This one of the greatest surprises of my cruising life. The food on Carnival was excellent. Not just good but, damn good. I can only judge it on one encounter but I was basically stunned by the overall quality of the ingredients, the use of vegetables in sauces a mixture of spices and flavors and fish that wasn't dry and overcooked. They also had a variety of foods that mixed different tastes from Asian to Western and rice that wasn't Uncle Ben's but had flavor and texture.
I would put them up against Celebrity or Princess in flavor and innovation but a tad lacking in presentation.
Their buffet left a lot to be desired, except for the Asian dishes. They were well seasoned but all seemed to be at the same tepid temperature, no matter what you had; From salad to entrée. This is not a good thing. The alternative dining experience was just OK with fair service and if you want a good steak and a chance to dance then you won't be disappointed. If you are looking for a true four star dining experience then forget the alternative restaurant.
I left the ship with a new found respect for them. Now if they would just lose the, dancing waiter show, in the main dining room, for at least four nights out seven, I would be happy. It is strange that one thing would bother me so much. However, that's my problem and to many people that is what draws them to Carnival and has nothing to do with the food but a lot to do with the atmosphere.
Next in line would be NCL's Freestyle Dining. The main restaurants were fine but if you budget $100 into your cruise budget you will be able to partake in the alternative restaurants and have a dining experience equal or above that of any premium line. Their different restaurants will give something for everyone's taste and not all of them are additional charge. Le Bistro is a real upscale experience but does not come close to an Olympic restaurant on Millennium for service and the entrées aren't at the same level of quality and beef and lamb in Cagney's isn't the size and prime, aged beef that you would expect but it's still very good.
The NCL Asian offerings of a Tepanyaki or Sushi were fairly good but the offerings of sushi in the "all you can eat" were very limited and the portion sizes, for the price, were smaller than most land based sushi bars and not well cut or rolled. However, the Italian La Trattoria is a good, no charge, restaurant for those who enjoy pasta that can be done fairly well. On my two "real" freestyle ships it was better than Sabatini's on Princess.
The most disappointing of all has been on the Royal Caribbean ships. I haven't sailed on them since 2004 but on the four I have sailed in the last four years, I have been very disappointed. Everything from "Ranch Steak", my fault I knew it was bad, to actual soups and chicken were bland, cold, and underwhelming. Chops steakhouse is a good alternative and I loved it more out of having a good tasting meal among a number of mediocre ones that made it special. Once again, if you like a hunk of good meat, you'll like Chops.
I am eager to try Royal Caribbean again as I have heard the food has vastly improved. Perhaps the downturn at Celebrity has created an upturn at Royal Caribbean and they will eventually meet at the high end of mediocrity.
All of this food talk has made me hungry: I think I'll go broil a hunk of good meat.