Invading Manfredi’s and The Chef’s Table Aboard Viking Cruises
Every cruise ship has one of these, if not two or three. They go by various names depending on what cruise line you’re sailing. But what they have in common is an elevated “gourmet” experience that lures passengers from their assigned seat in the dining room to an extra-charge restaurant where, for $30 and up, they can dine in a more refined setting with higher quality food. Only on the most expensive cruises does the food come free in these alternative venues. Even premium lines like Celebrity and Holland America charge their paying guests a premium.
Not so on the recently launched Viking Ocean Cruise Ships, Viking Star and Viking Sea, though. Here, the rules have changed and passengers can choose to eat in not one, but two specialty restaurants without shelling out so much as a sou. They’re part of an array of inclusions that make Viking Ocean stand apart from its competitors: free excursions, free access to the spa, free wine and beer at every meal, and not an inside cabin on the ship — or, for that matter, a cabin without a balcony.
Side by side, Manfredi’s and The Chef’s Table are situated in beautiful rooms with large windows overlooking the sea, plenty of tables for two, and some of the best food we’ve ever eaten onshore or off.
Manfredi’s is Viking’s entry into the “Italian restaurant at sea” category. Virtually every cruise line from Princess (Sabatini’s) to Disney (Palo) has one, but Manfredi’s stands apart, and not just for its complete lack of a surcharge. The restaurant walls are lined with Italy’s most famous movie stars, the club-like room is loaded with atmosphere, and there’s an entire open kitchen that produces sublime plates of antipasto. The choices in every course make it impossible to leave hungry. Do not miss the pasta selection, which changes frequently and is reliably delicious. Or choose the crispy calamari with an-out-of-this-world balsamic dipping sauce. Then there are the meats. Viking just went from choice to prime in all its dining venues, and it also upped the portion size on steaks from seven ounces to nine ounces. This means your Bistecca Fiorentina will not just be better, but bigger. The fish is also perfection, the veal outstanding, and, if you can, leave room for dessert — including a Nutella panna cotta, a simply phenomenal tiramisu, and a pistachio torta so good that we’re sharing the recipe for it. The restaurant is open every day from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Viking Ocean Cruises
Right next door is The Chef’s Table. If I had to choose the finest restaurant at sea, this would be it. Every three days a new menu appears. Five courses are served around one of seven themes, all of which are carefully explained on each menu. These menus cover an extraordinary amount of culinary geography. From a menu called “Asian Panorama” and a new entry called “Xiang” (which salutes China’s Cantonese and Huaiyang cuisine), the chef’s menus take diners along the Silk Road in “La Route des Indes,” to Venice and to Western Europe, ending in the brand new “Erling’s Scandinavian Bistro,” which is a proud salute to the line’s Norwegian roots. In between, there’s an amusing menu called “Sweet & Salty,” which pairs those two flavors on every plate. With each course, a new wine is presented and paired with whatever is being served. The food is remarkable and consistently excellent. “Venice Carnival” presented us with a roasted pepper and tomato jelly amuse bouche, followed by beef carpaccio, a bellini granita, cod filet, and finished with a mascarpone mousse filled with passion fruit. Sweet & Salty lived up to its name with a tomato and watermelon gazpacho, and grilled scallops with beets and passion fruit. Even the dessert delivered on its sweet and salty components: A Grand Marnier Bavarian cream was accompanied by basil jelly and strawberry sauce finished with black Hawaiian lava salt.
While initially the menus were served at two separate seatings, now guests can reserve a table for anytime they choose between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m.