If there is one thing almost as certain as death and taxes, it’s that a passenger on a cruise ship will never go hungry. On my first cruise, breakfast was followed by a mid-morning snack, lunch, an afternoon snack, dinner and finally, if we were still in need of sustenance, a midnight buffet.
Fast-forward a number of years, and here on Oceania’s Marina, things haven’t changed much, except that now, in addition to being a consumer of food, I am also a preparer of same. While others are lounging around the pool sipping Bahama Mamas and making like extras on “The Love Boat,” 20 of us, nattily decked out in starched white aprons, are at our stations in the ship’s state-of-the-art culinary center.
Our two-person teams are whipping up a feast of scaloppine al limone, lemon basil risotto and drunken limoncello cake (see recipe below). The class, under the direction of executive chef Kathryn Kelly, has been tagged — for obvious reasons — “Love of Lemons.” Kelly, who in her former career was an epidemiologist, spends nine months of the year aboard Oceania ships, designing their cooking classes and accompanying culinary tours.
If you’re thinking that this is a bit food-centric even for a cruise ship, consider this: Restaurants on Oceania’s six ships are under the direction of famed chef Jacques Pepin, and they are the only ones on the seven seas that have the services of two rotating French master chefs. The Marina alone has 140 cooks onboard, providing the highest ratio of culinary professionals to passengers.
These ambitious offerings allow Oceania to proudly proclaim that it has “the finest cuisine at sea.”
I thought my scaloppini, risotto and limoncello cake turned out pretty darn well, thank you, but it was the meals I enjoyed courtesy of this talented culinary team that set the bar so high that an NBA center could easily limbo under it.
In addition to the usual formal dining room (the Grand Dining Room on the Marina) and the more casual offerings (Terrace Café and Waves Grill), there are four specialty restaurants: Polo Grill, Toscana, Jacques and Red Ginger (all require a reservation, so it’s best to do it when you book or immediately once you get on board).
My dining odyssey began the first night in the Polo Grill. With its dark wood furnishings and burgundy leather high-backed chairs, it’s the embodiment of a traditional steakhouse. My filet mignon proved to be one of the tenderest cuts of beef I’ve ever had, and I loved the beet root and goat cheese terrine starter.
Along with prime cuts of beef, the Polo Grill has an impressive list of Scotch whiskies, although I wished their bourbon list had been equally impressive.
Toscana, my dining destination the second night, takes one on a culinary tour of Tuscany and regions in the north of Italy. My entree, fra diavolo, a lobster tail broiled with herbs and spices and served over fresh Tagliolini pasta, was perfection, and the Italian wine steward chose just the right vintages to go with it. I was equally impressed with their olive oil menu, offering 13 selections, and with the custom-designed Versace china that the meal was served on.
After Italy came France, in the form of Pepin’s namesake restaurant, Jacques. The décor is enhanced by antiques and art from the chef’s personal collection, but the greatest artistry comes from the Gallic menu. I started with a pea vichysoisse; moved on to a Dover sole, lightly laced with lemon and caper butter, and ended with a lavender crème brûlée.
As difficult as it was to decide, I think my favorite meal was at the Asian restaurant Red Ginger, where I had both lunch and dinner. The décor is an exercise in feng shui, with its tranquil waterfall wall and striking modern Asian art.
The menu choices are equally harmonious. For starters, I chose the avocado lobster salad, although one of my tablemate’s spicy duck and watermelon salad with cashews, mint and basil had me wishing that I ate duck.
A main course of red snapper wrapped in a banana leaf and basted with lime, chili paste and green olive salt literally melted in my mouth.
The food itself is only part of the equation on an Oceania cruise. Kelly has developed some 50 culinary discovery tours designed to give passengers a deeper appreciation of the food they will be eating. Her tours range from visiting markets in Spain and Italy and a Branzino farm in Slovenia to enjoying candlelit dinners in Eze on the French Riviera.
While my itinerary, which included Key West, Belize, Roatan, Honduras and Costa Maya, Mexico, didn’t have quite as rich a culinary tradition as Europe or Asia, one tour I thoroughly enjoyed was the Honduran Farm and Ocean to Table Experience on the island of Roatan.
We began with a visit to the island’s botanical gardens, the 164-acre Blue Harbor Arboretum, which is home to a hydroponic farm supplying a variety of lettuces and herbs to the locals.
Next, we took a boat to Big French Cay (in case you’re wondering, there’s also a Little French Cay) for an al fresco cooking demonstration and lunch courtesy of Chef Samuel, whose megawatt smile and coconut shrimp were the highlight of the day.
Back on the ship, a final culinary experience was the daily afternoon tea, an extravaganza that would have done justice to the crowned heads of Europe. To the backdrop of a string quartet, we delicately sipped tea and selected from an assortment of finger sandwiches, scones, cookies and cakes.
Of course, the Marina and her sister ships of the Oceania line have all the necessary features of modern cruise ships: casino, entertainment, spa, bars, shops, and a variety of activities ranging from hotly contested daily trivia games and enrichment lectures to mah jong and ping pong, but it’s the culinary experience that sets the line apart from its competitors.
On Oceania, they espouse the philosophy put forth by renowned American food writer M.F.K. Fisher: “First we eat and then we do everything else.”
Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at email@example.com.
Drunken limoncello cakes
5 tablespoons butter, room temperature
1 cup almond meal
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
¼ cup fine semolina
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 large egg, room temperature
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
½ cup sugar
¼ cup water
1 cup limoncello
For the syrup, in a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the sugar in the water. When it’s cool, add the limoncello. Divide the simple syrup into four small soaking bowls, large enough to hold small cakes.
For the cakes, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter four 6-ounce ramekins using 1 tablespoon of the butter. Cut parchment paper lifts (1-by-8-inch strips) and place two in each ramekin, using cross-cross patterns.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the almond meal, flour, semolina and baking powder. In another medium bowl, mix the remaining four tablespoons butter, egg, vanilla, sugar and lemon zest. With a spatula, fold the wet mixture into the dry mixture and blend into a thick batter. Spoon ¼ of the batter into each of the ramekins and bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until thoroughly cooked.
Soak the cakes
Remove the cakes from the oven and allow them to cool slightly for three minutes. While they are warm but not hot, lift the cakes from the ramekins and place in the small bowls with the limoncello syrup mixture. Allow the cakes to soak up the syrup for 20 to 30 minutes and then serve. Makes four servings.