This newest ship in the Oceania fleet offers intriguing itineraries and a delectable range of dining options.
I’ve dined in alternative restaurants on many cruise ships, but never encountered a dinner quite like the one at La Reserve on Oceania Cruises’ Riviera. For two dozen pampered guests each night, there were six chefs in the open kitchen preparing seven inventive courses, while two sommeliers poured the accompanying premium wines.
This was the capping performance on a remarkable tour of the world of modern cuisine on Oceania, where I was able to enjoy a memorable meal in a different restaurant each night for a week.
From the moment I boarded Oceania’s newest ship for a Mediterranean cruise from Lisbon to Monte Carlo, it was clear this ship is designed to offer guests plenty of choices and enticements to have new experiences. The bright entry lobby recalls the grand ocean liners of the past, with a sweeping staircase that’s inset with Lalique art glass panels made especially for the ship. Oceania is justly proud of its art collection and this ship is a floating gallery of intriguing and provocative original paintings, sculptures and glassworks.
Some of my favorite artworks are in the Martini Bar, where wall-sized contemporary Spanish murals and huge etched glass vases by an American artist serve to divide the space into smaller rooms. The Canyon Ranch Spa at Sea is decked with fantastic seascapes featuring mermaids and muscular swimmers, which might help inspire heroic exercise efforts.
The artistry extends into the personal spaces. My verandah suite was beautifully appointed in polished woods and rich fabrics, with an entire wall of closet space. Everyone raved about the bathrooms on Riviera and I can see why. The marble and granite-lined room featured not only a big shower enclosure but also a separate tub. Oceania commissions its own toiletries and amenities and provides mineral water in stylish blue bottles.
One of my favorite innovative spaces on this ship was the complimentary Baristas coffee shop presided over by a barista who actually grew up in Venice It’s at the corner of a vast computer center and one of the largest libraries I’ve ever enjoyed at sea.
Our European itinerary featured a different port each day and Riviera made every one of its itineraries unique. Though it’s tall at 14 decks, the ship is compact enough to dock at seldom-visited smaller ports and can berth comfortably close to attractions. For instance, rather than docking in Barcelona on this cruise, the port was Tarragona, 50 miles to the south. I could have done a day trip to Barcelona, but opted to ramble the narrow stone streets of this historic city that dates back to Roman times. Other lesser known and fascinating ports on this itinerary are Cadiz and Cartagena in Spain and Tangier in Morocco, where we docked so close to the city centers it was an easy walk to all the main attractions.
My exploration in Tangier was particularly fascinating because I joined a dozen other guests on a shore expedition into the ancient Kasbah to buy spices and a clay cooking pot used to cook a chicken tagine. It was one of many hands-on opportunities offered by the ship’s cooking laboratory, the Bon Appétit Culinary Center. Guests go on field trips to gather ingredients and then strap on aprons and take a lesson in cooking local specialties from a chef instructor.
That just worked up my appetite for Riviera’s extensive dinner options, which also featured daily regional specials. There`s no cover charge for guests to dine in any of the alternative restaurants, except for La Reserve, where there`s a charge for the wines that are included.
Here`s a sampler of the outstanding cuisine and impeccable service that make this ship so very special:
The Grand Dining Room
Riviera’s main dining room lives up to its name with its grand crystal chandelier and white glove service. Even the opening Grand Salad is a tour de force for the kitchen: a construction of poached squash, artichoke heart, papaya and a julienne of vegetables topped by a choice of sirloin, chicken or salmon. For an entree, I had jumbo scallops that were giant indeed, yet perfectly tender. A warm Guanaja chocolate fondant with candied orange and Cointreau sauce topped off the meal. I thought it would be a tough act to follow, but there were many more grand meals to come.
The crispy duck and watermelon salad is renowned as a signature starter in Riviera’s pan-Asian restaurant. It would stand up as an entree, with its cubes of infused watermelon underpinning a stack of vegetables that support the duck strips that are drizzled with a multi-highlight fish sauce. I’d also nominate the appetizer of tiger prawns with their tangy tamarind sauce. But hold on. For entrees, my wife and I were amazed by the miso-glazed sea bass served on a big palm frond and the lobster pad Thai.
What could be clichés are updated on the menu of the signature home-style dining room of celebrity chef Jacques Pepin who inserts extra ingredients into classic recipes to add color and unexpected flavors. For instance, simple spinach-filled beggars’ purses become remarkable when served on slices of fois gras. I was fortunate enough to enjoy Jacques’ bouillabaisse Marseillaise on the day we were in port in Marseille and I can vouch that chefs had gone ashore for the ingredients and were well-schooled in making a perfectly reduced fish stock.
I was expecting the usual offering of surf and turf in this room straight out of a Back Bay country club with leather chairs, polo trophies and horsey photos on the walls, but I was wowed by the expansive menu that changed daily, including crab and veal specialties and lobster wrapped in pancetta ham. The sleeper surprise was the dessert, a chocolate burger, looking for the all the world like a hamburger slider but made of cake and dark chocolate topped with a slice of mango that looks like American cheese. It’s a wonderfully inventive disguise, even down to the sesame seeds topping the cake bun—and it’s delicious as well.
The working language for the staff here is Italian, which is a good omen for the meal to come. You’ll recognize many of the dishes on the menu, but the unlisted specials and the way they serve them recall the best of small restaurants in Italy where the manager suggests “my offerings my way” based on what’s fresh that day. For an antipasto I had a timbale of artichoke and mushroom surrounded by a swirl of ricotta sauce that added eye appeal as well as a wonderful explosion of taste in the mouth. The chef’s daily special was tagliatelle with fresh scampi prepared by a chef who really did learn his trade in Tuscany. The noodles were sauced with an oil of pesto and just a hint of cream, delicate enough not to overpower the taste of the home-made noodles and bits of pancetta ham mixed in.
This is Oceania’s gourmet showcase, in association with Wine Spectator magazine. The experience begins with a reception for the guests who will share the feast and then move to the dining tables where the meal will be explained in detail by the sommelier and the head chef.
A vintage 1998 Dom Ruinart Brut Rose accompanied the appetizer, custard of sea urchin topped with caviar. I can see why there are cover charges of between $135 and $160 for these dinners as the Champagne alone costs approximately $300 bottle retail and we were offered top-ups for our flutes. Then came a salad of Vacherin Mont d’Or, with a silky and lush vintage 2007 Hermitage Marquise de la Tourette Rhone to accompany the cheese with grapes and truffles - then a rare “blue lobster” from the waters off Brittany poached with vegetable nage and served with a big, oaky and pricey Shafer Chardonnay from the Napa Valley. An ingenious meat entree of Kobe beef was topped with a sauce flavored with Valrhona chocolate. The pour was an Italian Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Riserva, described by the cellar master as “plump and full bodied, closing into dry, spicy cedar that’s a little angular at the finish.” Finally, there was Canadian content, a Peller Estates Cabernet Franc ice wine served with a berry consommé with lime and ginger mascarpone ice cream for dessert.
The cruise ended with the entire crew marching on stage for the captain’s farewell show. When the crowd jumped to its collective feet for a rousing standing ovation for the team of chefs in their pristine white toques, every guest aboard felt certain that the tribute was more than well-deserved!
Written by Wallace Immen
First published in Cruise and Travel Lifestyle Spring/Summer 2014