Eating Up Celebrity Eclipse by Janice Wald Henderson, Culinary Editor March 14, 2011
Our culinary editor assesses the cuisine aboard Celebrity Eclipse - a cruise line known for its culinary expertise.
This is a report from our cruise culinary editor Janice Wald Henderson. Janice has been a longtime contributor to many magazines, including Bon Appétit Magazine and Brides. Her articles have appeared in Vogue, Food & Wine, Eating Well, Cooking Light and numerous other publications. Janice is also the Los Angeles editor of the Essential Restaurant Guide at epicurious.com.
Janice Wald Henderson Cruise Culinary and CruiseMates Style Editor
Welcome to my Celebrity culinary life! Enjoy your Celebrity life! Such pronouncements were commonplace on my recent Celebrity Eclipse cruise. As a longtime Los Angeles resident who occasionally brushes shoulders with the real celebrity world, I found such assertions a tad ironic. Still, I was eager to discover the culinary side of my new Celebrity life. Such as it is. This was my first Celebrity cruise.
I knew this top-rated upper-premium cruise line had luxurious touches that elevate it above its peers. Particularly, the Solstice class ships, which include the new 2,850-passenger Eclipse (third of five planned). That was impressive at this price point. For instance, a deluxe verandah stateroom for two passengers on a similar seven-night Western Caribbean cruise similar runs about $2,000.
But when prices are this doable, despite the luxe surroundings, you must expect that the quality of food - both ingredients and preparation - will not match that of a luxury line charging more than double or triple for a similar cruise. It can't; it would go out of business. In the end, you always get what you pay for.
So on Celebrity, what you find mostly is decent food, and sometimes, very good food, included in the cruise cost. The complimentary venues include breakfast, lunch and dinner in Moonlight Sonata, (glitzy, two-story main dining room), room service, on-deck burger grill, buffet-style Oceanview Café and health-oriented AquaSpa Café.
Some culinary highlights were reserved for a choice few. For example, members of the Captain's Club (a three-tiered recognition and rewards program) and Penthouse, Royal and Celebrity Suite guests were privy to special cocktail parties, a fancy tea and daily breakfast in Michael's Club. Michael's Club was a handsome bar transformed into an intimate spot for a morning meal. Fresh-squeezed orange juice and barista-brewed cappuccinos were complimentary, as was a little buffet of mini-bagels with silken smoked salmon, fruit kebabs and other small bites. Service was attentive and more formal than in other venues. This was a luxury experience on a premium line.
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I found culinary and service standouts in the three specialty restaurants (Murano, Qsine, Tuscan Grille), which charge a fee of $30-to-$35 per person. (Suite guests are allowed one complimentary dining reservation per suite for seven-night-or-less cruises, and two for eight-night-and-longer cruises.) There is a fourth specialty restaurant called Blu reserved for AquaSpa Class and suite guests. I was told the food is a more refined version of what is served in the main dining room. "Lighter, more modern food with less sauce," explained an onboard employee. I peeked in the bustling room and thought Blu's stark white color, lighting and ultra-modern design made it look a little like a first-class airline lounge. I mostly dined in the three specialty restaurants open to all guests, Aqua Spa Café and Oceanview Cafe.
Oceanview Café featured action stations (cooks preparing food for guests, versus refilling chafing dishes) and lines were rare. Many dishes were cooked to order (like stir-fries and sandwiches) and the international scope - Italian, Chinese, Thai, Mexican, sushi and Indian - was vast. While never brilliant, the freshness of the food was impressive. Pizza needed a chewier crust but the toppings and sauce were consistently good. And the sushi (changed out every 30 minutes) was really fresh, particularly the shrimp. The ice cream counter had a generous selection of toppings, including peanut and regular M&Ms. This café had no trays, only plates. I never found any waiter eager to help carry dishes or refill water glasses.
Breakfast was less appealing. Limp, thin pancakes filled a warmer, but kudos, came with fluffy, flavored fruit butters like lime and lemon. Waffles were thick and bronzed. Omelets were made to order but tasted greasy, like the pan was too coated with cooking oil.
I dined once in Moonlight Sonata. I can't judge the main dining room from one meal, but I can say that my Moroccan-spiced lamb shank was fragrant and tender, my companion's prime rib dry and the service, efficient and kind. In Moonlight Sonata, the menus were mostly Americana with international flair. Over one week, the menu featured familiar dishes, like grilled New York sirloin with loaded baked potato; fancier fare, such as classic escargots bourguignonne; and edgier stuff like seared tuna, Asian-style. And then there were oddities, like baked potato cream soup with sautéed frog legs, and a terribly dated strawberry soup (starter). I'm sure Celebrity was trying to please an assortment of guests with varying levels of sophistication and expectations.
A gala brunch buffet in Moonlight Sonata had lovely ice carvings and was well laid-out. Lines were negligible and choices were many. Waffles, made to order, were one of several à la minute choices, which are rare on premium lines. But don't expect real maple syrup or high-quality prime rib; you're in for imitation syrup and top round. And one waiter, when I asked him for a glass of water, looked at me as if I asked him to desalinate it himself. Again, you get what you pay for.
Tuscan Grille was my least favorite specialty restaurant. I don't understand an Italian steakhouse serving rib-eye with Cajun-spiced butter. Pairing it with mac-and-cheese doesn't make it Italian. And the menu was heavy; pan-fried items, cream sauce and big portions. Cleary this restaurant was for guests who liked bountiful plates of rich, old-fashioned food.
The above-mentioned rib-eye steak was dry and tough. Now I wouldn't expect high-grade, well-marbled beef in the main dining room, but I might in a restaurant where I'm paying $30 extra for my meal. Also, Moonlight Sonata offered a similar rib-eye (Cajun-blackened,with different accompaniments). Why pay extra for nearly the same steak you can get for free?
I did like the welcoming breadbasket, with its assortment of onion and (slightly soggy) sundried tomato focaccia. And the antipasto plate, with parmesan cheese, kalamata olives, cured meats and roasted peppers. But the parmesan cheese and prosciutto were faint on flavor. Not surprisingly, a crisp Caesar salad sorely missed the sharpness of good parmesan.
Arugula salad, with goat cheese, toasted pine nuts and sundried tomato vinaigrette, was fine. Tuscan onion soup was gooey-cheesy-good, although what made it Italian (beyond provolone cheese instead of gruyere) was unclear. Cioppino (fish soup; at least the menu noted it was Italian-American) was salty although the shellfish was firm and sweet. But pan-seared salmon had a fishy taste, and why was it brushed with sweet-and-spicy Asian glaze and then served over pasta with tomato sauce?
Veal parmesan was tender and delicious, better than the veal chop with the salty marinara sauce and bland polenta. Toffee panna cotta, cr�me br�lée and tiramisu shined. (Desserts were uniformly good throughout the ship, in every venue.) Tuscan Grille's service was terrific. From the maitre d'hotel to the busboy, the staff could not have been kinder, more attentive or more personable. Assistant waiter Mehmet Alagoz, with his Old World charm and manners, made guests feel like a million bucks.
I loved Qsine. This was one specialty restaurant that was actually special. If Qsine were in Los Angeles, I'd be a regular. The concept, created by Celebrity's Vice President of Culinary Operations Jacques Van Staden, was a bold move, because on premium class ships, guests tend to be more comfortable with traditional dining venues.
Adventuresome diners (the premium-plus crowd who long for a taste of luxury) fill the Qsine room. The restaurant design was playful; one guest commented it looked like the Mad Hatter's tea party, with chairs of varying colors, heights and styles. The menu, playful and interactive, was presented on an iPad. Unlike other specialty restaurants, Qsine eschewed courses. Guests ordered as many plates as they like, with servers providing guidance.
The interactive cocktail menu on the iPad was awesome. You shook the iPad to discover how each cocktail was made. Some cocktails came unassembled, with first-rate ingredients in science lab-like beakers.
Much of Qsine's creativity was in the presentation. You ordered spring rolls, and spring rolls were served on, well, springs. Mezze (Middle Eastern-style tapas) arrived in a giant custom-made frame with multiple windows. Each "window" held a plate. Soups were delivered in shot glasses and mini Kobe burgers arrived on a grill plate. And oh, that disco shrimp, poached tiger shrimp served atop a bowl blinking strobe-like lights.
It's fun to present food in a quirky fashion. But Qsine also excelled in taste. I was told the chef ordered his own exclusive ingredients, much coveted by other chefs onboard. Yum to the Kobe beef sliders, topped with sharp Wisconsin cheddar and paired with insanely buttery brioche buns. And yum to sushi lollipops, sublime sushi on sticks with wasabi mayo and pickled ginger-radish salad.
And the afore-mentioned spring rolls? The flavors were drop-dead divine. Crispy wrappers were filled with shredded baby back pork, and when consumed with chipotle coleslaw and white truffle BBQ sauce, roared with flavor in every bite.
Kobe sirloin beef tacos were dripping with succulent juices, and came with a mortar and pestle and ingredients to make your own guacamole. How fun was that. How delicious too.
Desserts were something else, too. "The Cupcake Affair" starred fine-crumbed red velvet and vanilla cupcakes, and squeeze bottles for decorating. And just when you think the party is winding down, out comes your server, wearing a tray strapped around her neck (like the 1940s cigarette girls) filled with chocolate-dipped strawberries on lollipop sticks jutting out of wheat grass. The $35 cover charge to eat superb food until you burst? Worth every penny and then some.
Murano was the only specialty restaurant behind a closed door. That gesture alone signaled formality and made my sense of expectation soar. The room stated luxury; Riedel crystal, Rosenthal china and sparkling silver. The lighting was soft, the tables double-skirted. Graceful mirrors, rich woods and tieback curtains added to the air of romance. So did buckets filled with bottles of champagne, as in France's top restaurants, where guests usually begin dinner with une coupe de champagne (glass of champagne). Service was spot-on, with guests fussed over in a classic Old World style that made you feel special.
The breadbasket, with good olive and artichoke bread, slightly dry baguette and dark whole grain bread, was noticeably different from the other specialty restaurants, and served with sweet butter in pyramid shapes.
Murano charged $35 a person for a five-course dinner. The maitre d'hotel explained the menu and pointed out highlights. The sommeliers knew their wine, willingly discussing even an inexpensive varietal by the glass. Even water was presented with ado. When Perrier was served at our table, lime and lemon wedges in a pretty glass was brought, too.
All dishes were served with silver cloches, which were removed by servers at once. Many dishes were cooked or finished tableside. Delicious Dover sole Véronique (poached in wine; served with grapes in creamy wine sauce) was expertly deboned tableside.
Lobster flambéed in cognac was another tableside extravaganza. The boozy flames rocketed skyward, grabbing everyone's attention. The meat was sweet, but I would have preferred a lighter sauce than one with bacon and parmesan cheese. Loup de mer (Mediterranean sea bass) was a better choice. The crispy-skinned fish, served with tomatoes, capers and lemons, needed minimal fussing for maximum flavor.
More than a few dishes showcased perfect puff pastry. Each petite filet mignon of a trio was beautifully wrapped in golden pastry. Caramelized shallots, steak tartare (raw beef) and exotic Japanese mushrooms completed this stellar dish. Murano's chef also used puff pastry to wrapdiver scallops topped with black truffles. And it appeared as a vessel for irresistible duck confit, paired with terrific foie gras.
Dinners began with an amuse-bouche, a "tease for the mouth." One night, this hors d'oeuvres was an unappealing diced chicken braised with catsup and herbs. Another night, salmon mousse sprinkled with salmon caviar fared better.
The cheese cart presentation was luxury-line all the way. About 10 cheeses were wheeled tableside (some 12-to-14 are in rotation) and my server could describe each with knowledge and charm. I swooned for a nutty aged Cantal, one of the world's oldest cheeses (1st century A.D.), buttery, tangy pont l'éveque ; cow's milk cheese from Normandy, France; and crottin, a pungent French goat cheese from the Loire Valley. The cheese was elegantly served with sundried fruits atop light greens in a glass, and wonderfully crusty pain de campagne (country bread). I wished I could have had this bread everyday onboard the Eclipse. Sadly, I only found it in Murano, and only with cheese.
Dessert was always delightful, particularly a custardy Grand Marnier soufflé with a heavenly vanilla scent. Chocolate truffles were presented after dessert in a petal-shaped dish. An elegant ending to an elegant meal, well worth the surcharge.
This small café, barely noticeable in the corner of the posh solarium, was a treasure. Each day, organic yogurt, fruit and fabulous organic breads were featured at breakfast, with salads, fruit, other organic breads and light entrees at lunchtime. Home-style jams and preserves were amazing; all about fruity flavor, not sugar. Self-serve frozen yogurt was an extra treat. AquaSpa Café was my daily hangout, a luxury-ship-level treat. I couldn't believe there was no additional fee.
BISTRO AL BACIO & GELATERIA
The Bistro is a European-style coffeehouse, and well worth the nominal fee for excellent cappuccino. Each drink came with superior biscotti and as an extra bonus, the server presented a box of chocolates for your selection. The Gelateria was opposite the Bistro, and dished up artisan-style gelato. I particularly liked pistachio with the haunting flavor of richly toasted nuts.
The bars on the Eclipse were Vegas-glam. The Martini Bar, with its ice-frosted counter, drew the biggest crowds. This bar served 100 varieties of vodka and more than 26 types of martinis. Crush, an adjoining bar, featured vodka and caviar pairings on an ice-filled table. Michael's Club was quiet and plush, with cushy couches and soft music. Molecular Bar was my favorite. The ingenious cocktails were made with fresh fruits and juices and distinctive garnishes such as edible rose petals.
PRE-CRUISE HOTEL AND DINNER RECOMMENDATION
The InterContinental Miami, a hotel in the downtown business district close to the Port of Miami, is the perfect pre-or-post cruise hotel. It's on beautiful Biscayne Bay where you see all the ships coming and going (that gets your pre-cruise excitement soaring). Accommodations are up-to-snuff, prices are good and service is polished. Shake off jet lag with a walk along the Bay or a hotel massage at mySpa. South Beach and the Art Deco District are just minutes away.
I enjoyed a pre-cruise dinner at the InterContinental's Indigo Restaurant. The menu was casual and playful, with both big and small plate offerings. You can't go wrong with "slammin-smoked salmon" with deviled eggs and pretzel stick, or Greek salad followed by local red snapper marinated in key lime ponzu sauce with coconut rice. Juicy rib-eye grilled over hardwood served with grilled Maui onions and blue cheese rocked, too.
Here's an even better foodie option: Set up a private dinner at Table 40, the chef's table at the InterContinental. Available by reservation only, you decide the menu with executive chef Alexander Feher. The local buzz on this is good.
After a good night's sleep, you're ready for breakfast (complimentary on a InterContinental Club floor), another bayside stroll and an easy cab ride to the port. (www.icmiamihotel.com)
Celebrity Eclipse food photography by Janice Wald Henderson, Culinary and Style Editor for CruiseMates.