Fine dining is a term which means different things to different people. The overall experience of enjoying a nice meal in comfortable or opulent surroundings is one of the ways a cruise line aims to leave you content with your decision to travel with that line.
On a regular basis, you’ll find high-quality fare served up in the main dining rooms on major cruise lines around the world. But then there are those extra efforts most brands make, often available at a surcharge and in especially limited numbers, which send the culinary standard soaring. This might be through an in-depth preparation its customers are able to see for themselves, a high level of personal interaction with senior members of the cooking team, learning how to make a particular dish or simply enjoying innovative and high-quality dishes.
For Carnival Cruise Line, both of its Australian ships – Carnival Spirit and Carnival Legend – as well as its 23 other vessels around the world offer its own unique ‘Chef’s Table’ dining experience, where guests are given an up-close look behind the galley doors to see how the culinary magic happens, before sitting down in a private dining room to enjoy a particularly fine example. In this article, we’ll take a look at the experience course by delicious course as served onboard Carnival Spirit.
Guests booked for a particular seating meet in the Central Atrium at around 5:30pm, however your exact time will be advised usually the day before when your stateroom crew member places a confirmation card in your room or in the letterbox outside your cabin door. After some champagne and time to get to know your fellow diners (those you don’t already know), you’re whisked into the main galley for a look at the massive and endless military-grade exercise which keeps all passengers sufficiently fed for the duration of each cruise.
For the first four appetiser courses, these are taken at a steel bench-style table off to the side of the main kitchen, enabling you to watch the chefs and waiters interacting as meals are prepared and delivered to the guests dining upstairs.
Course 1 – Mango Sphere with Rosemary Biscuit
According to our chefs, this particular dish actually takes four days to prepare. To do so, a reverse osmosis process is combined with sodium chloride and fused with refrigerated mango to enable it to reach the required texture – solid enough to rest comfortably on a small biscuit but once penetrated by human teeth, liquefies in your mouth. This item naturally features a strong mango taste and is quite cold initially however easy to consume.
Course 2 – Salmon Tartare Cornet with Sesame Seeds
Don’t let the photo deceive you – this item is small but as an appetiser, that’s the purpose. Around six inches in length, this course is about two bites, with ultra soft salmon filling which has been prepared with orange, lime and grapefruit jus. Hints of avocado and sour cream have been added and wrapped together in a slightly crispy sesame-fused wafer. Delicious!
Course 3 – Beef Carpaccio with Chocolate Chip Bacon
As if two of mankind’s greatest innovations – bacon and chocolate – couldn’t get any better, they have. Quite simply, this dish sees strips of normal bacon lightly basted in a layer of melted chocolate chips. After drying, the item is served on a hook over a small hand salad.
Course 4 – Twice cooked lamb ball with wafer
Another item smaller in real life than the photo suggests, but only just. Despite being twice cooked, this little ball of lamb meat retains a crispy exterior and soft filling, with just a little dot of mayonnaise on top. The wafer crisp isn’t meant to be eaten at the same time but is a nice touch mostly for presentation, but which still offers its own taste.
After four little bites and frequent wine and champagne top-ups, guests are then escorted from the kitchen and through a camouflaged door which leads directly into the Carnival Spirit nightclub, transformed into a private dining room for the exclusive use of the Chef’s Table guests – albeit several hours before opening to revellers to dance the night away. The table has been beautifully decorated with exorbitantly hedonistic bunches of grapes which wouldn’t look out of place tantalising the palate of a late Roman Emperor.
As we take our seats, the table also features a selection of bread rolls and spreads from which each person can enjoy. The rolls are quite crumbly when it comes to applying any of the butter but still a nice touch to begin the sit-down phase of your dining experience.
Course 5 – Beet Blanket with Spiced Grape Tea
This dish is served to diners without the grape tea in which it swims and initially, looks a little bit like the classic Allen’s Liquorice Allsorts lollies. Your server will quickly follow up with the grape tea which is poured over the top. Soft in texture, this item tastes jelly-like at first before the flavours of honey carrot tian and lemon come to the forefront. The grape tea is also delicious, and if the setting wasn’t quite so formal, you’d almost be looking for a straw.
Course 6 – Blue Swimmer Crab Stack
Accompanied beautifully with white wine, this seafood dish features flavours from multiple angles. Polenta crackers pierce a small pile of crab meat from three corners, while the crab itself rests in a shallow pool of corn custard. On top you’ll find passion fruit caviar and if you’re able to get all of these into a mouthful (break part of the cracker off and try to build with portions of everything) for a tantalising hit which will just dance on your tongue.
Course 7 – Duck bites with creamy quinoa
This third main course actually saw us first attack the carrot rings and other vegetables, just to be a little different, before circling the duck pieces. Typically chewy as duck can often be, this wasn’t our favourite dish however was still quite enjoyable. A bundle of parmesan churros which rested on top were an interesting condiment however were difficult to eat any other way than by hand, as they were virtually unable to be pierced by a fork or cut by knife.
Course 8 – Bisque Our Way
One of the more beautiful parts of this Chef’s Table experience comes in this dish, which is especially small upon its initial serving. While you’re wondering whether anything is due to be added to this, the chefs approach from behind your seat and answer this question by simultaneously pouring two mixtures either side of the central brioche bun.
The bisque is made from a two parts tomato, three parts basil composition which quickly soaks into the brioche and garlic chips. This isn’t a problem though as there’s plenty of it to enjoy, whether you like your brioche flavoured or not.
Course 9 – Barramundi with Lobster Foam
Another dish which is finished in front of your eyes, this seafood item is served up without the sauce at first but this is then quickly added. The supporting cast of characters around this dish lend themselves more to dessert than a main course, these being pop corn pudding and lemon macaroon, but this is more balanced out by two piles of chorizo sausage crust.
With Australia being a major source of some of the world’s most delicious seafood, the barramundi is juicy and tender. You’ll also want to mix in some of the lobster foam which is nicely presented inside some flower petals. All in all, a quality dish with a sweet element.
Course 10 – Wagyu Beef with Bone Marrow Soufflé
In what looks excessively elegant and in line with preceding dishes in terms of presentation is really just the ultra-comfortable steak and potato this time around – very much a comfort dish you are sure to love. As Wagyu tends to do, the beef is incredibly easy to cut and has been cooked to medium rare – despite its fairly blackened exterior.
A delicious potato cube rests to the side of the beef, with the bone marrow soufflé on the other side. A green onion and garlic panisse has been nicely arranged around a segment of the plate and goes nicely with the beef to balance the flavour.
Course 11 – Dessert from the Pastry Chef
To close the Chef’s Table experience, a menagerie of sweetness is served up consisting of sea salt praline chocolate, a few dollops of raspberry mojito ice cream, lime cake, apricot vanilla gel and citrus cream. Unless your dessert palate caters to all possible flavours, not every part of this dish will appeal to you.
Chocoholics are well covered with the praline chocolate cake truly delectable and built high enough to make each mouthful quite substantial – you’ll need to lie this one down and take it in smaller portions. The raspberry mojito is particularly sweet and is also best taken in small bites. But you’ll want more of the citrus cream which is only light in texture.
A seat at the Chef’s Table experience is priced at $90 per head and is offered usually once every three or four days depending on the length of your cruise. It will occur at least once per sailing irrespective of the duration and can occur on as many as four separate occasions for a longer voyage, to ensure as many guests as possible have a chance to enjoy it. On each occasion, 16 people can be accommodated, and it is wise to allow three hours for the entire service from start to finish. Plan the rest of your evening around it.