A cruise can also be a rich culinary experience, as Sandra and John Nowlan discovered recently on the Crystal Symphony’s food-and-wine theme cruise from New York to Quebec City.
Some of the best restaurants in Quebec City were around for only a few hours.
They weren’t business failures.
They were, in fact, on board the 50,000-ton cruise ship Crystal Symphony as part of the luxury line’s Food and Wine Festival Cruise from New York City to Quebec and the Maritimes.
Crystal Cruise Line is highly rated for its outstanding service, fine dining and world-class lecturers and entertainment. Annually, for the past few years, it has added about a dozen special cruises that feature a well-known guest chef, a wine specialist and other elements that focus on the palate.
On the cruise that stopped in Quebec City and Halifax, the guest chef was Christian Thornton, the owner and Executive Chef at Atria, an upscale restaurant on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Atria has been recognized with a “Best in Boston” award and specializes in food that is fresh, local and organic.
En route to Canada, Chef Thornton gave two cooking demonstrations to the guests on Crystal Symphony, then worked with the chefs on the ship to offer a meal featuring some of his signature dishes. “At first I was worried,” he said, “because I didn’t know the equipment or the level of service and support from the galley cooks. But everyone on the ship is committed to the culinary programme and I was very proud that they were able to produce my dishes with integrity.”
Among the Atria offerings for the 700 lucky passengers were a comfort-food appetizer of lobster, macaroni and cheese (mascarpone, cheddar and goat cheese) and an extraordinary grilled swordfish entrée with lemon beurre blanc on a bed of pureed potato with fresh dill, topped with fresh herbs and mesclun. The swordfish was garnished with chive oil and balsamic reduction and sprinkled with pan-fried capers. It was the best restaurant fish dish we’ve ever had on land or sea.
While many of the 97 chefs and helpers in the Crystal Symphony kitchen worked on Chef Thornton’s dishes, others were creating a la minute plates for the regular menu and for the two speciality restaurants aboard the ship. Prego features Italian cuisine with a signature forest mushroom soup (made with morel, Portobello, porcini and button mushrooms) served in an oregano bread bowl. The flavour and texture were outstanding. According to our tablemate, an Italian restaurateur from Florida, it also has the finest pasta he’s ever tasted – even better than his own.
The other specialty restaurant, Jade Garden, has exquisite food from Asia. Another well-traveled guest, with homes in Maine and Washington, DC, told us she couldn’t find that quality and service in any Chinese restaurant in the United States. Because of their large staffs, both dining rooms can also create any special dish a guest would like. Except for a small gratuity, there is no extra charge for dining in the specialty restaurants.
While the emphasis on this cruise was on Chef Thornton and his creations, there were many other culinary elements. Tea blending and tasting were featured in two hands-on demonstrations as well as illustrated lectures on artisan cheeses from the Eastern US and Canada and even lessons on proper chopstick etiquette. A New England wine specialist offered several tastings of Rhode Island varieties (we were hoping they’d introduce ice wine and other Canadian delights) and an elegant Mozart High Tea was offered to all guests in the Palm Court lounge with servers and classical musicians in formal attire from the 1700s.
The man responsible for all guest services on Crystal Symphony, hotel director Herbert Jager, told us that they started Food and Wine theme cruises because they already worked with world-class chefs like Wolfgang Puck to plan their regular menus.
“There are a lot of outstanding chefs in the world,” he said, “and we decided to invite some of them on board to create their best dishes in person.”
Mr. Jager and the ship’s Executive Chef, Manfred Schaller, meet with the chef in advance to decide what dishes can be produced at sea for a large number of guests without sacrificing quality. In the past year they’ve worked with internationally famous chefs like Suzanne Goin of Lucques (Food and Wine Magazine’s ‘Best New Chef’), Alan Wong of Hawaii and Hiroyuki Sakai (TV’s Iron Chef). Recently a Miami to Costa Rica Food and Wine cruise featured the cuisine of Master Chef Hubert Keller of Fleur de Lys in San Francisco and Las Vegas as well as a Tampa-Los Angeles cruise through the Panama Canal with Tracy Griffith, author of “Sushi American-Style”.
As we left the St. Lawrence River and headed back to New York, guest Chef Christian Thornton took off his ubiquitous Boston Red Sox hat and talked about his goals on the cruise.
“I was extremely pleased with the quality of my dishes that came out of the ship’s galley and with the positive reaction of the guests to my cooking. Even more important,” he added, “was the fact that I got a chance to talk to hundreds of people about organic and sustainable agriculture. I’m an advocate of the Slow Food movement that you have in many parts of Canada and it’s important to buy smartly and locally. We must walk lightly on the earth. That’s especially important for a chef.”
About the authors: John and Sandra Nowlan are freelance food and travel writers based in Halifax.
All photos @ John and Sandra Nowlan. All Rights Reserved.
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