Love at First Bite

Venice and Rome are cool and all, but when the Crystal Serenity hosts its Wine and Food Festival cruise, the only thing you’ll care about is the food

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 are 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.

CrystalSerenityPenthouseIn fact, the service is so outstanding that each time Simon, my personal butler, comes to my room, I spend time trying to think up requests 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.

I’m almost ashamed to admit how much I’m enjoying the time spent on the ship, especially with captivating ports of call in Greece, Croatia, Italy, and Monaco. Ironically, the reason I’d never cruised before was my distaste for what I expected would be a gluttonous, 24 hour, food-in-your-face, Vegas-like buffet. Now having experienced the Serenity’s dining rooms and specialty restaurants, having indulged in wine tastings in the Vintage Room, Mozart teas in the Palm Court, and the on-board cooking, wine, and mixology classes, I’ve decided all-you-can-eat can be sophisticated. Or that’s what I’ll tell myself because I’m having the time of my life.

Tonight in the dining room, I start with sautéed forest mushrooms on chive polenta and truffled fontina cheese fondue, and then I move onto 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. 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. “But I’ll be back on TK,” I say. Yes, I am sailing to Venice but am just as eagerly awaiting my next meal with Adrian. Well, Adrian, Endre (the head waiter), and the other eight people at my table.

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.”

CrystalSerenitySushiBarThe 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. After a day of riding vaporetti and gondolas, meandering Venetian alleys and taking in views from St. Mark’s Campanile, I am happily ensconced in the warm hospitality of the Crystal Serenity. In addition to menu items like Nobu’s famous black cod with miso and grilled Wagyu beef,  Nakaguchi also serves us octopus so fresh we saw it live this morning. Suzanne Goin and guest wine expert Madeleine de Jean are at my table, and they 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 freshly made by the local growers she visited.

Afterward, I head over to the Stardust Club where Chef Goin is teaches us how to make boeuf à la niçoise, a braised beef 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. Fortunately, she says 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, her Mediterranean prawns with yellow tomato confit melt in my mouth, and I savor the roasted beet salad with chickpeas, Nyons olives and feta cheese. Since I’ve already tasted the bouef and plan to cook it as soon as I get home, I choose her pan-roasted fresh sea bream for the main course. It’s served over parsnip purée with Brussels sprouts and balsamic brown butter. Nothing I’ve ever had seems as good as the parsnip purée. I tell her so, and she generously gives me the ridiculously simple recipe. “Two thirds parsnips, one third potatoes – it helps the consistency – and a little bit of cream and butter. The trick to making it this creamy is to use a food mill.” I decide to buy one when I return home.

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 the sea bream and boeuf à la niçoise.

“I have never had the food like this,” he says, full of excitement.

Nor have I.