When it comes to rating different environments for noteworthy cuisine, cruise fare hasn’t traditionally scored too highly. It has frequently sat somewhere below budget family hotel restaurants but above diner late-night specials, and to most refined palates, doesn’t bring the very delectable connotations that you’d find via other forms of traveling.
But times have changed, and cruise companies have stepped up their game, big time. The endless buffets haven’t disappeared entirely, but instead, more sophisticated and refined dining options have been added.
Enter Curtis Stone, most recently known for his Los Angeles restaurants, Maude and Gwen. For the Australian celebrity chef, a partnership with Princess Cruises was a logical fit. “I’ve got three major loves: food, travel, and the ocean. As a surfer and someone who loves to be out on the water, there’s something liberating about feeling that salt breeze, right on the face. I also absolutely love seafood.” So when asked to create a unique dining experience on board Princess, he was adamant in incorporating this love for the treasures of the ocean into his menu. “There’s one thing for sure, I’ll always have seafood front and center on my menu. It doesn’t matter if it’s fish or shellfish, I love cooking it and I love eating it.”
Walking through the doors of Share, on board the Ruby Princess, it’s charming and elegantly stylish in its decor, and definitely more intimate than the ship’s other dining rooms. Throughout the meal, there are times when you forget you’re on a boat in the middle of the ocean, and feel as if you’re in a friend’s home.
“Share came from the central philosophy of everything that I care and think about when it comes to food,” says Stone. “There’s something so special when you share. There’s appreciation, cooperation, communication – whether it’s just passing something to someone, or spooning it out of your dish to theirs, and letting them do the same to you. There’s really loving and nurturing qualities that come from that.” Although the meals aren’t large-scale family-style plates (each diner orders their own six courses for dinner from the options listed on the menu), there is an element of sampling other dining companions’ meals, boasting both a traditionally rustic, as well as light seafood dishes.
Stone is known for bringing the best out of produce. Lemon-poached prawns with crispy brioche are a fresh alternative to a standard salad course, and each bite of the sweet and succulent shellfish is carried with a zesty lemon taste, offset with a gentle turnip cream. The pasta course offers luxuriously rich and beautifully creamy ricotta cavatelli, but unfortunately fails to excite with a pork ravioli, somewhat tousled in its overall composition. While the pasta is technically perfect, the muddled flavor of the pork is diluted by an overpowering lemongrass, lacking textural direction with an additionally aggressive, teeth-shattering chicharron.
Stone’s butter-poached lobster tail from the Sea course is, in stark contrast, much more meritorious. Married with a bed of roasted potatoes and pancetta, drenched with a grounding white onion soubise, it’s a wonderful blend of the sweetness of a faultlessly cooked, succulent lobster against the saltiness of the pancetta. It not only encapsulates the encasing tone of Share - a genuinely warm, yet delicately sophisticated dinner adventure at sea, but also of Stone’s affection for the taste of the ocean in the most vibrant and zestful manner.
For the Land course, the duck leg confit has been slow cooked for six hours, with a resulting delicate and tender meat that’s wrapped under a crispy and crunchy skin. Served with sweet fennel puree, smoky white beans, and a parmesan crumble, it’s a gorgeous dish and a perfect complement to the lightness of the previous course.
Stone’s aims for Share to share the love that he grew up experiencing when around food, and when dining with his loved ones, and he wants to recreate that at sea. “Getting people communicating in a different way, and maybe even trying something that they haven’t tried before,” says Stone. “Sharing beautiful food with the special people in your life” is, according to the Australian chef, one way of celebrating a uniquely different meal at sea.
Stone’s specialty dining partnership with Princess is just one part of the company’s attempt to refashion the common perception of cruise cuisine. My first time on a cruise ship was eye-opening, not only to the sheer size of different options available but also to the diversity in dining experiences and environments on board. A hospitality team of more than 200 cooks in the nine galleys includes 16 pastry chefs, eight butchers, 60 dishwashers and cleaners, and even two ice carvers. It’s an army of culinary talent who literally works around the clock feeding over 3,500 passengers, which makes the resulting quality of dining even more impressive.
From being able to take a shrimp salad or beef pie up to the sundeck to eat on a lounge chair on a lazy afternoon, or dressing up for the ship’s formal dinner with tableside de-shelled lobster tail, and elegantly flakey Beef Wellington, the included options are more than impressive for any land dining, let alone being out in the middle of the ocean. But at the cost of an additional surcharge, specialty dining options such as the Ruby Princess’ “Crab Shack” serve up your bodyweight in shellfish. It’s the ultimate feast for seafood lovers, and while the opening starters of popcorn shrimp and hush puppies may be slightly mediocre, the spotlight is on the main course of a crab boil, overflowing with king crab legs, shrimp, and clams. It’s more seafood than you’ll able to devour, but you’ll make a seriously commendable attempt, and subsequently roll to your cabin to pass out in a seafood coma.
There’s also a not-too-publicized experience that was, without doubt, one of my most memorable dinners on my voyage at sea. The Chef’s Table offers an exclusive opportunity to dive into behind the closed doors of the galley, to witness the frenzied operations of meal preparation, first hand. It’s a must-do for any food-obsessed traveler; getting up close and personal with the executive chef for this progressive dining experience is worth the additional cost. Not only does the meal start with champagne and appetizers in the galley, but it concludes with courses like a beyond epic surf and turf creation (the most ginormous, breathtaking presentation of lobster tail and diver scallops, with beef filet mignon, and lamb rack I’ve ever seen) will be an extravagant meal you’ll be talking to your friends about for years to come.
From award-winning burgers to mesmerizing desserts, most amateur cruise passengers, such as myself, will be happily shocked at the dining experience. While cruise vacations may not be the first thought for the food-focused traveler, dining at sea has definitely earned a seat at the table when it comes to unforgettably tasty moments away from home.
The author of this article traveled as a guest of Princess Cruises.