavy egg and rillettes. There were a few competition winners from Delicious magazine at the table too, and it was a first taste of truffles for one of them – always a lovely thing to witness, especially when the reaction is so unabashedly positive.

A twice-cooked goat’s cheese soufflé for half of us – a seared slice of foie gras and duck rillettes, spiced with star anise and cinnamon for the others. (I did my best to keep from gazing bitterly at their plates, failed and then launched into stealing as much as I could.) The soufflé was a good one – sharp with the goat’s cheese, bathed in a sea of Parmesan-scented Béchamel – and enormous, such that I ended up eating about half. These are very big portions for a tasting menu. I suspect a lot of this is to do with the demographic that makes up Celebrity’s customers – usually older Americans, from the land where the giant portion is king. That demographic suits me just fine, though – it just means more room in the clubs, the pool and the hot tubs for the food blogging contingent on board while everybody else dozes in the sun, as Andrew has helpfully recorded for posterity.

The service is super-attentive; so much so that it all feels a bit unsophisticated, as when the gargantuan pepper grinder is brought out and proffered at the start of every single course. It’s hard to mind – they’re trying so hard to impress, and everybody’s so charming, that I actually missed that grinder when it came to the cheese course. A pretty little apple sorbet spiked with Calvados came out as a palate cleanser – in his review of a similar meal that evening, Jay Rayner called this course old-fashioned, and indeed it was – but it was sweet, it was charming, and it was a nice break from all that dense eating. (I have a soft spot for the concept of a trou Normand, the little hole of space in a full stomach that a gulp of Calvados is meant to give you – my mother used to ensure my little brother and I both got a healthy slurp of hers at large meals when we went on our regular gastronomic tours of France, starting me off on a lifetime of dipsomania.)

Venison for half the table, loup de mer for the other half. A dense Brunello here to drink – not what I’d have chosen with this fish, but it was a pretty good match with the garnish it was sitting on.

Another hurdle for the cruise ship kitchen to jump is refrigeration – meats and fish need to be frozen. JVS has acquired a machine which defrosts flash-frozen meat very slowly, over a four-day period, for an absolute minimum of cellular damage. The meat is never allowed to stay frozen for more than five days. I pinched a bite from Douglas’s plate (hard work with a fish knife, so I made up for it by also stealing most of his celeriac puree – sorry Douglas) – it’s a surprisingly successful process, and I couldn’t detect any hint that the pink, juicy venison loin had been frozen. Cries of surprise went up around the table from anyone who had ever frozen a steak. Unfortunately, a similar process wouldn’t work for fish, and mine came out of the fryer a bit dry and rubbery. Again, though, the presentation was so fine I almost didn’t care – the fish was trapped in a fine net of potato and served on an incredibly dense and beautiful plate of Provençal preserves – capers, artichokes, olives and so on, bound with raw tomatoes and baba ganoush. (There’s another picture of this very pretty course with Monday’s post, where you can also see some more photos of the ship itself.) Fierce flavours, these – my bread roll came in handy to damp down some of what was going on on the plate.

A cheese course next with some ’96 vintage Graham’s port. There was nothing unusual about any of these cheeses, but they were all kept well and chosen well (Epoisses, Livarot, Roquefort, Comte and a nice crottin of Chevre). I notice Jay Rayner was displeased with the texture of his Epoisses that evening – we weren’t given any at lunchtime, although we did see the cheese sitting on the chariot, so I suspect the specialist cheese sommelier (who was great value) secretly agreed with him. The little pot contains a scoop of silky Roquefort sorbet. All the other cheeses, served at a good room temperature with fruits and nuts, were beautiful examples – I am thankful there wasn’t more, because dessert was simply enormous.

Here it is: Les VI Etoiles du Murano. I think this is meant to serve two, but I ended up with one to myself (which I ended up giving most of to Andrew, the very charming competition winner on my left, while I concentrated on the wine). From right (closest) to left, you’re looking at a rose cream with candyfloss (I annexed that one for myself); a black chocolate and coffee mousse; a white chocolate crème with raspberry coulis (the table’s favourite); strawberries poached in Chambertin; an apple and walnut crumble and a milk and caramel gelato with popcorn. Best of all, though, was what we were given to drink with this course (prompted, I suspect, by the arrival of Celebrity’s president, Dan Hanrahan) – a Tokaji from 2003, a year you will probably remember as uncomfortably sweltering. It was just great for Tokaji, such that I can barely read my handwriting in the notes I took over pudding.

JVS oversees the menus at all the onboard restaurants – 3786 different dishes are available across the whole ship, and around 12,000 meals and nibbles are served daily. It’s a hell of an operation, and it’s clearly wise of the company to run day-cruises like ours to help the staff learn to cope – this was only day ten of operations, and our evening meal at the much less swanky main dining room was a bit of a let-down after lunchtime’s service. Food in the gargantuan Silhouette dining room was glacially slow in arriving, so our fellow diners had to skip a course to make it to the theatre in time for the show, and the whole table’s main course plates appeared to have missed a crucial pass through a microwave, arriving fridge-cold. Thank God I’d ordered gazpacho for my starter. (I suspect that this is the sort of problem that won’t occur once the ship is up and running properly.) Wines in the complimentary restaurants aren’t good (to be honest,
the white was so awful I ended up drinking Newcastle Brown Ale instead, to the horror of the ladies I was sharing a table with). It’s clear that a cruising foodie needs to be dedicating himself to find that extra $35 a night to eat in one of the five speciality restaurants – and then to spending the rest of the day on the jogging track to burn off all that Béchamel.