Jacques Pépin is one of the original celebrity chefs. With a flair for deliciously decadent French cuisine, he is well-known for working at renowned New York eatery Le Pavillon, developing US restaurant chain Howard Johnson’s and hosting a slew of TV cooking shows, including Cooking in Concert and Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home with Julia Child. He has also written numerous cookbooks and served as a guest judge on the Bravo series Top Chef.
Pepin is evidently well placed to offer his expertise and creative vision. And, knowing that it would be a huge coup to get someone of his status involved in the gastronomic direction of a cruise line, Oceania Cruises employed Pépin as its Executive Culinary Director in 2003. Its aim was to make the culinary experience just as sought-after as the destinations the cruise line travels to.
Oceania even went so far as to trademark the line ‘the finest cuisine at sea’, to really drum it into guests that if you want five-star dining as part of your cruise journey, Oceania is for you.
Each ship, depending on its size, has a few specialty restaurants on offer. Oceania Regatta has two options: Italian dining at Toscana and steakhouse fare at Polo Grill. Dining at specialty restaurants is included in your fare and you can make reservations for each restaurant once per cruise (or more often, depending on the length of your cruise and your suite category).
So, does the catchphrase live up to the hype? Can cruise-line food really compete with some of the best restaurants on land? That depends. If you order right, it could, but more about that in a minute.
Can cruise-line food really compete with some of the best restaurants on land?
Oceania Cruises’ Regatta
My travel companion and I boarded Regatta on a sunny Friday afternoon in Sydney, Australia, having packed lightly for the short weekend trip to Brisbane. We arrived at the Queensland capital early Sunday morning and it was there we bid adieu to our fellow passengers who would continue on to Papeete, Tahiti for the full 18-day journey.
One full day at sea proved enough for both of us, thanks to our history of seasickness and preference for adventure-filled travel itineraries. However, I’ve come to realise that being forced to relax with a cocktail in hand by a pool in the sunshine isn’t the worst way to while away the time. Nor is finding a good book in the ship’s library to read for the best part of a day, or taking up a morning hit of minigolf.
As soon as we had embarked, we bee-lined for the reservations desk to ensure we could get a table for two at both specialty restaurants. There’s also a shared table option which is a nice way to meet a few of your travel companions – it seems to be a popular choice for solo vacationers and regular or more mature cruise veterans.
Despite being on the ship quite early, hours before setting sail and well before a good percentage of the 684 guests had embarked, the popular timeslots had already been snagged. We settled for an 8.30pm dinner.
Authentic Italian at Toscana
Toscana was our restaurant of choice for our first evening meal. If I could only eat one type of cuisine for the rest of my life, Italian would be it, so I had high hopes.
The olive oil menu was certainly impressive, if a little over the top – 10 types from all over Italy, with tasting notes like ‘intense and fruity’, ‘zesty and aromatic’, and ‘bitter and spicy’. They were paired with a splash of balsamic vinegar, of which there were three varieties. Dipping crusty bread into a good olive oil trumps slathering on a thick layer of butter in my book. Good start, Oceania.
On to the main menu and the dishes were what you’d expect from a traditional Italian restaurant. All of the favourites were there, from pillowy gnocchi to rich osso bucco. I decided to start with Carpaccio di Manzo – perhaps a little risky considering the dish was marked with an asterisk to advise of the health implications that can come with eating raw meat, particularly when you’re stuck at sea on a cruise.
But paired with the sommelier’s pick of red wine, the thinly sliced beef tenderloin was a delight, as soft and melty as it should be (and there were no adverse side effects). My partner went for the classic Mozzarella di Bufala Caprese, which rarely disappoints and didn’t on this occasion either.
For the next dish we felt pasta would be appropriate so we chose two that sounded appealing: Pennette San Gimignano (penne with roasted porcini mushrooms in a rosemary-laced meat sauce) and Linguine Cioppino (seafood linguine with little neck clams, black mussels, calamari, shrimp and monkfish in a pinot grigio and cherry tomato sauce).
Both were tasty enough but a little dull and left me wishing I’d ordered the gnocchi in creamy pesto sauce instead.
With the chianti flowing and our bellies almost bursting, we hesitantly accepted the dessert menu. It was fairly straightforward apart from one surprise dish, Lasagne al Cioccolato (chocolate lasagne), that was absolutely delicious.
American steakhouse vibes at Polo Grill
Polo Grill was our night-two venue – perhaps best described as an American steakhouse that errs on the fancier side. Think dark wood furnishings, burgundy leather seats and gold detailing with framed polo action shots on the walls to round out the posh clubhouse feel.
Ordering beef at a place like this was obviously a given – all cuts are USDA Prime and dry-aged for 28 days for optimum tenderness and flavour. The prime rib cooked medium-rare was a fine choice, as was the surf and turf starring filet mignon topped with Florida lobster tail.
Teamed with a smorgasbord of carb-filled sides – lobster mac and cheese, truffle mashed potatoes, creamed spinach and fries – we were so full by the end that the dessert menu wasn’t ever going to be an option.
Our verdict on Oceania’s claim to have ‘the finest cuisine at sea’?
We enjoyed the culinary experience and if we’d been on the ship for a little longer we surely would have made our way through more of the menu at each specialty restaurant to suss out the number one picks.
Considerations about what you order and what you’re comparing it to (namely the standard of fare you’ve had on ships in the past) obviously need to be made.
But if you’re already sold on the destination where Regatta is sailing, then the drawcard of trying ‘the finest cuisine at sea’ for yourself could be the deciding factor when booking your next cruise holiday.
Oceania Cruises is rolling out a multimillion-dollar refurbishment of all of its ships, including Regatta, this year. Come September 2019, the ship will have been given a stylish overhaul with a refreshed colour palette of soft sea and sky hues.