Love at First Bite aboard a Crystal Cruise

Of course there are ports of call, but when the Crystal Serenity hosts its Wine and Food Festival cruise, it’s all about the eating in between.

His arm brushes past me as he leans in to grind fresh black pepper over her salad. I close my eyes and take a deep breath.

He turns to me “Vould you like the parmesan?”

I swoon. We all swoon. Men and women alike. We’re seated in the dining room aboard the Crystal Serenity and we’re all in love with Adrian, our Romanian waiter. We take in his dark skin, the thick eyebrows that almost hide his sweet, beguiling eyes. He’s known our names since the first dinner. He knows what we like to drink and what we’ll likely order, even though the menu changes every night. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, he’s always there, always working and smiling as if there is nothing he’d rather be doing. He seems to genuinely enjoy taking care of us as if we were long lost family. I sense I’m getting special attention and imagine he’s falling in love with me. When he smiles at me, greets me in that mysterious, sinister-yet-sweet Dracula accent, I actually vant him to suck my blood. Rafael, one of my seat partners, swears he’s gay and that it’s him Adrian is in love with.

The service on this ship is so good that although there are more than 700 passengers, we’re each convinced we are the One. Most importantly, it isn’t the snooty service you might expect at a style hotel, nor is it the ingratiating “Yes master” service of some luxury resorts. From the housekeepers to the servers to the musicians, these people make us feel like welcome guests in their home. It doesn’t hurt that the staff-to-guest ratio is almost one to one.

In fact, the service is so outstanding that each time Simon, my personal butler, comes to my room, I spend time trying to think of things to do in order to spare his feelings. The only problem? He’s already taken care of anything I could imagine. So instead, I eat. I eat the canapés he brings each afternoon. I drink from the bottles of wine and champagne he brought when I arrived. Then I get ready for dinner with Adrian. Well, me, Adrian, Endre (the head waiter), and the other eight people at my table.

Tonight at dinner, I started with sautéed forest mushrooms on chive polenta and truffled fontina cheese fondue, followed by something even more complex: citrus-marinated medallions of Scandinavian venison on cream kale with dried fruit and walnut strudel, light game sauce and a poached red pear. I might have gone with the grilled Maine lobster, but it sounded too much like what Simon brought to my room this afternoon.

Thankfully there is a gym and a schedule of fitness classes on board. I even get to keep up my Pilates routine. A girl can’t afford to get fat with waiters like these.

“Vill you be at the dinner tomorrow?” asks Adrian.

It pains me to say no, to pass up that moment where he greets me at the door, offers his arm and guides me to my seat, but tomorrow night I’m having dinner at Silk Road, the ship’s Nobu Matsuhisa restaurant. Of course there is also the ubiquitous Italian option – Prego, by Piero Selvaggio, owner of Valentino in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Early the next morning at the seafood market in Venice, I see the true gourmets of our ship – Hiroshi Nakaguchi, the Silk Road’s chef; Gunter Lorenz, corporate executive chef; and celebrity guest chef Suzanne Goin of West Hollywood’s Lucques and A.O.C. (You may know her as one of Food and Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs, or maybe from TV. She joined the cruise only days after filming an episode of “Top Chef.”)

The cooks are chatting and browsing the thousands of seafood options on display from skate to swordfish to about a hundred types of still-crawling crabs and shrimp. Tonight, Chef Nakaguchi promises to cook us a special dinner at Silk Road, using what he purchases. He does. In addition to menu items like Nobu’s famous black cod with miso and grilled Wagyu beef, he serves us octopus so fresh we saw it live earlier this morning. Suzanne Goin and guest wine expert Madeleine de Jean are at my table and talk me into attending their classes tomorrow.

Madeline de Jean, one of the world’s foremost experts on Champagne, hosts a wine and Champagne tasting where she explains why she hates flutes. “The theory that they make the bubbles last longer is nonsense,” she says. “If you’re losing the bubbles, you’re not drinking it fast enough.” I like her style.

She introduces us to various wines, rustic and refined, that she picked up when we were in Croatia a few days ago. She pairs them with fine olive oils she also discovered in the region. Several of them were freshly made by local growers she had visited.

Afterward, I head over in the Stardust Club (you might call this the Serenity’s multipurpose room – although there is a proper nightclub and a theater, the Stardust also offers dancing, shows and presentations). Chef Goin is teaching us how to make boeuf à la niçoise, a braised beef daube with red wine, tomato, olives, and buttered noodles. Although I’m overwhelmed by the 21 ingredients, it’s not as hard to make as I expected. The best thing is that it’s better the next day, so preparing early, sticking it in the fridge and setting it out for 15 minutes before seasoning and serving, is not only convenient, it’s called for. It’s also what allows her to teach this class today and serve the same dish as part of the tasting menu she’ll present at tomorrow’s dining room dinner.

At that dinner, I revel in the Mediterranean prawns with yellow tomato confit that melts in my mouth and the roasted beet salad with chickpeas, Nyons olives and feta cheese. For the main course, I choose her pan-roasted fresh sea bream since I’ve already tasted the bouef and plan to cook it as soon as I get home. The sea bream is served over parsnip purée with Brussels sprouts and balsamic brown butter. Nothing I’ve ever had seems as good as this parsnip purée. I tell her so. She gives me the ridiculously simple recipe – 2/3 parsnips, 1/3 potatoes (it helps the consistency) and a little bit of cream and butter. The trick to making it so utterly creamy, she says, is using a food mill.

Before I meet some newly-made friends at the Avenue Saloon, I stop in my room to rest. It’s a balmy evening on the Mediterranean, so I lounge on the balcony and take in the breeze. It’s funny because what I didn’t want from a cruise was 24 hours of food-in-your-face at a Vegas-like buffet, but between the formal dining room, the al fresco cafes and even the in-room appetizers, the food on the Crystal Serenity is something I look forward to, even though I spend my days eating in Greece and Croatia and Italy and Provence.

Between the dining rooms, specialty restaurants, the wine dinners and tastings in the Vintage Room, the food, wine and mixology classes, the Mozart tea in the Palm Court, I’ve decided all-you-can-eat can still be sophisticated. Or that’s what I’ll tell myself because I’m having the time of my life. If I need to, I’ll sign up for one of the personal training packages offered by the onboard fitness instructor.

The morning after Chef Goin’s dinner, I head to the Lido café for breakfast where Adrian carries my tray, then brings me coffee (milk and one sugar) without me ever having to ask. He admits that the wait staff got to eat what was left of Chef Goin’s sea bream and boeuf à la niçoise. “I have never had the food like this,” he says, full of excitement.

Nor have I.