Never mind sun, spas, and solariums. You can keep your poolside cabanas and your pillow menus. What matters most to the majority of cruise passengers is food. Lots of it, in great variety, and always available so that hunger pangs become as distant a memory as a pair of snug-fitting Speedos.
Food sets the rhythm for the day, regardless of whether breakfast is a full English fry-up or a Bircher muesli with a slice of water melon on the side. It will be time for morning coffee (and biscuits) before you know it. A three-course waiter-service lunch? Ready when you are. You can set your watch by afternoon tea at four o’clock, and the biggest choice to make at dinner is whether to have steak, lobster, or both.
All of which means that the Best Onboard Restaurant category is one of the most hotly-contested in the annual Cruise International Awards. Rivalry among these contenders simmers like a stockpot and I could probably find reasons to vote for all of them.
But we have to be a little more selective. So what have this year’s nominated establishments got to offer? I have to confess that I have not eaten in each of them, although there is only one on the list that I have not set foot inside.
Executive chefs know their market – one look at the left-overs will tell them immediately what passengers don’t want. They know they can’t go wrong in providing vast quantities of red meat – which explains the presence of the Royal Caribbean branded Chops Grille, Regent Seven Seas’ Prime 7, and the Marco Pierre White-inspired Ocean Grills that are finding their way onto ships in the P&O fleet.
Those who prefer their steaks, chops, cutlets and fillets to be grilled on a skewer and carved tableside, South American-style, can get their fill in the Moderno Churrascaria which was introduced on Norwegian Epic and has now found its way to the newly-launched Norwegian Breakaway.
The other big trend is for Asian fusion food, which means that instead of having to choose between Indian or Thai curries, Vietnamese spring rolls or Japanese sushi, the menu can contain a bit of all of them.
Hence the popularity of Oceania’s Red Ginger, Holland America’s Tamarind, and Sindhu – Atul Kochhar’s creation for P&O.
When it comes to Italian, the choice is between a traditional ristorante such as Sabatini’s – which is a feature on each of Princess Cruises’ ships – and newcomer Eataly, a chain which began in Turin, made a name for itself in New York, and came to sea for the first time on MSC Preziosa.
On to quirky, and in this category Celebrity Cruises’ Qsine reigns supreme. Nothing is quite what it appears to be on the iPad menus’ selection of kookily-presented dishes from lobster and escargot fritters to Kobe beef burgers and popcorn fish and chips in Boddington’s beer batter.
It’s a world away from the grand dining room experience of Celebrity’s Murano (not, as far as I know, related to Angela Hartnett’s Michelin-starred establishment in London’s Mayfair), or the grand divans of the Todd English on Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria.
Grandest of all, perhaps, is Silversea’s Le Champagne, whose delights even include an edible gold leaf risotto.
All that, and we haven’t even reached dessert yet!
Now it’s over to you to choose from the extravagant menu to pick your favourite. Probably best to relax with a cocktail before you make the final decision…
John Honeywell, aka Captain Greybeard, is on the esteemed panel of judges at this year’s Cruise International Awards.
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