TV Chef Spearheads New Wave of Cruise Dining
by Gary Rose - Friday February 12, 2016 2:02 pm
Culinary concepts and eleven-hour flights clash, as Gary Rose takes the cruise ship Ruby Princess from LA to Mexico, sampling on-board menus including Curtis Stone's Share
"So you order several dishes each, and you can opt to share or not to share". This is the concept of US-based, Aussie celebrity chef Curtis Stone's recently-launched Share restaurant for Princess Cruises, as explained by the maître d'. Maybe it's a new one on Americans. A table full of jet lagged British journalists just look bemused.
Ok, so what you're saying is it's a mezze, right? Or tapas? Or have we missed something? Are we partnering up? If so, how do we choose who to share with? How do we know who wants to share? Or can we just attack anyone's plate? The lady next to me doesn't look like she'd want a foreign fork plunged into her ricotta fritters. We're having a conceptual crisis, and we haven't even ordered a drink.
Touched by our failure to grasp this simple idea, the maître d' takes matters into his own hands. We are relieved; the eight-hour time difference has not been kind. We're even more relieved when the food arrives. It surpasses all our expectations.
Butter-poached lobster with endive foam; roast turbot (or tur-bow, in Chef Stone's world) gratiné with gruyère crumb and vermouth; beef cheek pie with portobello mushrooms. This isn't the sort of cuisine you'd expect on a vessel serving 18,000 dishes a day to over 3,000 passengers.
But then Share is the new flagship of Princess's "premium" restaurant range, which also includes the Salty Dog Gastropub and the British-influenced Crown Grill steakhouse. Each of these charges a fee, while all the other food on board is free. This takes some getting used to if you've never cruised before. "So I can just walk off with this pain au chocolate without paying?" Yes you can. Why not take a pair of cinnamon swirls while you're at it?
Share (or cher, as the French might describe it) is the priciest of the top-up eateries at 39 US Dollars per head (so about 32 quid right now). This is reasonable considering the quality of what's on offer. The Crown Grill is next in line at $25. Not bad for a menu that includes a 22 ounce steak and some of the planet's finest condiments. I thought being offered a quartet of artisan salts was a bit of an affectation until I tasted them. The Himalayan Black, in particular, was so revelatory that I'm still not sure it wasn't a high-grade narcotic in disguise.
Lastly, the Salty Dog Gastropub has a $19 cover charge. Come here for bespoke craft beers and to try the Ernesto burger — designed by burger-meister Ernesto Uchimura. Cave-aged gruyère cascading over ground rib eye, with a support structure of caramelised kimchi, beer-battered jalapeños and, naturally, a glazed brioche. Need I continue this torture?
It's also worth mentioning the company's new relationship with master chocolatier Norman Love, whose creations are so ubiquitously planted around the ship that it might as well be renamed the Love Boat. They're even available at Horizon Court. Horizon where? Let me explain...
While the premium restaurants are a no-brainer for dinner, it's hard to beat the Horizon Court buffet for breakfast and lunch. This magical Willy Wonka wonderland of unlimited free grub is famous among Princess passengers — as well as being the reason most of them wobble home wearing a few extra pounds.
The place is vast. And the variety of food (not to mention the Alan Partridge-sized plates) means you'll march off with the oddest combinations imaginable. California rolls snuggled up beside bratwurst on a bed of linguine? Oh yes you will. And you'll enjoy it too.
Again, the standard is consistently high. The spread of nationalities working in the kitchens must have something to do with this. Two weeks after my trip, I'm still craving the fiery dhal curry with sticky Japanese rice (sigh).
So, it's not hard to see why Princess walked off with the 2015 Cruise International food award. The main danger here is being overwhelmed by options. The advice is: if you're planning to take a large ship like the Ruby Princess, don't randomly munch your way around the decks like a nautical Pac-Man. Well do... but it pays to plan your evening meals before you leave home.
Hats off to Share in particular. And if you're companions are baffled by the concept, you can always wheel out the Cher gags: "If I could turn back time... I'd have ordered the twice cooked duck with bacon jus and parmesan crumb". Oh how we laughed. I blame the jet lag.
Visit www.princess.com for further info
Gary is on Twitter @Tweetytron