Stern's Guide to the Greatest Resorts of the World, Stern's Guide to the Cruise Vacation, Stern's Guide to European Riverboats and Hotel Barges, and The Indispensable Guide to Foreign Words and Phrases--by Steven B. Stern (Sponsored by Stern's Travel Guides, Ltd.)
Although the 66,000-ton, 1250-passenger Marina, and her sister ship Riviera, can be recommended for many reasons, exceptional dining is the tour de force of these two ships. With an impressive variety of dining venues to choose from, passengers never get bored—each evening affording a new culinary adventure; and, the frosting on the cake--- these are the only premium-class ships where all of the specialty restaurants (other than wine pairing and private dinners) exact no additional charge.
Our favorite was Jacques, master chef Jacques Pepin’s signature restaurant. The setting is elegant—decorated in rich fabrics, heirloom antiques and art from Pepin’s personal collection. The diverse offerings are truly French fare, and include such dishes as foie gras, Escargot, onion soupe gratinee, filet of sole Grenobloise, Lobster Thermador, Coquille St. Jacques, sautéed frogs legs, moules marinieres, canard a la orange, and encrusted lamb loin with béarnaise, as well as such desserts as crème brulee, tarte au pommes, mille feuille, baba au rum, and several chocolate concoctions. Service was impeccable. On the negative side, decent bottles of wine (as in all of the restaurants) were outrageously expensive, and we were obliged to settle for wines by the glass.
Our next favorite venue was Toscana, the Tuscan influenced Italian restaurant with numerous imaginative preparations reaching far beyond your average neighborhood trattoria, as well as service on Versace china. There were so many offerings from the many regions of Italy, we had a difficult time making choices. So we ordered several of each course. For starters, I could not resist the carpaccio dimanzo, the Caprese salad, and the sliced melanzone with veal stuffing and fresh basil in a tomato sauce. The variety of pasta choices was endless, and if you could not choose, there was a combination trio of fetuccini carbonara, lobster risotto, and tortellini stuffed with ricotta, spinach and chopped tomatoes in a sage butter sauce. However, my favorite was the Aragosta Diablo, a perfectly flavored lobster tail over taglialini with a sauce that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and salute. Main courses included osso buco, and a plevy of veal, fish, sea food and fowl dishes, available in a variety of preparations. Although there was an impressive selection of desserts to choose from, the Tiramisu was possibly the best I have ever tasted.
Polo Grill was a ship-wide favorite with its classic steakhouse setting, and dark wood furnishings. The menu was incredibly impressive and included every imaginable offering you would find at Mortons, Ruth Chris, Smith and Wolinsky, Capital Grill, or other stateside steak houses. Starters included giant shrimps, oysters Rockefeller, lobster bisque with lobster morsels, lump crab cakes, warm foie grasencroute, and several salads. Carnivores could choose from five cuts of prime steak including a 20 ounce porterhouse, 16 or 32 ounces of prime rib, and rack of lamb. Other choices were whole main lobster, Jumbo shrimp, grilled Mahi Mahi, roast chicken and vegetarian options. Sides of four types of potatoes, creamed spinach, sautéed mushrooms, onion rings, and asparagus spears were also available, as well as, indecently indulgent desserts. As impressed as we were with the menu, we felt that for some of the items, the promise was not up to the reality; however in all honesty, we are not the easiest people to please.
Red Ginger was the Asian venue with its contemporary interpretations of Asian classics. The setting was certainly atmospheric, and here again the diverse offerings were impressive. We loved the lobster pad Thai, the seared tuna tataki, the stir-fried seafood noodles, and the miso-glazed sea bass. Most passengers we spoke with loved this restaurant and felt it a pleasant option to the other more serious choices.
Not to be overlooked was the main dining room, a truly elegant venue, far brighter than most .three-meal-a-day restaurants on other ships. A most impressive crystal chandelier loomed over the central area. The meals we had here were consistently outstanding. Each evening we were offered an eclectic menu with a vast variety of choices, of seafood, fish, poultry, pasta, lamb, veal and beef, as well as, numerous appealing appetizers and mouth-watering desserts. Canyon Ranch healthy and savory fare was also available. The quality of the cuisine, presentation and service equaled, if not exceeded that found in the specialty restaurants..
In addition the ship offered four additional dining options. The Terrace Café is the three-meal-a-day buffet restaurant; Waves Grill adjacent to the Terrace Café, and near the pool, offered hamburgers, hot dogs, barbeque items, salads and a bevy of other sandwiches made to order; Privee is the most expensive and exclusive dining experience, orchestrated in an opulent dining room which can be reserved for $250 per evening for a party of up to eight guests who choose from the Polo Grill and Toscana menus, or a combination of both; and La Reserve by Wine Spectator is an onboard wine-tasting center featuring a series of seminars and tastings, and seven-course, wine-pairing dinners for a maximum of 24 guests, costing $112 per person including gratuity.
With all of this epicurean splendor, we, like most of the other passengers, found ourselves departing the cruise with some extra unwanted pounds; however, what the hey, why not live a little.
By Steven B. Stern
(author of “Stern’s Guide to the Cruise Vacation” and “Stern’s Guide to the Greatest Resorts of the World”)