We chose the Crystal Serenity as our transitioning cruise ship this year, booking a March 31 to April 10 passage from Miami, Florida to Lisbon, Portugal. This was our first voyage on a Crystal ship and in general it was a very pleasurable experience. There were, of course, a few problems and shortfalls, but we also found things that Crystal does better than either Seabourn or Cunard.
Over the years I have come to rely on the maximum number of passengers and the crew-to-passenger ratio as the key statistics in selecting a cruise ship. The Crystal Serenity will accommodate a maximum of 1,080 passengers, and given a crew of 635, this yields 1.7 passengers per crewmember. By contrast, the Seabourn Odyssey carries a maximum of 450 passengers with a crew size of 335 yielding 1.3 passengers per crewmember. The difference may seem slight, but it is not. The closer you get to a 1-to-1 ratio, the better the cruise and shaving off three tenths of a percent for roughly the same money is worthwhile in my experience. The Crystal Serenity falls between the larger Seabourn ships like Odyssey, and Cunard’s Queen Mary II flagship with a ratio of just over 2-to-1 (2,620 passengers and 1,253 crew).
A final word about ship size and passenger-to-crew ratio; transitioning cruise ships are rarely fully booked, but they still carry the same number of crew, so the effective ratio on this type of cruise is better than the specifications suggest. We found this to be the case with both the Crystal and Seabourn lines. Since the QM II is not transitioning when she crosses the Atlantic but conducting one of many bread-and-butter runs that Cunard pushes as a discriminator, we found with the three crossings we have made on the QM II that the ship was always maxed out on passengers.
There is also an absolute passenger size limit that impacts a cruise experience, and while it is a less precise guide to anticipated experience, seems to fall around the 500-passenger level. Thus, the Crystal Serenity struck me more as a smaller upscale version of the QM II than as a larger Odyssey. The Crystal business model is also very similar to Cunard’s. Both lines have decided to burnish their brands by accentuating their strengths and hoping you do not notice the corners they cut.
On Crystal ships food, enrichment, entertainment, and shore excursions are the focus. In the first three of these areas they are largely successful. The food and wine, with very few exceptions, are superior to the excellent fare served on Seabourn cruises and they blow Cunard away. Enrichment programs are far and away better on Crystal than Seabourn and even superior in certain cases to Cunard, which also puts a lot of emphasis on this area. The entertainment venues and varieties were also better than Seabourn’s equivalents and rivaled those of the QMII, which is a far larger ship. Since we do not do shore excursions, we cannot comment on that aspect of the Crystal experience. But we neither heard nor saw any complaints from passengers during our stop in Funchal, whereas we did witness complaints being levied concerning shore excursions at the same location on Seabourn’s Odyssey.
Success in these areas, however, does not come cost free. Trade-offs have been made with respect to crew overstretch, cabin size, and Internet access. In general, we found the crewmembers that we interacted with were very helpful and cheerful. I got the impression, however, that they were over-worked. The first sign of people being stretched too thin was that they lost one of our bags for the better part of 24 hours after boarding. I never even heard of such a thing in the decade we have been crossing the Atlantic on ships of all types, not to mention on a six star ship. We were not the only ones who suffered lost luggage either. Reservations for massages at the spa were also a bit muddled, but once we got things sorted out, the massages were the best we have ever had on land or sea.
Finally, the lifeboat drill was a joke compared to either Seabourn or Cunard. Instead of trying to impart safety information in a professional manner, many crewmembers joined in with the jokes and distracting conversations of those passengers who wanted to get on with the party. Now I realize that most passengers do not take the emergency drill seriously and that they cannot be talked down to or insulted in such situations, but we actually do take safety seriously on any means of conveyance and the crew’s performance did not enhance my confidence in their ability to deal with a real emergency. Given the beating that the entire cruise industry is taking over safety issues these days, such behavior seems really strange and somewhat troubling.
One often hears the admonition that stateroom, train sleeping compartment, and hotel room sizes and appointments are relatively unimportant because they are only occupied when asleep. Our experience, however, is that with extended stays either by sea or land, your domicile makes a very big difference, especially the bathroom. Now it is true that Team Mago has additional requirements associated with working space and Internet infrastructure, but in a decade and a half of wandering on two continents, I have to say that if you are unhappy with where you sleep or perform ablutions, it is hard to enjoy what is going on outside.
Crystal is clearly banking on their shipboard experience outside the cabin to make up for their shaving space off their stateroom floor plans viz. their competitors. We stayed in Serenity’s Category AA – Deluxe Stateroom with Verandah, which had an interior space of 269 square feet (including the veranda). The Seabourn Odyssey equivalent is 365 square feet. This makes a huge difference in terms of the amount of space that can be dedicated to the bathroom, which is far superior on the Odyssey, storage for luggage (which became a bit of an issue once our missing bag showed up), room for working and in-cabin dining, and, most important of all, interior cabin partition.
The Odyssey stateroom has a sliding partition that allows you to have two rooms when someone wants to sleep and their spousal unit wants to play with the many excellent viewing options on the large flat panel TV. One could argue that a partition is unnecessary in a Crystal stateroom due to the paucity of viewing channels on the small and badly placed TV (e.g., the movie channel frequently defaulted to a ship safety spiel in Chinese), but 93 extra square feet would be welcome in a complete absence of audio visual entertainment. We were, for example, dissuaded from trying in-cabin dining, despite the superior cuisine, specifically because the space for a coffee table and built in desk where food would have to be ingested was just so unappealing.
Ditto for workspace. Two people could not deploy laptops simultaneously in our stateroom unless one was using the lotus position on the bed or sitting on the veranda, which required power cord acrobatics. Lack of space is really not an excuse for making Crystal’s staterooms so user unfriendly, however. Cunard’s equivalent veranda cabins have the exact same square footage as Crystal and they devote more to the veranda than Crystal, but it has been my experience that the Cunard cabin is much better organized for work and relaxation than Crystal. If Crystal is going to go cheap on space, then they should spend a little more time on intelligent space utilization for the prices they charge; either in comparison to what you get for much the same money on Seabourn or the major price differential compared to Cunard.
Our wonderful travel agent snagged us a no-cost upgrade to the Penthouse Deck (that is to say, to a stateroom on the deck where there are also penthouses; she’s very good but not god-like). These accommodations are not really different in extent and layout than those on lower decks, although some (I think ours was one) had about 10 extra square feet of veranda space. One advantage is that these are the highest non-suites in the ship and thus command better views, but this advantage is not a big deal on transatlantic passages as opposed to Mediterranean or Caribbean cruises with their frequent port calls and many vistas. One advantage that we certainly enjoyed was that since the majority of the Serenity’s Deck 10 units are penthouses, the self-serve laundry is much less crowded than those on the lower decks, because penthouses have a butler that does the laundry.
Other Stateroom Options
During our stop at Funchal, the Crystal marketing department performed a deft bit of up-selling by staging open houses” in the three types of staterooms available for those passengers that do not fall into the .0001% (and if you are that loaded, why go for a huge suite on a cruise ship instead of buying your own damn yacht?). We took a look at how the better half cruises and for those readers that would like something other than the standard brochure description or the gushing prose of “independent” cruise reviewers trolling for symbiotic upgrades, we provide the following summary.
≈(403 sq ft): A lot more space both inside and outside than the Deluxe Stateroom with Verandah. The key features are a much bigger and better bathroom with Jacuzzi, separate large shower stall, and a double vanity separated by a central mirror that would allow a (blind) partnership desk for working. The setup has the added feature of double the number of plugs. You still can’t partition the space into two rooms a la Seabourn, however. The larger veranda is very nice for private work and play in good weather. However, it is difficult to watch TV from either the couch or the bed. The walk-in closet is a nice touch so that the penthouse’s living space does not get too cluttered. The footprint for this penthouse is larger than Seabourn’s veranda stateroom (which they bill as a suite, but is actually their standard veranda cabin) but not by much, giving Seabourn a serious value for money advantage in the stateroom arena.
Penthouse Suite with Verandah: (538 sq. ft.): The footprint for this suite is huge, but the space is optimized for entertaining (although there is still not a decent table for a meal in the room). The bedroom is completely separate and the bathroom has two entrances, but in terms of fixtures it is not a big improvement over the basic” penthouse bathroom. The walk-in closet is fine for Imelda Marcos clones but otherwise takes up too much space. No real work areas at all, both the penthouse and the deluxe stateroom sport better layouts for such purposes. The verandah could easily host a small cocktail party. The TV setups in the living room and the bedroom are superior to all other stateroom types we saw. The bed, like all others in all the cabins we saw, consists of two twins hooked together. For the money that this baby costs, you would think that it would have at least a real queen and preferably a king with the option to bring in twins if needed.
You can buy internet access in several hourly packages, the more hours you buy the less you pay per minute, or you can pay a standard minutely rate as you go (this is naturally the most expensive per minute rate). We bought a 10-hour package for the voyage and left an hour on the table in Lisbon. We have to have Internet access to work, but we do not stream, game, or require constant access. Thus, the size of Serenity’s bit pipe was fine for us, as long as it worked.
The Internet connection started to get dodgy on the second day at sea and continued until we docked in Lisbon. When connection attempts failed, a message popped up on the screen claiming that the ship’s current location was a problem for its satellite antenna. This was bullshit, not to put too fine a point on it. Unless you are at extreme latitudes, geosynchronous communications satellites do not care where you are on the planet; this is one of their features. The problem was too many users sucking on too small a pipe, of course. After a couple days observation, it became clear that mid-morning after breakfast and before lunch, as well as mid-afternoon until cocktail hour, were the periods when it was virtually impossible to get on the Internet. Anytime after 10PM until 8AM rocked. The access problem was not nearly as bad as it was on the QM II (where you are basically limited to a 1 AM to 5 AM window for the same reasons), but it was far worse than the essentially 24/7 access we enjoyed on Seabourn’s Odyssey.
It all boils down to the number of passengers and associated age demographics. With less than half the number of passengers but about the same bandwidth, Odyssey could handle all its users all the time. At double the size, QM II is at a serious disadvantage to begin with and when you add in the fact that there are many, many children and teens on the QM II who have been raised to believe that broadband is not just a technical artifact but a fully protected constitutional right, one wonders why they even bother to provide internet service.
The answer, of course, is because selling Internet access is a great way to boost revenue. And that is fine with me, as long as I can get online when I want to, which is not the case on either Crystal or Cunard ships. If cruise lines are going to charge non-trivial prices for Internet access, then they need to upgrade their bandwidth pipes to handle the traffic. Otherwise they are just ripping you off. It is not like such upgrades are technically infeasible or even very expensive compared to altering many other aspects of cruise ship infrastructure. I’m just sayin’ that if even the vile and contemptible airlines can provide decent Wi-Fi access at 30,000 feet while traveling at 575 miles an hour, it would seem that five and six star cruise ships should be able to as well.
Let me just pause my Internet rant to say that on our passage aboard Serenity there were no children aboard that I ever saw. I should think that the absence of this demographic would appeal to more curmudgeons than just yours truly. Since this situation was identical to the Odyssey, I am still at a loss as to why cruise lines to do not advertise this fact as a feature for their transitioning voyages.
A related issue with respect to online access is power outlets, or the lack of thereof. Our stateroom had enough power outlets to charge up to four devices. The real limitation on working in our cabin was space and layout (see above), but there were very few areas outside of staterooms where you could plug in a laptop or tablet. This is another area where cruise ships are slipping behind the times. Most couples we saw had at least one tablet, e-reader, or laptop between them fired up in Serenity’s public spaces during the day. What few power outlets there are were located on light poles above tables deployed around the pool area. This meant that you had to dangle a cord a minimum of five feet above your head to get power. If you wanted to power more than one device off of the outlet, then you had to dangle a power strip (I’ll bet we were the first passengers to try that since Serenity was commissioned in 2003). And then to top it all off, every public space power outlet was configured for European plugs, so you had to use plug adapters in order to dangle your power cords above your head. Both the QMII and the Odyssey had more power outlets in public spaces than the Serenity. The Serenity’s electric current, unlike Odyssey’s, was compatible with our US power strip; so we were able to refrain from killing it until we landed in Lisbon where we promptly blew it to bits in a lounge at the train station.
Food and Wine
Crystal cuisine is amazing. In addition to the Dining Room, the Serenity boasts two specialty restaurants, Prego and The Silk Road & The Sushi Bar, as well as the Lido Café buffet restaurant, Taste’s (a limited menu table service restaurant), the Trident Grill & Ice Cream Bar, and The Bistro (an espresso bar that also serves small plates and pastries). Each of these venues produces outstanding food.
The service in all the venues was superb. By the second night, it seemed like everyone knew our names. Although the wait staff was sometimes harried and stressed (particularly in the Dining Room), they always made time to answer our many questions and did not seem to mind that we took a lot of pictures and notes, some even got into the spirit and helped out with lighting or got the chef to come out and talk to us. The sommeliers in particular were knowledgeable and very eager to please. If we praised a dish, we were always offered seconds. If we did not like it, substitutions were promptly suggested and supplied.
In general it was a pleasure to eat and drink on Serenity. So if it seems like we are hyper-critical in some of our remarks below, it is because MagoGuide wants its readers to know what to expect when they pay a non-trivial sum for a transatlantic crossing on a six star cruise ship, and how to get the most value for their ducats. In our humble opinions, there is too much hype and not enough veritas with respect to the ubiquitous travel and food related reviews” that clog the Internet with corporate massaged information and, increasingly, disinformation. I do not begrudge any business its advertising vectors, but consumers do not have to believe them either. Caveat emptor is as relevant today as it was in antiquity when sea travel was often the only way to go.
The Dining Room
The Crystal Dining Room is the premier food venue on their ships and was extremely popular on our crossing. It is a very large and opulent space tricked out with all the glitz you would expect on a six star cruise; from the obligatorily massive chandelier and circular ceiling frescos supported by Doric columns to the Villeroy and Bosh china on the tables accompanied by Sheffield silver plate cutlery and almost-but-not-quite Riddell crystal. As cruise doppelgangers, we are not very gregarious and past experience has taught us that the smaller the table we get the happier we are. Thus, we found that those tables in the wings of the dining room, especially those for two people by the windows, suited us best. We were usually able to get a table in these areas due to their low ceilings and hinterland feel that dissuaded real cruisers who like to be in the middle of the action with the opportunity to make new friends.
Whatever the case, it was very nice to ask for and receive a table for two every time we ate in the Dining Room (our favorite was table 73). If that sounds like praising the obvious, try doing it on the QM II. There simply is not a two-person dining option on Cunard in the main dining room during a fully booked crossing, which we have found to be the case on all three of our previous crossings.
Another aspect of being anti-cruisers is that we really do not like the main dining room on ships when they are running at or near capacity. The time to eat in these venues is when they are less than half full, preferably closer to two thirds empty. There is a decadent fin de siècle ambience associated with a sparsely populated grandiloquent restaurant at sea, especially given that the service and food tends to be, if anything, even better than when the emporium is packed with the bejeweled, coutured, and coifurred.
In practical terms, our dining demophobia has in the past translated into avoidance of the main dining room during evening meals. I had hoped that this situation would prove to be different with Crystal’s relatively new Perfect Choice Dining, which they bill as unique among luxury cruise lines. This approach allows passengers to choose between traditional early (6:15 PM) and late (8:30 PM) seatings or to make your own reservations (between 6:15 PM and 9:15 PM).
Unfortunately, the best that can be said about Perfect Choice is that they are still working out the kinks. Like many compromises, we found that the results were the worst of both worlds. There is a reason cruise ships have long imposed early and late seatings: the dining room is not big enough to accommodate all the passengers at once. By inserting semi-random seatings on top of the two traditional seatings, Crystal has simply increased the odds of overload during the 7:00 PM to 8:30 PM prime time dining period.
The upshot is that you either make your reservations several days in advance or you find that your choices are limited to very early or very late when you call on the day of. In fact if Taste’s is not open for dinner, it can be impossible to secure a booking at any venue for the evening, as we found out late in our cruise. Crystal partially addresses this logjam effect by allowing you to make reservations via their website once your cruise is paid in full, but they also limit the number of reservations that you can make prior to departure in the specialty restaurants so that you are faced with the dilemma of either booking the times you want in the Dining Room throughout the trip and severely limiting the number of times you can dine in the specialty venues or waiting until you board and playing Russian roulette with your dining times and venues. Mago tip: Book the maximum one meal per at the specialty restaurants on-line, and then as soon as you get on board pick up the phone and book every other dinner at the times and venues you want (having worked that out ahead of time). It is one of two ways to game the system (see below for the other)
The Dining Room was far and away the best venue for breakfast. It was always sparsely populated (most people opted for the buffet) and the service was superb. In addition, unlike Seabourn or Cunard, the menu contained many items not found elsewhere like lamb chops, grilled kippered herring, two types of Eggs Benedict, multiple pancake, waffle, and French toast choices, an Asian taco section, etc. The truffled eggs Benedict was spectacular, although throughout the ship kitchens seemed to err on the side of caution when cooking proteins, with the signal exception of the Silk Road’s Sushi Bar.
We had lunch twice in the Dining Room. Since I exercise in the afternoon and Patti works, we tend to avoid heavy and/or alcoholic lunches. If you need a hangover cure, however, lunch in the Dining Room is a great venue since it is usually less than half full, quiet, with leisurely paced service, and plenty of hair of the dog near to hand. We had an Avocado panacotta that paired subtle flavors with a nice presentation, followed by a very creamy garlic soup that was infused with mild sweet allium sativum. The turkey club was exemplary, made with thick slices of freshly and expertly roasted breast meat between slices of genuine sourdough bread. Most importantly for the too much pinot last night for lunch bunch, the fries were wonderful, just out of the fryolater and correctly salted.
Special Sunday Brunch
Our second mid-day meal was the Special Sunday Brunch, which was served buffet-style both outside and inside the Dining Room. Once you loaded your plate, a member of the wait staff would carry it to a table of your choice. These special brunch/buffets seem to be standard practice late in a six star cruise, offering the dual opportunity to wow the passengers and clean out the refrigerators prior to a provisioning stop. As such, I often have trouble enjoying them fully because at the end of a cruise, despite my 90 minutes of daily torture in the gym, I always feel like a stuffed piggy longing for a kitchen ashore where I can cook simple, ingredient-driven food while my body sheds the rich toxins of cruise ship cuisine.
For all that, most of the fare at brunch was very good. The beef tenderloin was a perfect medium rare on a ship where beef could be overcooked if you did not order one level rarer than you actually wanted, and the sauce was constructed on a firm demi-glace foundation that revealed classical expertise in the kitchen. The braised beef short ribs were equally well-executed with wonderful crunchy fried onions on top, but they were served in a fussy little dish and had to be dumped unceremoniously on one’s plate to eat them properly—at which point one discovered that the little dish did not contain nearly enough of the delicious reduced braising liquid. Veal cordon bleu was just so-so, primarily because this is not a dish for the steam table, since the veal cutlets quickly loose their crispy crust once out of the pan. The accompanying Cumberland sauce partially compensated for this shortcoming but not completely.
The chicken potpie amounted to unreconstructed leftover disposal. The crust was pedestrian. The dish was also lacking in chicken, which was under-seasoned ground breast meat. Why didn’t the kitchen use some of the square nautical miles of puff pastry evidenced at every other meal throughout the cruise along with a few of the piles of black truffles that went into so many other dishes? A real and rare missed opportunity for Crystal.
The cheese course ruled as it did throughout the cruise. The Explorateur and creamy goat cheese were exemplary, expertly ripened, and different from the normal trolley (see below). The desserts were amazing. Layered chocolate mousse served in a large shot glass was incredible. The coconut macaroons were very good. Crème Brule was very well done, light, creamy with a perfectly caramelized thin crust. I could not find the whisky in the whiskey chocolate tort but Patti could and liked its subtlety, which probably is evidence of late cruise palate fatigue on my part. Whiskey or not, the tart was fantastic, sporting much more chocolate than sugar. It paired perfectly with a glass of red wine and the unctuous runny cheeses.
As good as everything was, however, this was one of the few culinary situations where Crystal came up short versus Seabourn. Crystal’s brunch did not have as many offerings or variety as Seabourn’s, nor the creative display, which utilized the Odyssey’s main kitchen as part of the buffet.
We had dinner in the Dining Room three times and it was our least favorite evening venue. Service was far better in every other venue (to include Tastes and the Lido Buffet) than in the main dining room; which is not to say that service was bad, it is just that the Dining Room was understaffed when full. Furthermore the venue is invariably noisy, to the point where conversation can be difficult and has a knock on effect with respect to mistakes made by the wait staff.
The sommeliers in particular have to work fast, although they somehow managed to remain good humored and friendly. One asked us if we wanted to finish off the bottle when our glasses were half full and he had a third of a bottle left. He was not trying to give us the bum’s rush, but it was clear that he was worried about being able to return his attention to us until well after we had finished our newly recharged glasses.
Things got even worse when the kitchen was in the weeds. This invariably occurred during the fifteen minutes prior to and after the traditional seating times—a period that naturally overlapped with peak dining time for reservation makers. In general, the service staff covered quite well for the kitchen. The basic ploy was to keep food in front of you and your glass filled. One night I had two rounds of ‘tizers waiting for the salads and they offered another. They got so backed up at one point that the 8:30 crowd was forced to wait in a holding area outside the restaurant while tables were prepared, and this produced some unhappy Crystal campers. We were at our table one night for 3 hours and not by our own design. The result was that I drank so much of the incredible house pinot (see wine discussion below) along with at least twice the amount of food that I usually tamp down at a cruise ship dinner that I was hung-over/seasick the entire next day.
While sipping a restorative Bloody Mary the day after the three-hour mini-debauch, I asked Patti what she thought of the Dining Room experience as a whole. She responded with a very trenchant question: how would you feel if a friend took a Crystal cruise on your recommendation and they ate every night in the main dining room?
Mago Tip: Eat as many breakfasts and as few dinners as possible in Crystal’s Main Dining Room. Even if you are told that reservations are impossible at other venues, try showing up and seeing if they can seat you. They often can or they can tell you when to come back for a seat. Below is a summary of the dishes we sampled in the Dining Room.
So here is how the different dishes from dinner stacked up.
A little bit of heaven
Mushroom tart: Nice deep mushroom flavor and the puff pastry was not soggy, providing a perfect foil for the ‘shrooms. The mayonnaise sauce was bland and I got the feeling that it was mainly there for presentation.
Caponata salsa: In a very rare instance of wait staff obstinacy, I had to fight for “caponata salsa” as a starter, which was listed as one of the sides. First he brought me their abominable version of spaghetti carbonara (see the Prego Review below for the ghastly details). Then I was informed in a tone that flirted with surly condescension (there may have been crowded dining room issues involved) that the caponata was only relish for the swordfish dish. I politely but firmly held my ground and he winced, but he brought it and it turned out to be very good caponata—one of the few truly Mediterranean dishes on the Mediterranean dinner menu. Sweet with just enough olives and capers to make it interesting. I thanked the waiter for indulging me and he happily brought me a second serving.
Crab soup: A very good soup with just enough cream for a good mouth feel without too much richness and a very deft touch with saffron—all built on a foundation of superb stock.
Veal chop: An excellent piece of real veal (from Wisconsin!!). In actuality it was a rack of veal roast, cooked and then cut to order. Nice idea for a cruise ship, because mine was perfectly cooked to medium as ordered. There was not enough sauce, which was a shame because the sauce was very good. The meat itself needed salt and pepper (a nice pepper grinder at table was a thoughtful touch—another Crystal cuisine detail much appreciated throughout the cruise). The accompanying risotto was quite good for a restaurant (to say nothing of a cruise ship), creamy and al dente, but a bit heavy on the truffle oil. The broccoli was correctly cooked.
Filet Steak “Mermaid”: A grilled Black Angus filet mignon accompanied by a giant jumbo shrimp served with sauce béarnaise, sautéed spinach, and Pont Neuf potatoes: This time I went with the unspoken code, ordered rare and received a perfect medium rare. The béarnaise was a bit thin, lacking in acid and tarragon flavor. The giant jumbo shrimp was the most delicious double oxymoron of the entire cruise, exquisitely cooked and very juicy. The waiter did not even blink as I ordered several more and tore off their heads and sucked for all I was worth in front of two grandes dames sipping Krystal at an adjacent table. The new bridge taters were cooked through, but the outside was not crisp, too long in the pan under the lights (more kitchen in the weeds syndrome). The sautéed spinach and other veggies were better cooked (another detail of Crystal cuisine I came to appreciate, I never got an over-cooked vegetable). The sleeper of the dish was a side of Yorkshire pudding that I ordered. Baked perfectly with a crisp outside and a chewy, rich inside. It cried out for a dark brown rich gravy, but it was Neptune night after all.
Flourless chocolate cake: This dish was a clone of the soufflé cake served in the Silk Road. Patti loved it. The vanilla ice cream was very good, made with real vanilla beans.
Sugar free raspberry panacotta: I don’t know if it was panacotta (more like a thick smoothie), but we both liked it.
Cheese: The delight of the Serenity’s Dining Room was the cheese trolley. It held a selection of ten cheeses, all of them incredible—at least Michelin one star level formaggio. I managed to sample all of them, including two that appeared at Sunday brunch which had not been on the trolley on the nights I was in the Dining Room. Those I remember with particular fondness were: a truffled semi-soft cheese from Italy that reminded me of Norcia in the fall; a wonderful stilton; a soft cheese that was like a mild Epoises; and Swiss Tête de Moine served up in in paper-thin, curly-cued rosettes. Far and away the best cheese I have ever had on a cruise ship, supplied in portions as generous as you can stand (I actually sampled all ten in one night of wretched excess). Equally as important as the quality of the cheese, was the fact that it was served at perfect room temperature, the soft ones were always oozy-runny and the hard specimens bursting with flavor. My only regret is that I never met the “Cheese Sommelier” touted on the menu (if only to learn exactly what that appellation really means).
Well executed with minor flaws
Shrimp with a curry sauce and slow cooked vegetables: The shrimp were expertly cooked. The sauce was a bit gloppy but sported a nice curry flavor. The slow cooked veggies had a nice hint of acid and were perfectly seasoned.
Oysters Two Ways: The Bienville prep was quite good for a cruise ship (coming straight off of three weeks in and around New Orleans as well as Florida’s stretch of the Red Neck Riviera I was admittedly a bit jaded). The Rockefeller prep was too junked up but well cooked. In general, oysters are a gutsy move on a cruise ship six days out, but they pulled it off nicely—very, very Crystal.
Gravlax: Home cured fresh salmon served with honey mustard sauce, warm dill French toast, quail egg, and caviar crème fresh: The accompaniments were better than the salmon, which was not marinated enough (tasting more like very good deli lox cut a bit too thin), lacked acid and flavor (especially dill), but was served correctly at room temperature. The perfectly fried quail egg was a very nice touch. The baton of French toast (maybe fried sweet brioche?) with a dab of crème fresh and a few salmon eggs was the best bite of the dish. Patti, in a move that made me think that maybe she had been replaced by an alien replica, ate an entire plate (there could have been slow service issues involved).
Heart of crisp lettuce: A salad with marinated grilled vegetables and pesto vinaigrette: This salad was just OK. The dressing was uninteresting, but the parcooked and grilled veggies were flavorful and crunchy.
Fricassee de pollo: Al cacciatore, braised free range chicken in tomato sauce with olives, celery, carrots and assorted mushrooms, served with wilted greens and mascarpone polenta: The chicken was a nicely cooked mix of white and dark meat. The tomato sauce was rich and thick but needed heat. The polenta had way too much butter and cream, making it almost soupy. This dish was actually an oven braise and not a stovetop fricassee, which Julia Child describes as “halfway between a sauté and a stew.” And it really wasn’t a cacciatore preparation either. There were mushroom but not enough, and no red or green peppers (even the likes of Rachel Ray and Giada De Laurentiis understand that chicken cacciatore always, always has peppers). There were, however, lots of celery and carrots, which one would expect to find in an oven braised chicken dish. The wilted greens seemed a lot like bok choy to me. The main problem with this dish is that it was not correctly named. Note to executive chef Franz Weiss: just call the dish what it is. I was in the mood for chicken and would gladly have ordered pollo brasato al forno con pomodori e verdure aromatiche.
Lamb chops: These were grilled rosemary marinated lamb chops, roast garlic mashed potatoes, eggplant parmigiana, and Barbaresco wine gravy: The problems with this dish were partly our fault; we broke the unspoken code and ordered the chops medium rare and got medium. The other half can be laid at the kitchen in the weeds doorstep. The chops were tough because they were not evenly cooked on both sides—too many orders on the piano and the line cook did not get back to ours in time to turn them for even cooking and texture. The eggplant parma was fine and I had no complaints about the piped whipped potatoes and red wine sauce (not really a gravy, but that is the kind of quibble I usually get in trouble for), other than to wonder what they were doing there on Mediterranean night.
Salmon and salad: The salmon was overcooked, the olive crust was a complete disaster, but the cold polenta surprisingly good as it soaked up Mediterranean flavors from the rest of the salad. I liked the artichoke wedges a lot. They were freshly cooked and not pickled, but at least ½ of each wedge was too tough to eat. The tomatoes sucked (duh!! why does anyone try to serve tomatoes on a cruise ship in early April?).
Broiled fresh Ahi tuna: With sesame onion crust on basmati rice with baby bok choy, red onion confit, and apple cider vinegar-soy vinaigrette: This time ordering rare and specifying precisely what we wanted in terms of doneness produced medium rare tuna. The problem was probably carry-over cooking given the huge crush of diners. Regardless, Patti loved the dish.
Cookies: meringue sucked, cherry sucked, coconut way good.
Forget about it
Mesclun with “crispy” scallops: The scallops were beamed in from a Capt. Jack’s seafood special, deep-fried in a heavy batter. What a waste of good small scallops!! To add insult to injury the salad dressing bore a close resemblance to bottled green Goddess. One of the very few completely jarring culinary miscues of the cruise.
Beef Consommé with black truffles: A deceptively simple dish done badly—over-salted and forgettable. Where were the truffles?
Bananas Foster: A tragic disaster. I really love this dish when it is done right. It must be cooked á la minute, flambéed at the table. Instead I got chunks of bananas that were not caramelized in butter, but served in an over reduced syrup that did not have enough rum with a bunch of gloppy ice cream and shaved chocolate on top. The cause of the debacle was that the maître de and his captains were expected to cook the dish while they executed their other duties, so it could not be prepared individually at tableside, but was instead made up in huge batches in large chafing dishes and neglected while the gentlemen saw to all the problems of the crowded dining room. Very unCrystal.
Mago tip: Game the Crystal system by eating appies and mains somewhere else and then going to the Dining Room late for cheese and dessert. One night we started at Taste’s for pot stickers. then went to the Silk Road Sushi Bar for a second course from their extensive menu, and finally on to our late reservations at the Dining Room for cheese and dessert (tough job but someone has to do it). In all likelihood if you showed up at the Dining Room without reservations between 9 and 9:30 PM and asked for a table, they would accommodate, but I am sure that any resistance could be overcome by telling the maître d’hotel that you were only interested in the cheese and desserts.
Dinner at The Silk Road Restaurant
The Silk Road is a maritime outpost of Nobuyuki Matsuhisa’s and Robert De Niro’s NOBU restaurant empire. Styled “the world’s sexiest restaurant” by The Observer, the 26 terrestrial NOBU incarnations are famous for their unique Japanese and Peruvian fusion cuisine. Mago, archimageiros to Hiero II of Syracuse, would have been right at home with ship borne sexy cuisine, so it is hardly surprising that The Silk Road was our favorite restaurant. We ate at the restaurant three times and at the sushi bar twice. Below is a summary of the dishes we sampled:
Vegetarian spring roll with Nobu Maui onion salsa: An interesting interpolation of a ubiquitous and often boring dish, served with a nice acidic dipping sauce.
Lobster spring roll: Filled with lobster chunks, Shitake mushrooms and Shiso leaves, served with Maui onion-tomato salsa: This perfectly cooked roll had a playful presentation in a martini glass, and the salsa dipping sauce had a little kick of heat to differentiate it from the veggie offering.
Crispy rice cake with spicy tuna tartar: Very nice presentation and easy to eat. Blocks of fried crispy rice with tuna tartar on top and small wooden forks protruding from the cubes. The tuna tartar was a much smoother texture than the salmon tartar served at the sushi bar so that it adhered to the rice cubes. Although we thoroughly enjoyed this dish, the rice tended to overpower everything else and should have been reduced by about half. Also the dipping sauce was one-dimensional, unlike all the others we sampled.
King crab leg meat with creamy spicy sauce, Masago, and scallions: The only real disaster from Silk Road’s kitchen. I guess it began as some kind of take on an asian crab gratin that was left to die under heat lamps. The sauce was gloppy and the presentation haphazard (no way to treat good crab) with a bit of heat on the finish but not nearly enough.
Rock shrimp served on tossed lettuce with spicy creamy sauce or Ponzu sauce: This was the best of the starters and we tried both sauces. The rock shrimp flavor was superb and they were perfectly cooked. The spicy creamy sauce again needed more heat (note to Nobu: try using eight year reserve Tabasco sauce, the chilies are grown in South America after all). I liked the Ponzu sauce better, but Patti really elevated the dish by pouring the lobster spring roll dipping sauce on the shrimp which gave it some acid, heat, and fish sauce umami flavor
Broiled eggplant topped with Nobu style Saikyo Miso sauce: This was the best dish in the restaurant—pure eggplant candy with rich succulent flesh, skin that was almost as soft as the flesh, and two molecules of caramelized crust. We beseeched our waiter to tell us how it was prepared and he was happy to wax rhapsodic on the subject. The split Japanese eggplant is broiled and then baked in a salamander (I didn’t know that salamanders had a lower heat source). I cannot wait to replicate this technique with a broiler and a medium oven back in Montucky. I am sad to report, however, that the dish was not as good during a second tasting. The eggplant had the same great flavor but the crust on the flesh was not caramelized nearly as well. Since we had a similar experience with the black cod (see below), this could have been an artifact of a packed restaurant late in the voyage, but such unevenness should not be possible in a venue with NOBU’s imprimatur.
Seafood Ceviche, assorted seafood tossed with Nobu ceviche dressing: The ceviche had good flavor and texture (chewy in a good way), but the marinade was one dimensional with too much lemon (could not detect any lime). The seafood tacos were much better.
Shrimp or vegetable tempura served with traditional dipping sauce: The fryolater samurai was right on point with the tempura—excellent greaseless batter. The eggplant was particularly good (the kitchen seemed to have a special affinity with that vegetable).
Grilled Washugyu beef on sautéed seasonal vegetables, topped with jalapeno salsa: This Oregon-raised blend of Kobe and Japanese black wagyu beef was the most represented non-fish protein on the menu. This preparation was the best of the lot, delivering excellent flavor and mouth feel, though not enough jalapenos. The asparagus was well cooked, flavorful, and crunchy. I liked the fact that it was served sans sauce.
Mushroom salad: A variety of sautéed seasonal mushrooms with Yuzu dressing, served over Mesclun lettuce, garnished with chives and lime: A great salad but one needs to mix it vigorously after the big hit of lime supplied expertly by the waiter. The ‘shroom medley displayed admirable diversity and was perfectly cooked without using butter.
Kelp salad, seaweed salad with bonito flavors: My favorite salad of the cruise, very unusual and simple (less is better). Each of the three types of seaweed had different taste and texture profiles: red (smoky and slightly crunchy), green (sweet and soft), and black (earthy with a collard-like tooth). This dish was definitely not as good late in the cruise, probably due to the age of the ingredients. The red and green kelp were a bit slimy, but the black was still good.
Tuna sashimi salad: The tuna was very high quality, but this was not really a sashimi preparation. The fish was seared rare and accompanied by a very nice salad in which the radicchio was surprisingly more peppery than the arugula. Once again a second tasting fell victim to “last night of the cruise syndrome.” The greens lacked the diversity and pepperiness of the first tasting.
Nobu-style black cod with Saikyo Miso with mountain peach and young ginger: The marinated and broiled black cod was perfectly cooked in a great marinade. The ginger spear was both visually stunning and very tasty. On the second tasting, the skin was not crisp like the first time and the flesh was a bit flabby. Our waiter told us that the cod was cooked in a similar fashion to the eggplant, and it suffered a similar second outing.
Grilled salmon: With a duo of Anticuccho sauce, served with steamed vegetables: The salmon was beautifully cooked. The red chili sauce was outstanding with plenty of heat. The yellow sauce seemed to have a subtle curry flavor, but I am not at all familiar with Peruvian cuisine so my taste buds may have defaulted to a familiar setting. Whatever was in it, it was very good.
Grilled Washugyu Beef Ribeye Steak: On wok fried vegetables with three kinds of sauce—Anticuccho, Terriyaki, and Nobu-style Wasabi Pepper: I would be hard pressed to call this a steak a rib eye cut. It looked like filet mignon to me, lacking the size and marbling of a rib eye. But it was perfectly cooked and precut so that you could eat it with chopsticks. The accompanying asparagus seemed an afterthought, but it was expertly cooked.
Trio of Crème Brules, sweet ginger, pink guava, and passion fruit: A tasting dessert nicely presented on individual spoons. The lemon was the best, ginger next, and finally passion fruit.
Chocolate Soufflé Cake, served with home made sesame ice cream: One of the diners at an adjacent table had a noisy foodgasm over this dessert, so we tried it on our second visit. It was not really a soufflé but a variant of a sformatino and I could not taste any sesame seeds in the ice cream. Still it was good—essentially cake and ice cream.
Suntory whisky cappuccino with buttermilk ice cream topped with whisky foam: Three layers of heaven, lots of coffee, sweet buttermilk, and whipped cream flavors. Best dessert of cruise.
Cookies: The sesame ones were nice, medium sweet with good crunch; chocolate coconut were wonderful; ginger snaps not so good, not much flavor, not much snap.
Vanilla and Coconut Tapioca Soup, served with green tea ice cream: A clunker, gloppy with little flavor.
Mago tip: Try sushi for dessert. I do not eat dessert all that much when cooking at home or going out to restaurants, so when I am on a cruise I tend to overindulge and get tired of them about mid-way through the voyage. I was feeling that way at our second dinner at The Silk Road and I asked if I could have sushi for dessert. The waiter broke into a large grin and promptly secured me not only a plate of superb sushi but also fetched me seconds. This episode absolutely made me with the three sushi chefs making our forthcoming meals at the sushi bar quite memorable.
Dinner at The Silk Road Sushi Bar
We liked Silk Road’s sushi bar even more than we did the restaurant. One reason was that initially this venue was significantly undersubscribed. Unlike the restaurant, the eight-seat bar does not take reservations; you can just walk in from 6PM until 9:30PM. This informality seemed to throw most passengers off a little for the first half of the cruise. Experienced Crystal cruisers, however, wondered in, had some sushi, left, and then came back an hour or so later for more. We emulated this behavior a couple times and it was a lot of fun.
The three sushi chefs were a big part of the experience. They chorused a traditional Japanese greeting for every entering customer and said goodbye to departing guests as well. Although all three of the guys were very competent, there was a noticeable skill-level difference between the oldest, and clearly the master sushi chef, and the others. The way he treated his knives with such care and respect marked him out as well as the superior quality of his product. In addition to wine, there was a great selection of Japanese beer and sake, which went down especially well at the sushi bar. Below is a summary of our various grazing forays.
Sushi: I tried every sushi type many times and it was always very good. The tuna and yellow tail were excellent and the eel was quite nice. They did not have flying fish roe but used salmon roe in a similar fashion to good effect. However, they would not put a raw quail egg on top of it, even though they served fried quail eggs in the main dining room. The giant clam was excellent, just chewy enough and quite flavorful. The same went for the octopus, which was one of the best sushi preparations of its type that I have experienced outside Japan.
Rolls: The spicy tuna roll contained superb fresh tuna but not enough heat. The soft shell crab roll did not have enough crab and the seaweed wrap was a bit chewy, but the whole roll was much improved when the maestro made it for me on the second tasting.
Salmon tartar with caviar in wasabi sauce: A beautiful presentation in a bowl of ice with a tiny spoon for eating. The excellent tartar texture owed to being made with a knife, not a machine. The sauce was powerfully spicy to the point that the caviar (included, I suspect, more for presentation than taste) got a bit lost in the bolder flavors of salmon and wasabi.
Yellow tail sashimi with jalapeño: This traditional sashimi was strangely bland and pedestrian. If you are going to use jalapenos, then find good ones with both flavor and heat – these evinced neither. The weak and vinegary sauce did not work at all. Worst thing we tried.
Nobu-style tacos: The ceviche filling was excellent, redolent of cilantro and cumin.
House special roll: A mammoth undertaking with four kinds of fish, crab, and avocado. The generous fish-to-rice ratio made it the best of the rolls.
New style sashimi: I was dubious about anything called new style” when paired with sashimi, the very definition of minimalist Japanese cuisine. But I was way, way wrong. The fish was barely cooked by applying a mix of hot olive and sesame oil to the one side and leaving the other raw. This approach brought out the sweetness in all the fish and imparted a rich nutty mouth feel. We had it with salmon, sweet shrimp, white fish, and surf clam—all terrific. I also tried it with the near ubiquitous Washugyu beef, which yielded a subtle and buttery flavor with the prefect touch of acid (lemon? vinegar?) and a little heat on the end. I can’t wait to try this approach with filets of large rainbow trout and thinly sliced antelope loin in Montana.
Traditional sashimi of white fish with dried miso flakes, garlic chips and olive oil: more of a Mediterranean approach than either Japanese or Peruvian, but it worked quite well.
Seared rare tuna with cilantro infused sesame and olive oil and lemon: The sauce was spectacular and the tuna was very fresh, perfectly cooked, and served cold.
The regular sushi/sashimi menu does not have toro or uni, but they do have it for supplemental costs as well as abalone (the range is from $5 to $20 per preparation). The toro was rich and buttery, served in very generous portions but a little tough. The uni had a very unpleasant metallic aftertaste (old?).
Mago Tip: Make the sushi bar your local. We found the atmosphere at the sushi bar not only superior to the restaurant, but more convivial than any of the bars on the ship (see their reviews below). If you show up around cocktail hour—and don’t mind settling for champagne (excuse me, sparking French wine, see below), wine, beer, or sake—you can have a great time with the three gregarious sushi chefs while snarfing nibbles that are very superior to the offerings at the other bars.
Dinner at Prego
We had two dinners at Prego, and while it edged out the Dining Room because of better service, convivial noise level, and a pleasant atmosphere, the food was really better in the Dining Room. I want to preface my remarks below by stating up front that I spend at least three months a year in Italy cooking out of the markets and eating in the restaurants. I have a dense network of food and wine obsessed Italian friends who make sure that I continue to discover and immerse myself in true Italian gastronomy. For these reasons, I am especially tough to please in an Italian restaurant regardless of where it is located.
Prego’s menu and wine selections were developed under the auspices of Pierro Selvaggio chef and owner of the iconic Valentino restaurant in Las Vegas (now scheduled to close in June of 2013). I was a suit for over twenty years with a company headquartered in Santa Monica and I dropped a lot of expense account money at Valentino back in the day. I was always impressed with Selvaggio’s continuing embrace of his Sicilian culinary roots as well as his monumental 100,000 bottle cellar. I just wish that the maestro had done as good a job at translating his gastronomic expertise to the Serenity as Nobuyuki Matsuhisa did with The Silk Road.
I found the extra virgin olive oil served for dipping with bread to be harsh and scratchy on the back of the throat. I thought it was Tuscan, which is my least favorite olive oil, but our waiter said it was from Modena; a location far better known for aged balsamic vinegar, and in fact Prego’s balsamic was quite good. I find it hard to believe that a Siciliano vero and serious man of business like Selvaggio would eschew the oils of his native island for such a substandard northern product that almost certainly boosted Prego’s cost of food as well.
The roasted garlic that came with the bread was way too salty, and on a ship full of excellent bread, the offerings at Valentino, such as the focaccia sticks” were mediocre.
Carpaccio of Black Angus beef with mustard sauce and Caravaglio capers: The dish had nice presentation, which further improved with deft and artistic table prep. The beef, however, was cut too thin and thus had a mushy texture that distracted from the good flavor of the beef. They probably froze it so that it was easy to slice early with a machine, facilitating rapid deployment to the table. A six star ship, especially Crystal, should not use this kind of trick. In my experience, carpaccio was hand carved by the individual order at Valentino, eschewing any mechanical device, and I seriously doubt that has changed. I also note that Valentino’s web-accessible menu utilizes the far superior capers from Pantelleria. The dish was saved by a generous application of Prego’s aged balsamic vinegar that was very good for a cruise ship, or even most restaurants.
Warm lobster poached in sage butter: This was the weakest dish on the menu. Inexplicably, they employed unsalted butter. In addition, the beans that accompanied the dish were undercooked. Finally, it simply was not an Italian dish, new style or not (on top of everything else, the kitchen used a Maine lobster rather than ????)
Pistachio encrusted sea scallops: A nice presentation, but the pistachio sauce needed salt, the scallops were not well-seared and a bit bland, the shaved fennel was parcooked to the point of verging on tasteless, and the tangerine supremes seemed superfluous.
Vitello Tonato Prego Style: A very interesting minimalist deconstruction of a traditional dish. The presentation with tuna tartar in mold and quenelle shapes was very well done. The tartar was good but the veal was bland, needing more saucy dabs. I prefer the traditional approach, but Patti won’t touch it and she ate this entire dish with relish. [This last sentence is awkward, mostly because of the imprecision of the word it., but I couldn’t figure out how to fix it.]
Panzanella Siciliana: A decent salad badly named. Let’s start with a little culinary Hermeneutics (told you I was hard on Italian restaurants). I have never heard of panzanella from Sicily. It is widely considered to be a Tuscan dish, first mentioned in the writings of the 16th-century Florentine artist and poet Bronzino. The centerpiece of a panzanella is stale bread that has been soaked in water and then squeezed dry. If you try this with fresh bread you end up with a soggy mess, which is exactly what happened with Prego’s panzanella. A classic panzanella contains only the reconstituted stale bread, vine ripe summer tomatoes, onions, olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and fresh basil. Prego’s version substituted sundried tomatoes and I do not blame them since the fresh tomatoes on the ship were inedible. In addition to the very good, but non-traditional, arugula and radicchio, there were excellent salted anchovies and caper berries. The addition of orange juice to the vinaigrette made it too sweet, but the real sin was the employment of mild green pimento-stuffed olives. As an immigrant born near Modica in Sicily, it is simply impossible that Selvaggio could have countenanced this abomination.
Caesar salad: A very good salad. I requested anchovies and got a goodly amount of excellent salt cured specimens, which were much appreciated. Note to Crystal food decision-makers: Want to introduce a retro salad experience almost extinct by land or sea? Train the Prego staff to make a real Caesar salad. You know, the kind that you make at tableside with a garlic-rubbed wooden bowl and anchovies smashed into a raw egg? Now that would be a true luxury cruise line differentiator.
Penne arrabbiata: This was a very good pasta dish that suffered from attention to detail. The pasta had great heat and was perfectly cooked al dente. The excellent Parmesano Regiano grated on the dish at tableside was wasted on such a robust dish, however, not to mention needlessly driving up the cost of food. The arrabbiata simply screamed for aged Pecorino Romano. You just never saw this kind of mistake at Valentino.
Lasagna alla Casalinga: If you think I am going to launch into a lasagna rant you are quite mistaken. This was a very good effort for a cruise ship. The dish was clever, partially deconstructed along north/south lines with tomato sauce on one side of the noodle layers with a ground beef porcini ragu accompanied by béchamel on the other. There were not enough layers of otherwise very good, clearly bespoke pasta, but that is really a quibble. But what is up with the soggy fried parsley, on lasagne?!!
Insalata Caprese: Bad tomatoes, good buffala (a little old, but that can’t really be helped), and some more of that very good balsamic vinegar. Just lose the tomatoes and you have a winner. Everybody loves good buffala and balsamic.
Homemade Potato Gnocchi: Good gnocchi are rare outside of home cooking and this attempt was no exception. The dumplings were very light, but there was too much potato to flour in the pasta ratio. The pasta actually resembled large pici from Sienna that had been cut to give them a gnocchi-like appearance. The gnocchi had been rolled out into a cylinder and cut with a knife but the important thumb roll had been omitted, probably to save time. That little thumb role is critical to the texture of this type of pasta, and its absence in this particular case accentuated the over-use of potatoes. The gnocchi were supposed to be made with Pecorino Romano, but I could not taste it. Parmesano Regiano [let’s talk about the spelling of this] was grated on top at tableside, but they really needed a sheep cheese kick to go with the sausage tomato sauce. The sauce was very good with just a little bit of heat from the sausage. In general the dish was overworked. It would have been much better to make traditional spinach gnocchi served with straight tomato sauce and Pecorino Romano.
Spaghetti Carbonara: Cream!! Smoked bacon!! The only thing positive I can say is that the pasta was a perfect al dente. Otherwise there was too much parsley, only Parmesano Regiano was employed (instead of a parmesan/pecorino mix), there was a distinct lack of pepper, and although I begged the waiter to knock himself out with the grinder at tableside the grind was set way too fine for this rustic pasta. Now in case the gentle reader might think that I am getting just a tad bit pedantically didactic, take a look at Valentino’s carbonara, as attested by the restaurant’s on-line menu. Selvaggio’s version is made with guanciale and pecorino (and no cream if there is a God). Chef de Cuisine Christian Kliche came over to see us because we were taking pictures and notes. He asked us what we thought of the meal. Instead of grabbing him by the toque and screaming Carbonara is a Roman dish, cook it like one!!” I obliquely said that carbonara was a difficult dish to get right, hoping that he would notice that neither of us had come near finishing our plates. However, Chef Kliche sort of scoffed and said that he was Austrian, not Italian, but that he and his staff did not have any trouble with Italian food in general, especially simple dishes like carbonara. This explains a lot about the restaurant’s approach to Italian food in general and their carbonara in particular.
Branzino special: The fish was expertly pan fried with the skin on. It tasted superb for a farmed fish. The roma tomatoes worked quite well along with the short artichoke battons. The basil sauce was tasty but needed salt. The fried parsley was soggy and unnecessary; another affectation that is not Italian—chopped would have been so much better and would actually have made a cleaner presentation. The fish was served on a bed of mashed potatoes, which were bland and over-whipped. What is Italian about mashed potatoes with fish?!!!
Swordfish special: The fish was old/frozen. Overall the dish was bland, needing salt, heat, and acid. Potato balls, though better than the puree served with the branzino, were too chewy. There were plenty of good fresh herbs in the dish; in fact it smelled better than it tasted. The nice assortment of different mushroom types suffered form a shortage of pepper and garlic, but the partially oven roasted cherry tomatoes were well seasoned with concentrated flavor. End the end, though, this dish just did not add up. The good ingredients present added up to less than the sum of their parts. The swordfish was served with a big dollop of composed mushroom butter on the side that would not have melted on the fish because the dish was not all that hot and the butter was too cold. It had the potential to turn a mediocre dish into a disaster, so I did not even try it. The waiter said it was served separately because some diners did not like it (I’ll bet).
Osso Buco: Braised in its own jus, vegetables, tomato, porcini and fresh herbs, served with mascarpone polenta: This was definitely osso buco a la Flintsones. The huge portion, in actuality stinco di vitello rather than osso buco, was so thick that the veal was chewier than a classic osso buco should be. The sauce was over-reduced, an indication that it had not braised long enough and then the liquid was reduced too quickly on the stove top. The whole dish screamed for gremolata. How hard could that have been to pull off considering that it would have rescued the sauce? Obviously they were not paying attention or tasting in the kitchen. The polenta was butter and cream with a few molecules of corn meal thrown in—way too rich and soupy. Again, they did not take the time to make this dish properly with constant stirring. If they had used less butter and cream while stirring to a thicker consistency, it would have worked. The huge shank bone yielded the best aspect of the dish, ungodly amounts of God’s own butter in the marrow. I had to ask for a marrow spoon, but they brought a simulacrum right away. A really expensive way to cook marrow bone, but I got the feeling that Prego spared no expense in doing things the wrong way.
Lemoncello soufflé: A very light refreshing dessert to follow a menu laden with heavy dishes. The berry sauce was a bit cloying and it could have used more of a citrus kick—just a little more lemon zest would have made a good dessert into a great one.
Cookies: chocolate and sponge: soggy; pistachio biscotti: good; lemonchello jelly: yuck, tasted like melted goomie bears with tincture of Vick’s cough drops.
Tiramisu: Disappointing. Not enough coffee; not enough booze; sponge cake instead of ladyfingers, which gave the whole dish the wrong texture.
Chocolate mouse tartufo: Very good. This dish had lots of deep chocolate flavor and sensuous texture. A very good dessert but not Italian, probably Austrian given the Chef Kliche’s proclivities.
Whenever the weather was nice we had breakfast at the Lido Café because we could sit outside overlooking Serenity’s fantail. The day that a pod of dolphins and a couple of whales showed up was our most memorable meal of the cruise. Billed as a buffet-style, indoor/outdoor venue for breakfast and lunch,” this eatery is a buffet only on the front end. Once food has been selected, a crew member inevitably appears out of nowhere, addresses you by your name, relieves you of your plate, asked you where you would like to sit, secures said venue, and then proceeds to bring drinks and whatever else your heart desires. I do not recall this level of attention on the Odyssey and its pretty darn nice, especially before one’s first cup of coffee.
There is a lot of made-to-order cooking going on at the Lido Café. The only hitch is that getting eggs the way you want them can require persistence and patience. The tendency is to slightly overcook eggs. I recall one English gentleman remonstrating with the egg cook that he wanted his omelet very runny and when he did not get what he thought were runny eggs (and they really weren’t), he got a bit huffy. I was next in line and tried the old intermediate positive re-enforcement trick. Smiling and winking, I told the young man that I wanted my eggs very, very over easy. Just let them kiss the pan on the cheek, no tongue. He laughed uproariously and bounced the eggs from the pan onto my plate perfectly cooked.
In general the breakfast buffet at the Lido Café blew the QM II away and was definitely better than its Seabourn equivalent. Except, that is, for those incredible lollypop lamb chops (the lamb chops served in the Crystal Dining Room were just fine but not as good as Seabourn’s either). The bacon, however, was far superior to Seabourn’s, as were the excellent chicken sausages. Patti is a connoisseur of oatmeal and she pronounced Lido Café’s the best she has had on a cruise.
We did not eat many lunches at this venue because after a very large and leisurely breakfast and the prospect of a big evening meal with gym torture in between, a big lunch was just not in the cards. I was quite impressed with what I saw deployed in the way of soups, made-to-order pastas and salads, and large slabs o’ meat at the carving station (beef, veal, pork, and lamb, all cooked correctly to my eye). The Lido Café is also the locus for special buffets that have a unifying culinary theme. I noticed a very tempting (but successfully resisted) Asian buffet and actually indulged in the German themed lunch being a stone pavlovian for Leberkase. It seems that the purser over ordered in brat land, which redounded to my benefit every morning thereafter as three types of excellent German sausages were on offer at breakfast eclipsing the pedestrian little pork links that seem to find their way onto every breakfast buffet by land or sea.
We really liked the casual dining at Tastes. Unlike the QM II, where casual dining is viewed as a backwater for those passengers who refuse to acknowledge the rigidly formal nights as a feature instead of a pain, Taste’s gives Crystal passengers the chance to have table service from an excellent little menu in a very informal setting. We were especially fond of the late breakfast served at Taste’s from 10 AM to 11:30 AM. The steak and eggs were particularly good, and the accompanying baked beans a very pleasant surprise. The beans were even better with a liberal dash of Tabasco, but then what isn’t? On a ship bursting with really bad tomatoes, the grilled ones at Tastes were the exception that proved the rule.
Dinner at Tastes came with two menus, one eclectic with French, Italian, and American dishes, the other with Chinese comfort food. Below are the items we tried.
Hot and sour soup: Quite good but it needed heat. We used the hot sesame oil nominally provided for dumplings and it perked the soup right up.
Veggie / mushroom and chicken / shrimp pot stickers: All the dumplings were correctly cooked and not starchy at all. The wrappers were all thin and fresh. Served with soy sauce, black vinegar, hot oil, and fresh shredded ginger, these gems were indicative of Crystal’s commitment to good food haute or not.
Pork buns: Good but weird. Whatever these were they definitely were not pork buns, more like ha gow or sieu mai. They were a bit bland, but the dipping liquids solved that problem quickly.
Noodles in house special sauce: This dish delivered good sesame oil flavor but needed a bit more heat (again that hot sesame oil came in handy).
Pizza Napoli and Margherita: There was always freshly baked pizza at Tastes when it was open. We are both incredibly picky about pizza and found that Tastes’ efforts were very good for a cruise ship.
Escargot: Billed as a Taste’s Special” and well-named. Some of the best snails I have ever had: cheese, garlic, tomatoes, butter, spinach, and cream—kind of a snails Rockefeller (and far superior to the oyster version served in the Dining Room).
Trident Grill & Ice Cream Bar
Crystal slings some of the best burgers, dogs, and steak sandwiches on the Seven Seas. While many cruise lines treat the burger bar as a place where passengers pacify their children or dump their adolescents, Serenity’s Trident Grill pumped out bespoke product cooked to order, although you had to be firm if you wanted something rare. The fries were great and the onion rings good (the fries were fresh cut but the onion rings over breaded and frozen). We did not try the ice cream, but the frozen yogurt rocked.
We could not find a bar that we really liked on the Crystal Serenity. Our favorite bars on cruise ships are the ones that are forward, above the bow on one of the two upper most decks. Both Odyssey and the QM II have such venues. They are perfect for a pre-dinner tipple as well as a nightcap. These bars tend to be undersubscribed and conversation-friendly with at most a piano player. The Sunset Bar on Deck 12 met some of our locational criteria, but it also doubled as the bar for the Palm Court dance and entertainment lounge. We certainly enjoyed practicing our East Coast Swing steps to the Glen Miller Orchestra’s classic sound, but the Sunset Bar was definitely not the place for a quiet drink by night or day.
The Avenue Saloon (Deck 6), is described on their website as Crystal’s signature cocktail and piano bar… known for its intimate ‘clubby’ atmosphere.” We found it a bit claustrophobic with drawn window treatments and uncomfortable bar seats. The Crystal Cove proved to be just the opposite; located in the midst of the two-story Crystal plaza on Deck 5, this venue was usually noisy and almost always crowded. During one Dixie Land Jazz concert by a sextet, the hordes packed both floors making it impossible to converse and forcing everyone into packed sardine mode on the couches of the bar. We fled along with about a quarter of the passengers who had been enjoying the bar prior to the onset of the madness. We poked our heads into the Stardust Club (Deck 6), but it had much the same layout problems as the Palm Court without the great ocean views so we beat a hasty retreat.
Finally, as a recovering gentleman of the leaf” I could not frequent the Connoisseur Club (Deck 6), but we did check it out while the Serenity was still docked in Miami in search of anywhere to watch the NCAA Basketball Tournament outside of our stateroom. In my humble opinion this cigar bar is far superior to the offerings on either the QM II or the Odyssey. Yet another example of Crystal’s commitment to luxury cruising. I take comfort from knowing that in some alternative universe I held court in this venue every night sipping port and smoking several of the fine Havanas they have stocked the humidor with complete disregard for that outdated and criminally stupid embargo.
The wine on the Serenity was incredible, a perfect compliment to the food in all venues. The sommeliers offered a far larger selection of all-inclusive wines than Seabourn and they changed their offerings every night in the Dining Room as well as the specialty restaurants. I have notes on the many different wines I tried throughout the cruise, but if I had to do it over again I would have eschewed each and every one of them for Crystal’s proprietary C” label of reserve California varietals. I had never heard of a cruise line with its own label, but a sommelier told me that Crystal had been doing it since the turn of the century.
C wines are produced with grapes from the vineyards of Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Arroyo Seco, and Santa Lucia Highlands and vinified by the Monterey Wine Company. What really blew me away about these wines, other than their taste of course, was the fact that they were offered up rather reluctantly by the sommeliers in the restaurants. There seemed to be some kind of stigma associated with these mere house wines.” Oh well, more for me. I quickly discovered that at least one red and one white C label were available at every bar as well, and usually more. I stupidly kept trying the other wines on offer and there was nothing wrong with most of them, but I inevitably reverted to a C label after a single glass of whatever they were serving that evening. All I can say to Crystal is DON’T STOP!! Below are my notes for these amazing wines.
Crystal Label Pinot Noir Reserve: Drinking this wine was like eating a strawberry pie. Big succulent dollops of berry fruit with hints of caramel were followed by a lingering oenological osculation of a finish that had exotic spice notes on the end. Best red wine of the cruise.
Crystal label Merlot Reserve: This monster could take down a Duckhorn Napa Valley merlot with its peppery nose, cherry pie and sweet red licorice mid-palate riding on soft unctuous tannins, and a plum and vanilla finish that went on and on until the mildly oscillating ship combined with my squiffy enthusiasm to simulate an onset of Einsteinian time dilation. A very close second to the Pinot Noir described above.
Crystal Label Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon: Another killer wine that started with a nose of cherry blossoms and then exploded onto the palate with a bushel of Flathead Valley Lambert cherries followed by a French kiss finish redolent of black berry tart.
Crystal Label Reserve Chardonnay: This was the best white wine of the cruise. The pear blossom nose gave way to baked apple-pear and citrus fruit accompanied by a creamy mouth feel supported via judicious use of new oak followed by a soft buttery finish.
Other White Wines
Camus Conundrum: Brassy nose, nice Muscat finish. This wine went well with the spicier asian dishes served in The Silk Road.
Beringer Chardonnay: Light honeysuckle nose, delicate tropical fruit with a hint of butter, medium oak, and a long finish.
Firestone Savignon Blanc: Citrus nose, nice acidity, medlar fruit, nice long finish.
Santa Margerita Pinot Grigio: Nose of brass and a mouthful of grass. Why would Crystal bother to serve such a blatantly commercial supermarket wine? Worst white wine of the cruise.
Fiano di Avolino: Quite good with hints of broom (as in the flower) on the nose, green apples and tangerine on the mid-palette, long slightly oaky finish.
Other Red Wines
Chianti Classico Riserva 2008: Not what I would have expected from a riserva with five years of bottle age. The wine had a delicate and faint nose of violets. San Giovese fruit built on the mid-palate but remained diluted through the long finish. The tannins were still hard, but I do not think that the wine will improve with age.
Belnero, a super Tuscan blend of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc: Damp mushroomy earth on the nose followed by good terroir, leather, and game with a long cow poop finish.
La Grolla, a Veneto wine made from Versonessa grapes: Nose of violets followed by bitter chocolate, sour cherry, and leather, but no serious terroir. The wine was spicy on the finish.
Rukagei 2010 Chilean malbec: This one started out great, a wonderful nose of dirt, earth, moss, leather, and game. Then it died on the tongue, no fruit, and tannins with very sharp elbows. It was served way too young, but I do not think much of its aging prospects. The finish was long with some nutmeg spice, but you did not want to wait around for it. If there had been a discharge bucket I would have used it. Worst red wine of the cruise.
The only wine arena in which Crystal lost out to Seaborn was champagne. As the servers pointed out time and again on Serenity when once ordered a glass of champagne, they were pouring a French sparkling wine.” I did not catch the label, but I drank a lot of this wine (there could be a causal connection lurking here somewhere), and it was a very nice sparkler indeed, but it was not champagne and the staff certainly knew it and set out to pre-empt objections (good management of the customer experience, Crystal HR types). Odyssey poured Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Reverse Particuliere on our cruise, and it was better than the anonymous sparkling wine on Serenity.
Note to Crystal wine decider-in-chief person: this has got to be a cost issue, right? So instead of dumbing down the champagne”, switch countries and go with a nice mid-range cava that rivals champagnes at the Feuillatte-level and still save money. Your HR people who figured out how to pre-empt the champagne purist passengers will be delighted to turn this bug into a feature along the lines of the only luxury cruise line that pours small vineyard boutique cava” or something like that. Got it?
Mago tip: Early in the cruise talk to one of the friendly sommeliers, preferably when she is not going insane in the Main Dining Room, and find out which of the C labels the ship is carrying. Try them all, maybe at one of the bars, and use them to benchmark the other wines you are offered. You will quickly decide whether or not to waste your palate and your liver on the other wines. It could well be that these wines are too forward and luscious for some, but if that is the case, the best way to find out is to taste the C labels at the beginning of the cruise.
In general the coffee was mediocre. It could be improved by ordering it with hot milk or by ordering a cappuccino. The standard Seabourn coffee also sucked, but you could always get a decent shot of who hit joe at the espresso bar, which opened no later than 6:30 AM. Unfortunately, on Serenity The Bistro and its capable baristas did not get rolling until 9 AM. The lack of an espresso bar prior to 9 AM is simply inexplicable. More over, why can’t two six star cruise lines produce superb coffee? This is an enduring mystery that MagoGuide will continue to pursue in cruises to come.
The fitness center was excellent. Serenity’s gym was larger than Odyssey’s and laid out better. The QM II has a larger gym footprint and many more machines than either of the six star ships, however, both Seabourn and Crystal fix broken equipment during the voyage while Cunard just sidelines them until the destination port. Another nice feature of transitioning cruise ships (or maybe the passenger demographic of six star cruise lines, or both?) is that we never had to wait to use a machine or feel in any way pressured to adhere to the 30-minute-if-the-gym-is-crowded limit. I will say this about Cunard, the gym on the QM II is located on Deck 7 whereas both Crystal and Odyssey site their facilities much higher in the ship. This can make exercise comparatively more difficult in less than placid seas.
We had the best massages of our lives in the spa, 90 minutes of pure bliss. As I said above, they flubbed the reservations (I get the feeling, due to this mistake and the fact that tipping was suggested only for the spa, that this facility operates as an independent cost center for Crystal), but once that got cleared up the competence and thoroughness of both our masseuses was amazing. Like so many other things, Patti and I have very different preferences concerning a massage and we were both completely satisfied. What I saw of the spa facility was very nice and luxurious. Unlike Cunard, however, we were not given full access to all the other parts of the spa for an entire day based on our massages. Next year on Seabourn, MagoGuide will see how their massages stack up against Crystal and Cunard.
Mago tip: Skip Funchal and indulge in the spa. It seems necessary that many if not most cruise ships transitioning between Florida and Lisbon stop for 8 or so hours at Funchal (Madeira). I do so wish that they would not. I suppose that a cruise without a single port call would violate some cosmic constant, or perhaps there are logistical considerations of which I am ignorant, but we have ventured ashore at Funchal twice and we will not be doing so again. It is a perfect example of a once beautiful now overbuilt island destroyed by the cruise industry. Decent food, certainly of Crystal’s level, is virtually impossible to find. More importantly, both times we tired to use ATMs to get much needed cash for the onward leg of our migration, we could not make a single machine work, and our cards work in every other European location (they have to, our bank knows this, and we do not have problems anywhere else). Perhaps there are killer shore excursions to tap into that we have remained blissfully ignorant of. One young lady we encountered went on and on about her afternoon of four wheeling in the mountainous interior of the island and she indeed gave the impression that it was a lot of fun. But a) we are from Montana and we use ATVs for work, not for play, and b) you do not have to be radical environmentalist to realize that this is one of many cruise industry activities that are seriously disrupting the Funchal ecosystem. [I agree 100%, but there are going to be some folks who think that taking a cruise ship in the first place is violating rules of good earth stewartship.]
Whatever the merits of shore excursions, if you stay on the ship you can do a lot of things in the spa, gym, and elsewhere that would be more difficult if not fully booked at sea if you did not reserve well in advance. Also, there are often discounts associated with activities undertaken on the ship in port. It is simply fun to lounge about a fairly deserted ship while still experiencing the same great service that you do at sea. [You might mention that you don’t want to wait too late to take advantage of these discounts. We tried to call in the late afternoon and they were all booked up at the spa]
In the end the fundamental statistics of maximum number of passengers and the crew-to-passenger ratio allowed Seabourn to edge out Crystal in terms of overall cruise experience. This aspect was most prominent with respect to service. The crew on Serenity tried very hard, almost too hard, to please while their Odyssey counterparts provided slightly superior service in a very unobtrusive way. The Serenity’s crew was simply overstretched viz. the number of passengers aboard and it showed. Given the utility and consistency of these vital cruise statistics, I was sorry to learn that Seabourn is selling its three smaller ships to Windstar in 2014 and 2015, presaging a replacement fleet at least the size of their remaining fleet and perhaps larger?
I was actually surprised that I chose Seabourn over Crystal given the latter’s better cuisine, wine, and more numerous dining venues, but I did. The key variable was the drop in quality of food and service that took place when venues, in particular the Crystal Dining Room, reached capacity; the kitchen got backed up and the front of the house had to scramble. Even though food is and always will be a key discriminator for MagoGuide, if you get two cruise lines that are close in this key area, you look to other aspects of their ships for tie breakers.
A major tiebreaker between Seabourn and Crystal is cabin size and layout. I realize that travelers and cruisers are not really in the same marketing space, but even if you really do only sleep in your cabin (and most passengers spend more time in their staterooms than, say, nine hours every twenty-four) you are still spending a significant amount of time there on a cruise. The bottom line is that the space in our stateroom felt cramped and sub-optimized. The latter problem continued in the larger foot print venues that we toured during the Funchal open house, and this was in staterooms that had been prepared specifically to entice future bookings.
Another tiebreaker is Crystal’s schizophrenia concerning what type of passenger experience they are offering. Their ships are either big small vessels or small big vessels and they cannot seem to decide which. Perfect Choice Dining is a perfect example of this problem. You either have traditional early or late seating or you have open seating, trying to do both invites a train wreck as we witnessed too many times. Having experienced all three dining options on five and six star vessels, I can state unequivocally that Seabourn’s open seating at dinner is a better way to go. Yet even the rigid QM II works better than Crystal’s efforts to straddle this dining divide, because you can always default to your seating time if reservations are not available in any other venue and you don’t want to do the buffet.
While it is important that MagoGuide readers get an objective assessment of the cruise lines and individual ships that we feel is all too rare in cruise reviews and luxury travel media outlets, it is also important to point out that overall we were very pleased with the Crystal cruise experience. We will definitely be taking their ships again to cross the Atlantic and they are a major contender for a planned Alaska cruise.
Finally our Crystal sojourn confirmed a very strong line of demarcation between five and six star cruises. While reasonable people can agree to disagree concerning the relative merits of Crystal vs. Seabourn, I double dog dare anyone to claim that Cunard is in the same league. The critical factor for travelers in ever choosing Cunard over any six star cruise line is schedule convenience, which unfortunately trumps transitioning cruise ships and always will if you need to cross the Atlantic or Pacific outside the rotational months in the spring and autumn. When you can, however, always opt for a transitioning six star ship.
Postscript: MagoGuide will be walking the length of Hadrian’s Wall in the UK later this summer, and then catching the QM II (hopefully anonymously given things said in this review) back to the US so that we can hike western Montana in the summer and fall. We will produce a much needed update to our QM II review sometime this summer.