The Seabourn Odyssey is one of the three newer ships in Seabourn’s fleet. At 450 passengers these vessels are significantly larger than Seabourn’s three other craft (212 passengers), but still small by cruise ship standards, given the trend of building larger and larger vessels upon which can be crammed more and more people as well as specialized entertainment venues. Although we intend to sail on Seabourn’s smaller and older ships in the future, at the time of writing (March 2012), we can only compare the Odyssey to Cunard’s Queen Mary II (henceforth QM II), which carries 2,620 passengers and the California Senator, a container ship on which we were two of three passengers. In general, we found that the Odyssey compares favorably to both the grand dame of transatlantic liners and the greyhound bus of the seven seas.
Our top priority for any nautical means of transport is the avoidance of air travel without excessive inconvenience or danger. The QM II is so large and well stabilized that you do not have the sensation of being at sea. Patti is particularly susceptible to motion sickness of all kinds, but she had no complaints about a stormy early March crossing on the QM II. She did, however, miss the sensation of being rocked to sleep at night by gentle swells, which we both identify with sea travel. On the container ship, she took to her bed for three days wrestling with scopolamine-induced hallucinations, which is one of the main reasons why we have since chosen the more expensive option of cruise ships in crossing the frog pond.
On the Odyssey, we experienced the sweet spot of enjoying the sensation of sea travel without discomfort and nausea. Our only instances of malo di mare were definitely self-induced; hangovers and lateral motion do not blend. A major reason for this Goldilocks effect is the route taken by most transitioning cruise ships, trading time for latitude. The QM II takes seven days for the North Atlantic crossing between South Hampton and New York. A container ship usually hammers its way from Gibraltar to the east coast of the US in about ten days, depending on loading and weather. Most transitioning cruise ships travel from Florida or the Caribbean taking no less than twelve days and up to twenty to reach Europe. The Odyssey’s route from Ft. Lauderdale to Lisbon (including a brief five hour stop at the island of Madeira) took twelve days.
Our second priority is the work environment, which puts us way out on the long tail of cruise ship passengers. This is why we transit rather than cruise. If we decide to travel to a destination, then we are going to spend at least a month there. Our idea of an ocean voyage is days at sea beyond sight of land, not overnight sprints between guided tours in virtually identical port settings. A transatlantic crossing affords long blocks of uninterrupted time for writing and coding without our usual land-based distractions like grizzly bears in Montana or the World Cup in Sicily.
The keys to MagoGuide’s work environment are power and connectivity via the internet. Our first day on the Odyssey began badly when I plugged in a power strip only to be rewarded with the unmistakable snap, crackle, and pop of an overload followed by the wafting odor of dead circuitry. Panicked at the thought of the now visible cloudlets of acrid smoke setting off the cabin’s fire alarms, I sprinted to our (small but nice) balcony and let the tortured device die peacefully in the sea air. (Note to MagoGuide users of the green persuasion: of course I did not effect a burial at sea. Rather, I spared the frail ocean and let the power strip lie entombed under a deck chair for three days after which it rose for shipboard disposal and now sits at the right hand of the Turing god on Mount E-lympus.)
After this rather inauspicious start, the power aspects of our journey improved immensely. Our cabin contained two outlets, each sporting a US style three-pronged plug and a European plug of the narrow, two circular apertures variety. Thus, with universal plug converters (and if you do not have at least one of these puppies what on earth are you doing outside the borders of the US?) it is possible to charge four devices at once. For the truly gadget addicted, Patti (ever the engineer) was able to unplug the dual European plugs for the flat screen TV, bringing the simultaneous charging total to six. If you need to power more than six devices at once: a) get a life, b) use your Macs to charge cell phones and tablets as well (I have no idea whether this works with PCs and I do not intend to find out.
Despite the fact that Odyssey power is not compatible with standard US power strips (who but us would have discovered that anyway?), the ship compares favorably in this area to both the QM II and a container ship. As of 2006, the QM II had only one power outlet in similar cabin types as the Odyssey (note: we are scheduled to cross on the QM II in late June of 2012 and I will update this entire write-up accordingly).
As for container ships, it really helps to marry an electrical engineer. On our crossing with the Senator in 2002, I numbed the entire right side of my body trying to plug in a computer. We decided to seek land-based expertise concerning the unfamiliar plug configurations on our freighter. Stranded in Valencia Spain by a convenient dock strike, we wandered from bar to bar until we found someone who could direct us to the Iberian version of Radio Shack. Communicating with the shop owner through his ten-year-old daughter who had studied English in school, we learned that it was necessary to determine where the ship was built in order to purchase the correct plug converters. Since the strike showed no sign of ending, we were able to return the next day with the revelation that the keel had been laid in the then (and now) non-existent country of East Germany. We had just about reconciled ourselves to the loss of all our extant clients by the time we got back to the US, but the owner rummaged around for a good half hour and came up with a set of plugs that could be adapted to another set of plugs that, when used in conjunction with our adaptors, worked with a standard US three-prong that allowed us to plug in a power strip, which took standard US two-prong plugs. When the strike ended, (and we sobered up) three days later, we were able to write a record number of proposals on our trip across the Atlantic, but I had this weird and awkward twitch in my right arm for weeks.
In terms of connectivity, Odyssey comes up trumps. You can get on-line in your cabin, as opposed to the QM II where we were limited to a handful of hotspots located inconveniently elsewhere in the ship, usually without nearby power outlets. Also, unlike the QM II, you do not have to buy a single expensive package covering the entire voyage. Seabourn offers connectivity packages in hourly increments at about $10.00 an hour or seven days for $239.95 or length of voyage for $399.95. Don’t expect to stream lots of data or move big chunks of code to the cloud and back. If that is your idea of work or play, stay home and suck on your broadband pipe while pretending you are on a ship—it is much more fun and cheaper than the other way around.
As for connectivity on freighters, forget it. In a dire emergency they might let you send and receive a fax or two, but that is it. The stuff in the containers is way more important to them than you are. A container ship voyage is a great way to write a book or assemble a complex chunk of code. Day traders and bloggers should seek other means of transport.
Cell phones and tablets in non-Wi-Fi mode work on the Odyssey as well (this is probably the case on the QM II these days, but we will have to confirm it in June). We use our cell phones only for emergency incoming calls from the ‘rents, so I do not have any direct experience with this service, but I’m willing to bet you Mitt Romney’s ten grand that the roaming charges are the financial equivalent of passing a kidney stone.
Four more things we liked most about the Odyssey
Every time we sail, we always have far more interaction with the crew than we do our fellow passengers. This owes to our non-cruise routine. Following breakfast, we generally work in our cabin until mid-afternoon and then hit the gym until early evening. After dinner, we usually retire early so that we can update MagoGuide.com and NFNews.net before breakfast the next day and then get in at least four hours of content production and software development.
Seabourn has one of the best crew to passenger ratios at almost 1 to 1. We found that all of Seabourn’s hype about the knowledgeable, helpful, and cheerful crew was 100% true (so I guess it really isn’t hype after all). We were stunned at how quickly they learned our names and preferences as well as how accommodating they were concerning our (by cruise ship standards at least) bizarre behavior and requirements. For high-end do it yourselfers like us, this is high, as well as grudging, praise indeed. It proves that not only is superb service the key to any great travel experience, but that Seabourn service is, in our opinion, the best in the cruise business.
Unlike Cunard, Seabourn makes it clear that tipping is strictly voluntary and completely unexpected by the staff. As recovering suits, we can still appreciate excellent marketing, even as we fall for it. Cunard encourages tipping and makes it “easy” for you by offering a pre-paid tipping package. The result is that the staff acts like they are pre-tipped and the passengers feel slightly fleeced, having traded the power of negative reinforcement for ephemeral convenience. Seabourn staff have obviously been selected and then trained to treat passengers as if excellent service is their birthright. This justifies Seabourn’s higher ticket price vis-à-vis equivalent Cunard product, which allows them to attract and retain superior personnel with better pay and benefits than Cunard, and encourages passengers to reward their favorite staff with unsolicited tipping. Advantage Seabourn.
The food and wine
All-inclusive dining is usually the domain of discounted mass tourism, but Seabourn integrates the concept successfully into the luxury cruise market niche. For details concerning our likes and dislikes, see the individual restaurant reviews below, but in general, as much as we hate to employ threadbare clichés, it proved difficult to get a bad meal on the Odyssey.
Both Patti and I love food and wine, but we have very divergent tastes. The one aspect of Seabourn cuisine that impressed both of us was portion size. Every venue, to include room service, delivered food in amounts that did not add insult to the injurious overeating that is endemic to shipboard dining. Of course you could gundge yourself into a coma if you so desired. I am sure that the ingratiating staff would have indulged Mr. Creosote by bringing him anything he wanted up to and including that last, fatal wafer-thin tidbit. In general, however, food was portioned so that even dainty eaters could enjoy a multi-course meal that left one satiated rather than stuffed.
We were quite satisfied with the wine poured on the Odyssey.Unlike the QM II, alcohol is included in the ticket price, unless you want super premium product. Depending on the venue, passengers had a choice of up to five white or red wines (including Australian shiraz, Chilean merlot, Californian chardonnay and pinot noir, and, Patti’s favorite, French petit chablis) as well as champagne (Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Reverse Particuliere). Every glass we had was quite potable, and the sommeliers were adept at matching wines to each course of a meal. Menus in The Restaurant and Restaurant 2 (see reviews below) also suggested two wines paired with the evening’s meal that could be purchased. Prices were in the $60 to $80 price range (you had to buy the whole bottle). Finally, wine snobs with the means to put their money where their pallets are can purchase the Silver Connoisseur Collection of three bottles that are selected from a list of six whites and six reds for $225 or plump for the Gold Connoisseur Collection of six bottles from a list of ten reds and ten whites for $450.
The complete absence of children
It’s not that we hate kids, well actually I do, but Patti loves children (other people’s children anyway). In fact, it really isn’t even children that I object to, but their effect on adults, especially their parents. In any event, we were completely unprepared for the utter luxury that accompanies the null set of all things involving either children or adolescents. Fearing that this situation was a lucky break or a quirky geo-temporal demographic artifact of this particular voyage, I quizzed the staff concerning the lack of younglings and was told that, far from being unusual, children were rare on Seabourn cruises—especially a transatlantic passage. Note to Seabourn marketing department: you might want to advertise this aspect of your cruise line because it may be an underexploited component of your famous brand loyalty. I’m just sayin’ that I did not hear anyone (passenger or crew) complain about the absence of little ones or teenagers for the entire crossing.
Exercise is the next most important thing to us aboard ship. This criterion, in conjunction with enhanced probability of seasickness and the likelihood of schedule slippage, constitute the key discriminators between cruise ships and freighters. The fitness center on the Odyssey is superb and blessedly undersubscribed (a major plus for transitioning cruise ships is that they are usually not full, for this trip Odyssey was at 75% capacity). The equipment is all professional grade and the crew fixes technical problems with alacrity. We would prefer an equal number of elliptical machines and treadmills, but since treadmills are obviously more popular and we never had to wait more than a few minutes for an elliptical (during which time a treadmill was always available), this is really a quibble rather than a genuine criticism. All the cardio machines are equipped with satellite video screens that display over a dozen TV channels in real time. Besides providing a source of entertaining distraction, screens also present fascinating clues as to the political proclivities of fellow passengers without having to engage in potentially awkward discourse. Access to the gym (6 AM to 10 PM) is part of Seabourn’s “all inclusive” package, while personal trainers, as well as a myriad of spa services, are available at additional cost.
The three things we disliked most about the Odyssey
This is the one area where Cunard does significantly better than Seabourn. Seabourn allows cigarette smoking in cabins, whereas Cunard only allows smoking on cabin balconies. Cunard has banned smoking in all public venues except designated areas on the open decks. Seabourn allows smoking outside on the starboard areas of the Seabourn Square Terrace, Club Terrace and the Sky Bar. Seabourn also allows cigarette smoking inside the Observation Bar/Lounge (except during coffee and tea service). We found this choice of venue inexplicable. If you are going to permit smoking indoors, why not allow it in the Club Bar (a disco by any other name), which is a larger and far more boisterous locale than the sedate Observation Bar?
As a former smoker, I am sensitive to charges of hypocrisy and discrimination, but I also understand the health hazards and severe discomfort associated with second hand smoke. My proposed solution would be to use technology to provide separate but equal venues for smokers on cruise ships (consensual apartheid as it were). Here again, Cunard leads the way with the QM II’s Churchill Cigar Lounge, which provides a luxurious venue for connoisseurs of the leaf. This facility also addresses the issue of discrimination against pipe and cigar smokers on the Odyssey, who can only smoke on deck. As a former cigar smoker and the son of an inveterate pipe smoker, I have never understood the favoritism displayed by Seabourn and other cruise ship lines towards cigarette smokers.
Lack of power outlets in common areas
We do not always like to work in our stateroom. A change of venue can often cure a bout of writer’s block or lead to a more fruitful debugging session. In addition, there are times when a low iPad battery can be very inconvenient. Unfortunately, there are very few convenient power outlets outside one’s cabin on the Odyssey. Given that we saw a lot of tablets and not a few laptops on our journey, this seems like an oversight that Seabourn would want to remedy.
The recorded music in every venue was always some flavor of “smooth jazz” with an emphasis on Kenny G. I like most musical genres, so this critique is not going to turn into an anti-muzak/easy listening rant, but anything can become monotonous if played frequently enough.
This was one of the few areas where Seabourn’s famous attention to detail seemed to have faltered. How hard would it be to add some of the less ecstatic strains of mainstream jazz and light classical compositions to the mix?
This was our most frequented food venue on the cruise. The inside portion is a pleasant open space with regular tables and elevated bar-type tables. Our favorite space, however, was the outside seating that looked out over the Odyssey’s fantail. The restaurant usually sported an excellent buffet along with several made-to-order dishes. Breakfast was particularly pleasant outside. Two nice touches were the oatmeal, which never showed signs of having languished in a pot on the back of stove, and the lollypop lamb chops (basically small rib chops) that were cooked perfectly to order. All of the egg dishes were cooked to order, except for the scrambled ones in the buffet, which were creamy, moist and frequently replaced. The pancakes and waffles were also well executed.
Since Seabourn is a UK company, I was surprised that the Colonnade’s version of the “full English” breakfast was mediocre at best. The British bacon would not have passed muster at any decent eatery in the UK. Instead of properly broiled rashers composed of a cut containing both loin and belly, the Colonnade served up a soggy mess of thin loin medallions that had a nodding acquaintance with the grill pan. By contrast, the American bacon, or streaky as the Brits call it, was very good—it went quite well with the lamb chops and a smoked salmon omelet (I always like a little omega-3 to supercharge my statin intake). The crimes of omission were even worse. Baked beans, mushrooms and grilled tomatoes were available in abundance, but there was no hint of black pudding—the piece de résistance of any proper full English. Kidneys? Kippered herring? Marmite? Forget it.
Since we usually ate a late and very large breakfast, we often skipped lunch. When we did feel peckish, however, the Colonnade provided the best options for a light lunch. The cold cuts and salad buffets were extensive and the ingredients were very fresh. The copious presence of baby arugula and other designer salad greens was a very pleasant surprise.
In general, we were very impressed by the immaculate state of all the produce onboard the Odyssey. We spoke at length with the sous-chef from Restaurant 2 on this subject and he patiently explained the details of their refrigeration technology. Suffice to say it ain’t your mother’s Frigidaire. The basics involve a combination of lower temperatures than household refrigerators, floor to ceiling plastic barriers inside the walk-ins to segregate produce from other foodstuffs, and very good air circulation amongst the produce shelves.
Dinners at the Colonnade are themed every night – Vietnamese, French, Thai etc. We attended the Spanish and Indian Market dinners. The Spanish meal was a la carte and quite good. I had a starter of poached lobster, avocado tartar and lime dressing with Catalan bread. The dish was a different twist on the lobster that had been making its rounds on the restaurant circuit since we sailed from Ft. Lauderdale. Aside from being a well-executed dish, I was impressed with the way the Odyssey galley utilized ingredients, moving them through different venues and cuisines as they aged in refrigerated storage throughout the course of the voyage.
I take my fish soup very, very seriously (see Sarsuela Mago), so I was quite skeptical concerning the Colonnade’s zarzuela with saffron. It turned out to be quite good, primarily because the fish stock was first rate. This was a theme we noted throughout the voyage. Both Patti and I felt that the soups were the best dishes we had regardless of venue. After we were finished pestering our captive sous-chef about refrigeration technology, we grilled him on the high quality of his soups. It turns out that the Odyssey kitchen has a genuine full-time saucier and a clutch of minions who make stock and mother sauces the old fashion way with slow reduction and multiple moistenings.
For her main course, Patti had paella that was also a cut above most attempts to replicate this deceptively simple dish outside its native Iberia. The secret, again, was the fish stock—obviously scratch made and judiciously employed. I had a Castilian-style rib eye with roast potatoes, piquillos and jus, which was just fine, but not very Spanish in my humble opinion. I was too full for desert but Patti’s crème catalan, caramel sauce, and berry compote must have been superb, because she withdrew her offer to share and repositioned the plate out of my reach after the first couple bites.
Our second dinner at the Colonnade was a buffet billed as an Indian Market Dinner. We were suffering from spice withdrawal and very excited at the prospect of Indian food. Our single major complaint about the food aboard the Odyssey involved under seasoning in general and a lack of heat in particular. We decided that this stemmed from the age demographic of our fellow passengers and the slight, but noticeable, British bias in the cooking regardless of cuisine type. Yet, we reasoned, the denizens of the UK have long sought respite from their native diet in the fiery dishes of their former colonies, so why the underseasoned cuisine on board?
The Indian buffet turned out to be large and diverse with three commendable curries (meat, seafood, vegetable), lamb done three ways, fish tikka, chicken masala, prawn pakoras, multiple vegetable dishes to include several vegan options as well as salads, chutneys, achars, raita, as well as very good papadums and freshly baked nann. We searched in vain, however, for a dish with a decent amount of heat. It seems that the ghost chili (umarok) had been exorcised from the Odyssey at the same time that the vindaloo vanished. The cilantro and mint (hari) chutney, which the staff warned me was “very spicy” every time I approached it, turned out mild enough to mix into an infant’s formula. To add insult to injury, the only source of heat available to diners throughout the ship was Tabasco sauce, which does not really work with Indian food.
The real clunker was leg of lamb done with Indian spices. It looked great at the carving station, cooked to perfect medium rare, but each piece I tired (and I tried several) was so tough that I simply could not chew them successfully no matter how long I masticated. The problem was that the carver was not slicing the meat correctly, cutting with the grain of the meat and perpendicular to the bone. I thought about dispensing some pompous corrective advice, but decided instead to slake my carnivorous needs with the redoubtable lollypop lamb chops, which had been expertly redeployed in a grilled tandoori recipe, and the excellent loin of lamb sliced thin and served with mint chutney.
Another glaring deficiency involved the absence of either Indian or British beer. In fact the only beer available on the Odyssey was Dutch lager. What is up with that? Seabourn is a British company and well over half of the passengers sported British accents, so why were we all forced to drink Heineken from a can? Given Seabourn’s obvious willingness to invest heavily in food-related technology, how hard would it be to stow a few kegs of decent brew for those of us that enjoy our suds cool and flavorful as opposed to frigid and tasteless? In the interest of balance, however, I have to add that the wines served at the buffet, both red and white, paired quite well with the food—the lack of heat allowing the sommelier to avoid a Gewürztraminer, going with a petite chablis instead and a lighter pinot noir for the red.
This was, hands down, our favorite restaurant on the Odyssey. Billed as “an intimate alternative dining venue” to the ship’s main restaurant “serving innovative small-plates tasting menus,” Restaurant 2 is Seabourn’s take on modern cuisine with the occasional foray into molecular gastronomy. High-end international tapas would be a better description of the food produced in this venue. The space is truly intimate compared to the other restaurants on the Odyssey. Two adjoining rooms are tricked out in ultra-modern décor executed in predominantly red and black tones.
Given the complexity of the menus, there was a great deal more interaction with the serving staff than in the other restaurants. They were careful to explain the composition of the dishes, the order in which the components should be eaten, and the aspects of the wine pairing that complimented the food. Over the years I have become less than enamored of gourmet temples and didactic wait staff and Patti has always hated the upper reaches of the gastronomic food chain. So it was a very pleasant surprise for the both of us to find that Seabourn’s servers and sommelier in Restaurant 2 were convivial rather than chatty and entertaining rather than exacting in their culinary disquisitions. It certainly helped when dealing with what my wife refers to as “F cubed” (for “fancy fussy food”) that all the staff remembered your name, when last you dinned with them, and what your individual choices, likes and dislikes were.
The upshot is that we ate four times at Restaurant 2. This was not simply a matter of choice on our part but of proactive effort. Since all meals are included in the ticket price, Restaurant 2 cannot price discriminate (unlike the Todd English Restaurant on the QM II). So it is up to guests to make reservations and the venue was always crowded. Ever the early riser, Patti discovered that the barista who made her macchiato at 6 AM was also a server at Restaurant 2 in the evenings (only the young can handle a schedule that involves sleeping in two separate four hours shifts during a twenty four hour period). Through this remarkable young lady, we were able to get special intelligence concerning upcoming meals and cancellations, which we exploited ruthlessly.
Restaurant 2 actually produces two types of menu, the standard tasting menu and a chef’s dinner composed of Seabourn Signature dishes. This is where our barista mole was particularly helpful because there are a limited number of chef dinners (two on our voyage) and they are identical, so you want to make sure you reserve successfully for one but only one and otherwise maximize the number of tasting menu dinners. We managed to snag three different tasting menus and one chef’s dinner.The tasting menus generally adhered to Thomas Keller’s golden rule of leaving the diner wanting just one more bite of each dish. The most creative and flavorful courses were invariably the soups. They were served as coffee-style duos, a French presse and a demitasse cappuccino, consumed left to right and separated by interesting small bites that provided textural contrast while priming the palette for the next soup. Our two favorites (consumed, as suggested by our waitress, in the order they are read) were: tea smoked game presse, chestnut spaetzle, porcini and chestnut cappuccino, honey spiced squab and fig empanada and shiraz braised oxtail presse, manchego potstickers, white asparagus vanilla cappuccino, mushroom toast.
Freshly baked bread, however, is always the best accompaniment for soup and Restaurant 2 did not disappoint. Bread turned out to be little balls of rice flour-based dough impregnated with nodules of mozzarella. The result was a flavorful fusion of a Chinese barbeque pork bun and a calzone. These morsels accompanied every tasting menu meal and we always sent back for several more helpings.
My second favorite course was the chef’s cocktail, which began each of the tasting menus. A cocktail glass was presented filled with various ingredients and then usually a splash of libation was added. The diner is instructed to mix the ingredients and then consume them with a fork.
My two favorites (of which I received double helpings thanks to Patti’s aversion to liver or fish innards of any kind) were: crispy foie gras with a port wine splash and caviar in the cloud with foggy potatoes. The foie gras was a deep fried ball of unctuous duck butter, while the foggy potatoes had been molecularly manipulated and violently machined into a heavy foam that the caviar infused with briny ichthyic overtones.
The intermezzo between cocktail and soup always seemed over-ambitious. There were just too many small dollops on the plate fighting for one’s attention. One of the more flamboyant flops, which takes longer to read than it did to eat, was:
- Cowboy roll – seared flank steak, portobello, sesame sauce;
- Barbequed salmon – jalapeno, cucumber, melted mozzarella, wasabi mayo;
- Duck confit pop – roasted pepper relish, creamy chili dip.
Main courses were always a play on surf and turf, starting on the left with fish or crustaceans and then working to the right for meat or fowl. These dishes were largely successful, but by our third tasting menu the approach had begun to feel formulaic. While the cocktails and soup duos had enough variety to make each instance different and enjoyable, I tended to find the surf through turf progression somewhat monotonous regardless of ingredient choice. Both Patti and I thought the best main course we sampled was:
- Drunken turbot, porcini and Swiss chard, hazelnut vinaigrette and
- Tuscany braised veal, mascarpone mashed potatoes.
The sturdy turbot took well to poaching in wine, while the use of fresh porcini really elevated the chard.
The veal was a small ice cream scoop of meltingly tender shoulder that had clearly been cooked low and slow for many hours in excellent stock and wine. The mashed potatoes, rich with mascarpone and velvety in texture, were a perfect side dish for the meat. It struck us both that in the Odyssey’s “most unusual dinner option” some of the best offerings were basically comfort food (e.g., bread, soup, greens, braised meat and mashed potatoes)
The food at the chef’s dinner was more traditional than the tasting menus. The result was that the main course and desert were better than the more creative efforts we sampled. But the soups were still the stars.
The first one was a navy bean consume covered with a parmesan and prosciutto puff pastry crust. Because of the bowlette’s size, this proved somewhat difficult to eat, but our efforts were rewarded with another comfort food (bean soup) masquerading as haute cuisine. The white plumb tomato cappuccino was even better, a partially deconstructed cream of tomato soup with luscious foam veiling three swallows of concentrated tomato essence. After those two deeply flavored soups, a palate-cleansing blood orange and campari sorbet with a splash of champagne was a delicious segue to the main courses.
I had broiled lobster tail, lemon risotto, green asparagus, and Newberg sauce. Everything about this traditional treatment was expertly prepared, but the standout was the risotto. I can count the number of decent risottos I have eaten in a restaurant on one hand. I certainly had my doubts about a shipboard version of a dish that must be prepared a la minute and served promptly. However, if Executive Chef Benjamin West has a par cooking technique to make risotto of the quality I ate in Restaurant 2, then I would seriously consider holding his family hostage to get the details. The arborio rice was al dente and the lemon delivered a citrus kick that cut through the richness of the cream and butter used to finish the preparation without masking a lingering and luxurious mouth feel.
Patti had chateaubriand, pommes neuf, asparagus ragout, and truffle jus. This offering illustrated the Odyssey’s overall culinary strengths and weaknesses on a single plate. The beef was the very definition of medium rare, a feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds. Except that it needed salt. This was easily repaired tableside. The pommes neuf were very close to Plato’s ideal form for fried potatoes, cut into precise and identical rectangles, par cooked, and then finished to an exquisitely crisp crust surrounding a meltingly soft interior just before service. Plato’s form, however, would have possessed just the right dusting of flaked sea salt. How could the kitchen produce such a fantastic example of a ubiquitous preparation that is frequently botched and then under season it? The asparagus was good but it would have been sublime with just a little white pepper. Finally, the dish was elevated by the truffle jus.
Patti hates everything about truffles—taste, smell, and expense—but she chased down every drop of the jus, grudging me a quick swipe with a quarter inch of potato so that I could include it in the review. The reason for her strange and wonderful behavior was the saucier and his underlings. Making a proper jus is not easy in a modern kitchen where the tyranny known as “cost of food” does not allow the chef to roast an identical cut of meat and then ruin it by extracting all the liquid from it in order to make the jus. This fundamentally simple sauce must be made quickly (while the meat rests, say ten, maybe fifteen minutes) and cheaply (with meat scraps, aromatic vegetables, and stock). The flavor can also easily be overwhelmed when adding truffles, especially if corners are cut with truffle essence instead of steeping chopped or sliced truffles in the jus briefly before straining them out. Restaurant 2’s saucier began with a foundation of superb stock, demonstrated that he knew the difference truffle sauce and truffled jus, and, mirabile dictu, he managed to get the seasoning right—sparing us yet another recourse to the shaker.
Dessert on chef’s night was the best of our four sessions at Restaurant 2: soft-centered chocolate ganache cake, fresh berries, and vanilla ice cream. We were amazed by how tasty the berries were, another testimonial to the Odyssey’s food storage technology. The cake was moist and the oozy warm center was a perfect counterpoint to the hand crafted ice cream. The tasting menus also had their share of very good deserts, which were always paired with a small glass of desert wine (on our visits we were served either a sauterne or a barsac).
Our favorite tasting menu desert was dark chocolate ganache, espresso citrus panna cotta, and condensed milk ice cream. This time the ganache was not in cake form. It was made with a higher percentage of chocolate to cream, whipped and refrigerated until it reached the consistency of a chocolate truffle pudding. The panna cotta reminded us of sweetened espresso served with a twist of lemon rind. We had never thought of ice cream made with condensed milk, nor encountered it in a restaurant. We are definitely going to give it a try when we get back to Montana, as well as take a shot at that game presse soup.
This was our least favorite of the main eating venues. The room is huge and opulent, sort of like a ballroom converted into a restaurant. Touches such as an escort to table by both male and female staff struck us as a bit pretentious, given that the Odyssey was, for the most part, blessedly free of such gestures toward faux exclusivity. In general, however, service was up to Seabourn standards, which is to say superb. We had one breakfast, a lunch, and two dinners in The Restaurant during the course of our passage. Breakfast is hardly worth it unless you simply cannot stand the thought of a buffet. The menu consisted of a subset of what was on offer at the Colonnade and the dishes we had were no better or worse than in that other venue. Given that The Restaurant opened for breakfast later and closed earlier than the Colonnade, and that you could dine completely a la carte at the Colonnade’s breakfast if you so desired, we just did not see the point.
Lunch, on the other hand, makes a lot of sense in The Restaurant, especially if you are in the mood for a large and liquid repast. The space shows off best in the mid-day light and it is much less crowded than at dinner when it can take on the aura of a noisy, albeit well-appointed, cavern. The Restaurant is situated on deck four and the window seats give the sensation of riding just above the ocean. In good weather this view is much more dramatic during the day than at night. I found the experience of unrushed dining in a large but sparsely populated space, waited on by attentive yet unobtrusive staff, to be languidly romantic. For these reasons, the haute cruise ship cuisine seemed more appropriate at lunch than dinner.
I started with a nice salad of tomatoes, arugula, and buffalo mozzarella. I cannot claim that the mozzarella was as good as what you can buy the morning it is made in Campania, but once again, it was in extremely good shape for having been flown across the Atlantic and then hauled half way back on a ship. Sicilian-style swordfish followed, in which tomatoes and capers were added to a salmariglio-base (olive oil, lemon juice, and oregano) for the sauce. The fish was cooked expertly, but I was particularly impressed with the finesse that went into the simple sauce. Given the presence of lemon juice, capers, and tomatoes, the sauce could easily have become highly acidic and bitter. This situation was avoided by commendable attention to detail involving a generous olive oil to lemon juice ratio and the employment of salt cured capers rather than ones that had been stored in vinegar.
Our favorite dishes from our dinners in The Restaurant were, again, the soups. Although less creative and whimsical than Restaurant 2, they were still presented beautifully and tasted great. The presentation style was old school at its best. The bowls were brought to the table with the solid ingredients artfully arranged and then the liquid was added from small, heated pewter jugs. My favorite was tomato with three pepper cream and polenta croutons, while Patti raved about her vegetable soup infused with fresh herb pesto and tiny pasta. Her choice for best main course was pan sautéed pork tenderloin with green apple coulis, braised red cabbage, roast potatoes and Madeira sauce. The pork was the star, cooked pink, juicy, just this side of safe, and delicious. The Madeira sauce was executed with a deft hand, enhancing rather than masking the wonderful meat.
My favorite was fresh espada acquired during the Odyssey’s five-hour stop at Funchal, the capital of Madeira. I had never had this delicate flaky white denizen of deep water, which can only be reached by nets on nights when a full moon lures them into range. The preparation was interesting, involving a maracuja (Brazilian passion fruit) beurre blanc and roasted bananas. I might still be waxing rhapsodic about this dish if I had not wandered into a dingy little restaurant in Lisbon two days later and order espada off of a handwritten list of daily specials.
In The Restaurant my espada was a boneless filet served on china and napped with the beurre blanc sauce in a balanced presentation with the roasted banana portions—a beautiful plate indeed. In Lisbon, a bone-in chunk that had been haphazardly whacked off a large carcass was slammed down in front of me on a chipped plate. This rougher espada was accompanied by boiled potatoes and carrots, and rather than the delicate white burgundy that was paired with the Odyssey’s espada, I washed this version down with Portuguese beer–emulating the locals who were greedily tucking into the same dish cheek by jowl with us in the cramped little room. The problem was that the espada I ate in the dive was much better than what I was served in The Restaurant. It was simply pan fried, but correctly seasoned and the presence of bones during the cooking process made the fish far moister and noticeably more flavorful than the haute cruise version. Obviously, the preparation in The Restaurant could have resulted in a better dish. All that would have been required would be to cook the fish on the bone and then remove the fillet prior to plating. This turned out to be a very rare example of failing to respect the ingredients on the part of Odyssey’s formidable culinary organization (as well as justification for my continuing pleas for salt and beer on tap godamnit!).
The Patio Grill
To be honest, we did not give the Patio Grill a fair shake. We wandered through it enough, however, to determine that it is the best spot to eat for pool and sun junkies. There was always a diverse and appealing appetizer bar, at least one type of very serviceable pizza, a decent pasta choice, three or four vegetable and starch sides, cheeses, fruit, and three kinds of desert.
The strength of the Patio Grill, of course, is grilled meat and seafood. We ate there for American Barbeque Night. Since we had recently come from hog heaven (Arkansas) by way of cattle country (Montana), the Patio Grill was not high on our list of restaurants that we wanted to try multiple times, but as a charter member of the “carnivores eat meat for desert club”, I could not resist the 16 oz. rib eye on offer.
With Patti’s help, I worked my way through that slab of medium rare protein, a veal chop, and a plate of ribs. They were all competently executed. I thought that the baby back ribs were especially well done, the sauce being neither thick and cloyingly sweet nor thin and ketchupy. The meat itself was very tender (perhaps par cooked in a low oven and then finished on the grill?). We washed it all down with a very suitable California Cab, and if I had any sides I do not recall them. The staff was splendid as usual; dispensing nice warm blankets to ward off the evening chill and never letting a glass go empty.
Three Egregious errors
I am compelled to close the restaurant review with three egregious errors we encountered during our voyage that border on food crime and for which there simply is no excuse. The crimes, in order of their gravity are:
As the years go by, I am forced to jettison more and more pleasures. My most recent loss is coffee. My wife, however, is still capable of indulging in one of the great legal pleasures allowed to the human race and she was appalled at the state of the coffee served on the Odyssey. It was not tasty and frequently not hot. Patti was not alone in this observation. Toward the end of the trip, several people were actively lobbying their fellow passengers to put the lack of decent coffee on their post-cruise questionnaires, which Seabourn claims is the main way they have of soliciting customer feedback. The lack of good coffee on a six star cruise line is a sin against both man and nature and should be corrected forthwith.
The day I have to give up pig candy is the day I pack it in. My funeral pyre will be ignited and sustained by gallons of bacon grease and my glowing ashes will be used to roast one more hog as my non-corporeal mouth salivates one last time. On the last full day of the trip, the Odyssey put on a mammoth buffet in The Restaurant for lunch. This meal constituted a clean out the refrigerator drill of the highest order, with an advertised sixty-four separate dishes on offer. One of these was suckling pig. I had not seen this apotheosis of pork offered on any of the nightly menus or I would have insisted on whatever venue was serving it for that particular evening. So I was very excited to encounter it in the Odyssey’s galley where much of the buffet was presented (this was a nice touch by the way, there is nothing more fun than to tour a kitchen while you are eating and the Odyssey’s galley is very impressive).
Unfortunately, the very best part of the suckling pig was ruined in an act of criminal culinary neglect. In short, the skin was like rubber. I was salivating at the thought of a square foot of crackling skin consumed with the sweet and tender flesh of milk-fed baby pork, followed by the crispy ears and crunchy snout for desert. Instead, I was assaulted with insipid pig rubber that not only ruined my porcine fantasy, but also made the luscious, sweet, infantile flesh of the piglet indistinguishable from any roast pork loin.
My first instinct was to summon the captain to our table, and if he did not come running to apologize in the most obsequious and public fashion right there in the crowded dining room, then to gather up the hideous remains of the desecrated swineling and lead a howling mob of pork fanciers to the bridge, thereby touching off the first documented culinary mutiny of the new century. Patti, however, convinced me that should I actually bring this heinous debacle to the attention of the ship’s chain of command, they would have no choice but to order an immediate and summary keel hauling of the guilty parties. This rough justice, no matter how deserved, would inevitably lead to hysterical media coverage, governmental inquiries, and probably multiple arrests once we reached shore. However things turned out, she reasoned, as the initiators of the incident, we would be significantly delayed in Lisbon and I would loose out on the opportunity to eat my favorite Easter time dish in Palermo, grilled intestines of milk-fed lamb wrapped around spring onion and pork belly. Faced with this stark choice between justice or lamb guts being served, I decided that discretion would be, at least in this case, the better part of valor. During Good Friday, however, I subsequently found myself in Trapani’s Chiesa di Purgatorio where I lit a candle in the hopes that the suckling pig had not died in vain and that an ever-merciful Providence would, upon reflection, allow its pristine porky soul to ascend to the big buffet in the sky.
I also thought of a less violent and more suitable punishment for the perps on the Odyssey as we made our way through the Campo de Fiori in Rome on our way to Sicily. I was savoring a slice of freshly baked pizza bianca and gazing wistfully at the La Carbonara restaurant, resigned to the fact that our schedule did not allow for a chance to sample its flagship offering, when it struck me. While on board the Odyssey, Patti had called my attention to the fact that spaghetti carbonara was advertised on several menus, proudly proclaiming the fact that their version of this archetypal Roman pasta dish was made with cream. Now no two Romans will ever agree on what constitutes a classic version of this dish, or even the etymology of its name, but they will all join forces, stand shoulder to shoulder, and fight to the death in order to keep even a quark of cream from sullying their sacred carbonara. Thus, the punishment that fits the infanticidal crime against the suckling pig is that Seabourn must fly the culprits first class to Rome, then have them chauffeured (by the captain of the Odyssey, because as Jack Aubrey would be the first to tell you, it is ultimately his responsibility) to La Carbonara and force them to eat the real thing until they are so sick of it that their olfactory systems will never let them eat eggs, pork or pasta again for as long as they live, and may God have mercy on their souls.
A final word about things more important to Patti than me…
The self-service laundry
The whimsical artwork
Here are some more photos just for the fun of it.