It’s my first time aboard a cruise ship and I’m in sensory overload. The place is about the size of Northampton, with a dozen restaurants to choose from. No high-street chains here — each is exclusively tailored to the Princess fleet. The one I’m on is the Ruby Princess, sailing south out of Los Angeles. It’s 19 decks high and as long as the Eiffel Tower is tall. But I need to focus. I’m here to sample the company’s food range; in particular Aussie celebrity chef Curtis Stone’s Share.
“Who’s Curtis Stone? Sounds like a soul singer,” says my editor. He might be familiar to American viewers, but Chef Stone’s empire still hasn’t conquered UK audiences. Give it time…
“So you order several dishes each, and you can opt to share or not to share”. This is Share’s concept as explained by the Ruby Princess’s maitre d’. A table full of jet lagged British journalists just looks bemused.
Ok, so what you’re saying is it’s a mezze, right? Or tapas? Or have we missed something? Are we partnering up? If so, how do we choose who to share with? How do we know who wants to share? The lady next to me doesn’t look like she’d want a foreign fork plunged into her ricotta fritters. We’re having a conceptual crisis, and we haven’t even ordered a drink.
Touched by our failure to grasp this simple idea, the maitre d’ takes matters into his own hands. We are relieved; the eight-hour time difference has not been kind. We’re even more relieved when the food arrives. It surpasses all our expectations.
Butter-poached lobster with endive foam; Roast turbot (or tur-bow, in Chef Stone’s world) gratine with gruyere crumb and vermouth; beef cheek pie with portobello mushrooms. This isn’t the sort of cuisine you’d expect aboard a vessel serving 18,000 dishes a day to over 3,000 passengers.
Each of Princess’s premium restaurants (which also include the Salty Dog Gastro Pub and the British-influenced Crown Grill steakhouse) charges a fee, while all the other food on board is free. This takes some getting used to if you’ve never cruised before. “So I can just walk off with this pain au chocolate without paying?” Yes you can. Why not grab a pair of cinnamon swirls while you’re up there?
Share (or cher, as the French might describe it) is the priciest of the top-up eateries at 39 US Dollars per head (so about 32 quid right now). Pretty reasonable considering the quality of what’s on offer. The Crown Grill is next in line at $25. Not bad for a menu that includes a 22 ounce steak.
Lastly, the Salty Dog Gastro Pub has a $19 cover charge. Come here for bespoke craft beers and to try the Ernesto burger — designed by Argentina-born LA burger-meister Ernesto Uchimura. Cave-aged gruyere cascading over ground rib eye, with a support structure of caramelised kimchi, beer-battered jalapeños and, naturally, a glazed brioche. Need I continue this torture?
Princess has also forged a relationship with master chocolatier Norman Love, whose creations are so ubiquitously planted around the ship that it might as well be renamed the Love Boat. They’re even available at Horizon Court. Horizon where? Let me explain…
While the premium restaurants are a no-brainer for dinner, it’s hard to beat Horizon Court for breakfast and lunch. This magical Willy Wonka wonderland of unlimited free grub is famous among Princess passengers — as well as being the reason most of them wobble home wearing a few extra pounds.
The place is vast. And the variety of food means you’ll march off with the oddest combinations. California rolls snuggled up beside roast potatoes on a bed of smoked salmon? Oh yes you will. And you’ll enjoy it too. Weeks after my trip, I’m still craving the fiery dhal curry with sticky Japanese rice (sigh).
The main danger here is being overwhelmed by options. The advice is: if you’re planning to take a large ship like the Ruby Princess, don’t randomly munch your way around the decks like a nautical Pac-Man. Well do… but it pays to plan your evening meals before you leave home.
Hats off to Share in particular. And if your companions are baffled by the concept, you can always wheel out the Cher gags: “If I could turn back time… I’d have ordered the twice cooked duck with bacon jus and parmesan crumb”. Oh how we laughed. I blame the jet lag.
Previously published on www.sonikbeach.com