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 d├ęcor, 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.