Fall into an Asian Cruise

| Friday, 27 Sept. 2013

Dining Adventures on a Silversea Beijing-to-Tokyo cruise

Autumn leaves mean more than, well, a rake job and wool sweaters.  In the cruise world (is there any other?), we say au revoir to the long Mediterranean season, and turn the spotlight onto Asian sails.  Fall-to-spring is primetime for cruising this region.  Of course, Down Under and South America cruises are timely then, too.  But if you want culinary adventure coupled with incredibly exotic ports, think Asia for eye-popping, taste bud-swirling pleasure.

I recently traveled with Silversea Cruises on the 382-passenger Silver Shadow for an 11-day Tokyo-to-Beijing voyage.  I wasn’t new to Silversea Cruises or to Asia, making the cruise that much more challenging.  Could I make this trip a gastronomic standout?  Turns out, I did just fine.  But like most cruisers, I had my favorite onboard haunts.


Morning Fuel  

Dining at a choice table outdoors at La Terrazza

Dining at a choice table outdoors at La Terrazza - all Photography by Janice Wald Henderson

Breakfast in La Terrazza, the indoor/outdoor café, was one of them.  On a small ship, it was so much easier to secure an outdoor table.  And little feels better than breathing ocean air and eying endless sea in in chill-mode, rather than fighting off other passengers for precious seats. 

If you’re a Brit or love British breakfasts (as I do) you’ll appreciate traditional English selections, like sautéed mushrooms, broiled tomato halves, baked beans, English bacon (meatier; preferable to me than American-style) and sausages. 

I know, baked beans with eggs seem weird, but half the fun of travel is trying new things, especially food.  And with so many international passengers onboard Silversea (unlike on most cruises marketed to American audiences), culinary choices possess broader appeal.

I’m sleepy in the morning – every morning I’m jet-lagged – until I down a cappuccino or two.  As this ship is luxury class, servers elbow each other to be first to take coffee orders.  Cappuccinos are excellent; strong fresh brewed espresso, creamy foam.   

I was happy nibbling fruit salad, yogurt and whole grain muffins, but my husband was all about eggs-to-order.  Omelets were fluffy (I hate those pancake-thin ones) and chockfull of whatever vegetables and cheese requested. 

Lunchtime Splash

Full confession: I ate healthy at breakfast because I went off the deep end come lunchtime at the Pool Bar & Grill.  I’m sorry, but resisting fresh-grilled hamburgers on toasted buns wasn’t in the cards.  And those darn onion rings.  If only the cook didn’t make them so fat and crispy. 

Just thinking of the hot dogs with perfect grill marks makes my mouth water.  I always asked for sautéed onions, which dutifully arrived on top.  On my stronger-willed days, I ordered a chicken breast burger and ate half the bun.  I could have ordered healthier lunches like caprese salad, or curried chicken skewers with mint yogurt sauce, but really, when lounging poolside and smelling burgers sizzling, all hope was lost.     


No Bag Ladies Here

Smoked salmon sandwiches at teatime on the Silver Shadow

Teatime was a Silversea culinary highlight, oddly enough, as I was rarely hungry between meals.  (Yes, those giant lunches had something to do with it.)  

But the scones were fresh-baked and perfectly crumbly.  There were three kinds - chocolate chip, buttermilk or raisin (loved that) - served with thickly clotted cream and fine preserves.  Servers presented a lengthy tea menu (some 12 selections) from which to choose, and leaves arrived in a hot pot for steeping.  No tea bags here. Too many Brits onboard to cut corners; can you imagine the UKers going wild if tea service wasn’t up to snuff? 

Freshly assembled finger sandwiches were dainty, with silken smoked salmon a highlight.  Egg salad and watercress, and cream cheese and cucumber were quite proper; tasting like what I imagined Duchess Catherine is served at her fancy new digs in Kensington Palace when her mum visits.

The pastries were not at all English, but the overall taste was thumbs-up.  Miniature opera cake and blueberry cheesecake impressed.  I’m not a fan of the chocolate chip cookies; they’re more European-style (flat, less chips) than American.  I guess that’s the price I pay for sailing on a ship geared to a worldwide clientele.


Smallest Restaurant Equals Biggest Flavors

Lobster Thermidor in Le Champagne, the tiniest and loveliest restaurant onboard

Le Champagne rocked (not literally - always a fear at sea). The intimate restaurant (just a handful of tables) is affiliated with Relais & Châteaux, an organization of boutique hotels and restaurants.  All menus are created with R&C chefs. 

But of course that means little unless the dishes are well executed.  And when I dined here, they were first-rate.  I had one of the best lobster bisques of my life.  Why did it score so high?  Because it had extraordinary depth of flavor, as if a chef had long-simmered fresh lobster shell stock and reduced it all the way down to my concentrated bowl of soup.  Big chunks of sweet lobster bobbed in the bisque, and I couldn’t taste cream.  (Bad lobster bisques taste mostly of heavy cream and are smooth purees, or contain the tiniest lobster morsels.)

Lobster Thermidor can be as big a health hazard as driving drunk.  No one needs to eat the old-fashioned version (created in the 1800s, when few understood dietary connections and heart disease), which smothers or mixes lobster with a heavy blanket of creamy sauce. 

You’d be surprised how many cruise ships serve it that way.  In Le Champagne, the sweet lobster meat arrived with its bright-red shell as a garnish and only a lobster stock-rich concentrated jus.  (Al dente risotto soaked some of the delicious jus, too.)  Le Champagne’s modern version was equally luxurious as the old method, but tasted far better, with intensely luscious lobster flavor.

Desserts in Le Champagne can be old school but they’re now so rare, they’re kind of cool.  I did get a boozy buzz from a voluptuous Grand Marnier soufflé.  And when I tucked into flambéed crêpes, I thought, why did this fab finale go away?  Alas, tableside cooking has nearly vanished.    


Cooking School Rules

Chickens for sale in a Shanghai market

My cruise was a Silversea Cooking School Voyage, offering special cooking classes, tastings and market tours.  I sailed with Silversea Culinary Trainer David Bilsland, a no-nonsense Brit with a wealth of knowledge and keen sense of humor. 

He taught demonstration classes that provided us with a strong sense of place.  He showed how to make Chinese dumplings and stir-fried water spinach, while dispersing a plethora of technique tips.  He also instructed a small group of the willing (Full confession: I forced my husband to go), in a hands-on galley class on the art of knives and chopping.

Chef Bilsland took a small group of food fanatics on a phenomenal market tour in Shanghai.  He brought an interpreter and this tour was an eye-opener to the uninitiated, and a thrill to all.  Live chickens perched on counters as casually as pairs of shoes, with customers pointing to ones that caught their eye.  In seconds, the poultry was killed, butchered and wrapped in paper. 

Another vendor stood ready with fat frogs and sharp scissors.  He cut their legs off to order as neatly as a surgeon.  Fish and seafood were wiggling – everything in this market was alive except the vegetables - until they were not.  How different from the sterile environment of our markets back home. 


Suite Sweets

I found my Kryponite onboard but it wasn’t a glowing green rock.  Instead, it was shiny brown and it didn't glow at all – but it did glisten.  Pierre Marcolini chocolates were a fixture in guest suites (all cabins were suites).  Such carefully crafted jewels, in delicate flavors like caramel orange flower.  They were intensely chocolaty and smoother than Hugh Grant (in his prime). 


Six-Star Ports

This may be a culinary article, but it would be remiss to not mention port highlights on such an exotic sail.  Cruising from Tokyo to Beijing included an unforgettable visit to the DMZ in South Korea (not guaranteed; dependent on world situations) and a sobering tour of Ground Zero, Nagasaki in Japan.  Shanghai’s skyline was Jetsons-futuristic, and particularly riveting by night.  The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum was a must-see to comprehend China’s historic role in saving Jews from massacre during WWII.  (silversea.com)       


Woman Overboard

Most Asian cruises include Shanghai visits, at least overnight and up to two nights.  Silver Shadow gave us much time to explore this fast-growing and teeming-with-attractions city that was a cruise highlight. 

Be sure to dine at least one night in town.  Shanghai is chockfull of fantastic restaurants.  The safest (for Western tummies) and easiest (everyone speaks English) for first-time visitors are hotel restaurants. 

I recommend Yi Long Court at The Peninsula Shanghai, where I dined.  The décor alone (restaurant and hotel) was stunning.  Think priceless Oriental rugs and one-of-a-kind accessories.  Service was exemplary and the restaurant menu, spectacular.  Don’t miss the Peking duck, sliced tableside, served with near-transparent pancakes.  (I know, it wasn’t Shanghai cuisine, but it was delicious.)  Crisp pork belly with mustard sauce was one of many more standouts.  The restaurant was filled with local visitors as well as foreigners, which made people-watching a delight.  

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