ALL AT SEA: CRUISE
NEW YORK CORNER
FROM THE WINE CELLAR
Gone are the days when you could hang a fishing pole over the side of a vessel to guarantee fresh edibles (the Maritime Commission has edited that to a single expensive alternative: pay big money outside of the home port). These days almost everything consumed on board is loaded on board at the original port of embarkation.
My companion on a recent cruise had dietary considerations, but he had seen a deal for a crossing through CruCon Cruise Outlet that really was less expensive than staying home. So we booked on the brand new (commissioned last fall) Celebrity Reflections. He has a serious soda craving and booked a "soda package" with a special price to include all of the sodas he consumed throughout the cruise in Aqua Class as well as a cuisine package and a shore excursion package, and another to include the port taxes and the final tips at the end. Just flashing our Aqua cards bought us into and out of certain other plans -- all of which are spelled out in the generous fine print online.
But as Aqua Cruisers, we were entitled to the Blue delights and could also go to the Aqua Spa Cafe for light meals before dinner. There are wine plans, meal plans, excursion plans, even make-your-own-plan plans. There are series of unique activities for enriching the palate, including six Wine Enrichment Series events, five Signature Series events and three Food as Art events. Before you set sail, you can plan and book most of the events, whether it's computer time or wine classes, workouts with a special trainer, particular yoga.
Or, contemplate same while sampling a complimentary chilled bottle of prosecco on your terrace. We were sailing from Miami to Rome with stops in the Canary Islands (including the volcanic Lancerote and its re-building of the Madeira wine industry, snuffed in 1827 by a six-day volcanic eruption); Spain's wonderful Barcelona, with the drop-off point near the town Street Market, at the base of the Ramblas; on to Marseilles, and off to the Medici port closest to Florence before finally docking at the Port of Rome, far outside the original eternal city.
In between those ports, some of the most interesting cuisine afloat is featured in spaces specially designed for a variety of gourmands: Qsine (right), which bills itself as “uniquely/unordinary,” is an ultra modern room that features dishes like the Iosine Greens fresh market salad with arugula, radicchio, frisee, watercress, spinach, pomegranate emulsion and crisp goat’s cheese crumble; Lobster Escargot is a real left-fielder, tender and perfectly dressed.
"Each restaurant on board has its own kitchen," chef Thomas Stellbrink told me. "We have to make sure the croissants are baked perfectly in a pizza oven so that everybody on board gets to smell it!" Stellbrink also noted that now there are "more and more 'healthy options' indicated on every menu," from the Oceanview Café on Deck 14 to Opus Restaurant on Deck 3. For instance, there's the SPE option, healthy, vegetarian food, including gluten-free breads -- even gluten-free foccacia one evening in the specialty restaurant Blu. "We work with nutritionists closely," Stellbrink added. "Lastly, this is the newest ship in this fleet to cook organically."
As we were in Aqua Class, Blu (left) was the très chic specialty restaurant our class of guests could book for breakfast, lunch and dinner, rather than the main dining room or snack heaven on Deck 14. The menu in every restaurant changes a little every night, so I thought it a critical must to sample the varieties of classic favorites on a nearly day-to-day basis, in order to see whether the quality of the broiled Atlantic salmon, roasted chicken breast and grilled New York strip held up every night. They did -- with only slight variations.
On night one, the slowly braised Colorado lamb shank wasn't braised enough when delivered to our table. The woman who had ordered it produced an instant pickle-face for the embarrassed waiter, and the maître d' immediately had another lamb shank delivered that was actually perfectly done. She might also have tried lamb chops Provençal or chicken Kiev that night in the Opus Restaurant. Accompanied by glasses of wine recommended by the sommelier: a white Castello de Raimat Albariño, Costers del Segre, and for a red, Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley.
The fact that guests may consume anything on or off the menu makes the temptation to save the San Daniele Prosciutto with smoked ricotta and fig preserve; the ceviche of scallops, shrimp, cucumber, pickled ginger, tomato and sesame seed oil; or the mozzarella and slightly crunchy Bell pepper empanada (nice and warm with cilantro pesto). The New York strip was perfectly medium rare, with a nice little burn on the outside, with the addition of the garlic mashed potatoes that worked perfectly. The grilled Hawaiian-style salmon filet was not as successful as the broiled alternative. My gluten-free friend was able to eat around his food allergies by enjoying the tortilla soup with spiced chicken and avocado salsa without having to sample any bread. One night, the pumpkin gnocchi was gluten-free and included sautéed arugula, sun-dried tomatoes, marinated artichokes with basil vinaigrette and goat cheese.
The sommelier's recommendations were regularly correct, if not wildly imaginative. Although there are thousands of bottles on each ship, each specialty restaurant posts its own prices on many lookalike-wines with varying prices. A white Louis Jadot Pouilly Fuissé from Burgundy may run $52 in Blu, more or less in many of the other restaurants. By the way, ever since one of the waiters slipped on a tablecloth and ignited one of the passengers with flaming baked Alaska, fire is now banned in the main dining rooms of all Celebrity ships.
What would Italy be without a real Italian Tuscan Grille? Here you can order cioppino (right), a rustic seafood stew, a seriously good version, with lots of rich, garlicky broth for crisp bread-dunking. It's possible to make an entire meal of primi piatti: fried calamari with marinara sauce and lemon garlic aïoli was superb, crunchy, not soggy with grease; the carpaccio (below) features filet mignon, sun-dried tomato and Kalamata olive tapenade; pastas like the traditional spaghetti alla bolognese and the fragrant white truffle oil in the ravioli al funghi selvatici sauce are stand-outs.
The grilled Florentine bistecca alla griglia was excellent, but the filetto di manzo rustico (filet mignon) was unforgettable: I had mine black-and-blue and was surprised at the accuracy of the delivered beef. On all of these menus the garlic mashed potatoes are a particular hit.
My companion was totally hooked on the zuppa di cipolle (Tuscan onion Soup), a hearty combination of onion and leek with garlic and provolone cheese in a creamy, caramelized concoction as thick as the minestrone all'itialiana was comparatively thin.
The service at the Grille is often hit-and-miss but
mostly hit, unless a sulking Swedish couple is
fighting in the not-nearly-private-enough table right
in front of you.
Although the name 'Murano' may say Italian cuisine to you, it is the name of the French restaurant (below) on board for contemporary cuisine. The onion soup is fabulous, perfect with cheese so thick and gooey that a mere raft of stale bread probably couldn't have kept it afloat.
Still, on any ship, everything is show biz, designed to catch your eye so that you don't really notice that there's about 20 minutes a day when Celebrity isn't cuisine-ing you to death on Deck 14 at a trough designed to distract 3,000 people. Some go to Zumba just before they consume tea. Others try to outsmart the tariffs: after all, if fresh orange juice costs $2 and fresh grapefruit costs $3.50, order it for breakfast in bed instead, and there is no extra charge.
So while waiting for what may become one of your favorite restaurants -- on land or at sea -- you begin to watch a little kinetic art. First, in a painting just outside Blu and Murano, is a picture of a wood gatherer in the forest who puts his logs together and lights them for warmth -- which eventually turns into a flaming fire that consumes the painting. There is a great deal of 'art-as-distraction' on these ships, each piece of which is identified. All they need is an art tour to match the galley tour. There is, unfortunately, on each ship, an 'art' auction that gives art a bad name. You really think Dalí and Matisse and Picasso signed different kinds of paper before their printers rolled off these, er, images? I mean, a Rembrandt print? Really? And those not-really-Fabergé eggs?
One may consider these questions at the Molecular Bar, a 'natural' way to get absolutely sloshed. Then, there's The Porch for soups, salads and panini, or, perhaps, on the blowy top deck Oceanview Café. If you crave an early six am breakfast, wander to Deck 14 and have gammon, a close relative of Canadian Bacon that doesn't come with other breakfast menus, in-room or out.
This huge room features everything from simply excellent cuts of anything ripe for the barbeque, including vegetables. But save yourself for the barbeque on Deck 15 at the Lawn Club Grill. You can't control the wind, and after my glasses blew across the table, I couldn't control my laughter.
And then a visit to Sin City, where we couldn't wait to hear comic Steve McGrew tell us he was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that's "A slut, backwards." Just for openers. Rim shot!
It's not easy to avoid the ever-present liquors, particularly at the À La Carte foodie attractions: Café al Baccio ice cream shop on Deck five, and the Cellar Masters for Tapas any time after 5:00 pm And every bar with aficionados who just come for a listen to some of the acts is presented with a wide range of nibbles, some so hot you feel that only a gin-and-tonic could put out the fire. Each day there is a 'Daily Pour,' a cocktail special of the day served in all bars and lounges, like Pirate's Punch composed of Bacardi Coconut and Pyrat XO rum, pineapple and orange juice, and fresh lime. Hangover cure: priceless!
Too soon it was back to Reality Land. You won't get your land legs back for awhile, so be prepared to walk down the street a little tipsy, whether you are or not. And every time you close your eyes, you'll see the horizon just past the rail of your terrace and breathe in the fresh, sparkling salt air of the Atlantic. Perhaps it's time for a burial at sea for all of the junk you bought in the $10 shop on Deck 4; the bottle of wine that now smells like lighter fluid; the $80 swimsuit that's supposed to take ten pounds off of your pound-a-day weight gain; and the bear in the toy gondola that sings "O Sole Mio."
Before you enter your door, open your mail box. There it is! A cruise deal so amazing that it almost reads "Cheaper than staying home!" Again.
Andrew Carmellini has been on a roll.
With Ken Freedman, he opened the widely successful Locanda Verde, then, with partners Josh Pickard and Luke Ostrom, he opened The Dutch, an American restaurant still packing people in; now, also with Pickard and Ostrom, comes their attempt at a French brasserie in the style of Balthazar, still going strong after sixteen years. Indeed, the look of Lafayette (previously a "Chinese brasserie") evokes the wide-open, well-lighted ambiance of Balthazar, but the menu is quite different, going considerably beyond the common staples of brasserie fare.
Which brings up again the question of what a brasserie really is. In France, where the term is now bandied about, it refers to Alsatian-based restaurants with menus featuring Alsatian dishes like choucroute along with ample numbers of beers. Neither Balthazar nor Lafayette pays any homage to Parisian brasseries like Lipp, Flo, Bofinger and La Coupole--where you're now likely to find buffalo mozzarella on the menu--but Lafayette casts a wider net that allows Carmellini and chef de cuisine Damon Wise to create their own ideas of modern French cuisine.
Up front is a cheery bakery and patîsserie with baguettes and ficelles, brioches and croissants, made fresh throughout the day. There are paper mats on the tables, roomy red leather chairs and banquettes, the requisite beveled mirrors, good hanging lamps, and fine use of colors that will forever be associated with Parisian brasseries. Sad to say, even early in the evening the sound levels get high--up to 95 decibels--which makes conversation difficult. (A loud room seems a hallmark of Carmellini's restaurants; he is hardly alone.) The reception is warm enough, though a peculiarly peevish NY Times reviewer didn't find it so. Lafayette might want to establish some person as manager/maître d' who will imbue the place with a spirit that would distinguish itself from other restaurants of this type. Call him or her Pierre or Jean-Luc or Marie or Jeanne, whatever. Lafayette could use an amiably omniscient hawk to give the room more personality.
Upon being seated, you will be brought a basket of sliced good bread, but our table of four received but a single round of butter the size of a silver dollar that was fit for one. Also, there are no salt or pepper shakers on the table.
The menu, of course, offers a charcuterie board, for $30 quite a lavish one (you're going to need more butter) with good portions of ham, saucisson, meaty terrines and creamy rillettes. There is also a "grand fromage" offering of three cheeses for $12 or five for $19. Prices across the menu are very reasonable, with appetizers running $5-$15 and main courses $18-$32, this last for steak frites. There is also an abundance of always changing shellfish, with at least six oyster varieties daily. The night I was there they were also serving Nova Scotia langoustines in a lush garlic butter; they were sweet, though not particularly fat for a $25 item.
Among the appetizers we enjoyed were pencil-thin asparagus of admirable flavor on their own, grilled and served with pickled ramps, spring onions, and trotters. Les pâtes--pastas--have become as expected in French restaurants as in Italian these days, and the shell macaroni with a rich veal cheek ragôut and a ewe's milk cheese called brebis from the Basque country was delicious and ample enough for a main course. Equally good was a pasta shape called fleur de soleil, a curly variety glossed with butter, snap peas, mint and pancetta, a French name for a Roman-style dish.
Steamed snapper was finely rendered on its own--steaming fish is not as easy as it seems--bathed in a wonderful bouillabaisse-type sauce. One cannot argue with the cut and trim on lamb chops here, done with measured Moroccan spices and accompanied by steamy whole wheat couscous.
For dessert, I'd recommend Jen Yee's strawberry délice, now that berries are at their best, with dulcey crèmeux and a spiced caramel lace. The puff pastry for a profiterole with chocolate ice cream was none too crisp.
The wine list at Lafayette is impressive for its depth and breadth, usually not the case in a bistro/brasserie. There are prices for every budget, too, with sufficient bottles under $50 and a carafe of the day's house wine well worth asking about.
The brasseries of Paris are far from cookie cutter in style, despite a nostalgia for art nouveau décor, and many, through corporate take-overs, have lost their individuality. Which in an ironic way gives Carmellini a chance truly to distinguish Lafayette as a place not quite like any other in town and quite unlike Balthazar. Lafayette should be a place people want to come to see a familiar face at the front and have a good chat with the owner or chef. I hope that happens.
Lafayette is open for breakfast and dinner every day, for lunch Mon.-Fri. and for brunch Sat. & Sun. The bakery is open daily.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
Time to Ditch the “Super Tuscan” Name?
Piero Antinori and his daughters, Albiera,
Allegra and Alessia.
Piero Antinori and his daughters, Albiera,
Allegra and Alessia.
THE BIG MAC FELT!
As reported in The Cut, Actress Jennifer Aniston reports she was once forced to eat at a McDonald's, saying, "I'll never forget when Justin [Theroux] and I were on a road trip and we were so hungry. The only thing around was McDonald's. I think I ordered a Big Mac. Wow, my body did not react well to that! It was like putting gasoline in a purified system. I am always trying to eat organic and natural foods, so that just made my stomach turn and made me feel terrible."
"Oddities abound on the stretch of Colfax Avenue just east of Broadway. That is only partly due to the fact that the first block is occupied by the state Capitol and its sundry government hangers-on, who are attached like remoras, albeit ones with buttoned-down shirts and briefcases."--William Porterm "Pho-natic restaurant," Denver Post (5/8/13)
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