Can one of the world’s biggest cruise ships really be a haven for foodies? Peter Lynch loosens his belt and sets out to sample Ovation of the Seas’ food offerings.
It was a bit like driving a red Ferrari down the main street of a small town. Everywhere Ovation of the Seas went on her Asian inaugural voyage, the world’s second largest ship (and reputedly it’s smartest) was feted like a rock star.
There were mayors and ministers, ceremonies and certificates at almost every port. Crowds turned out to see this engineering phenomena.
News of her iFly ride, her 90-metre high North Star observation platform, dodgem cars and robot barmen had spread before her. But as amazing as these high-tech toys are, that’s not the main reason why Cruise Passenger was along for the ride.
Australian and New Zealand managing director Adam Armstrong had promised us a game changer. And Ovation, with its sheer size and amazing hardware, certainly appears to fit the bill.
Armstrong, a snappy marketeer, says its “supercruising”.
But there is another important side to this ship, heading for her first Australian season in November. She is not just a set of water rides and robotics. She is also laying siege to food, once the exclusive domain of luxury brands.
Could Royal Caribbean really have created a ship that not only pleases young families with children – there were 900 kids aboard for our journey, but also foodies?
To put her culinary credentials to the test, we set out to try as many of her 20 food outlets as we could. And we had just 72 hours to do it!
Even if we ate two breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners, we would still fall short. It was going to be a belt-bursting marathon – and we’d need the Vitality at Sea fitness centre’s steam room and gym to make it happen.
As we pulled out of Singapore bound for Port Klang, Malaysia, there was no time to loose.
While this may sound like an act of sheer gluttony, it was actually a culinary quest with a purpose.
Many will find themselves time poor on this vast vessel with so many diversions. We wanted to make it easy to choose. So we created our set of robotic hats to ensure you make it to the right table.
Booking for your personal journey couldn’t be easier on Ovation. Just pop up to one of the handy iPads all around the ship, key in your name and cabin number and you can book anything from the iFly (booking is strongly recommended as an anxious queue of parents greeted us for our flight) to Jamie’s Italian, and everything (spa, fitness, hair salon) in between.
Royal Caribbean has something called “dynamic dining”, which means anyone can walk into a restaurant at almost any time and be fed if there are tables free.
It places enormous pressure on the kitchens – ever the detectives, we went below decks and saw first hand the giant vats of soup, the rows of steak and lobster and the hours of preparation that go into feeding 4,905 ravenous passengers and 1,500 crew on 18 decks.
But the good news is: it works!
Here’s our verdict.
Jamie’s Kitchen: ****
Food: We tried the meat plata, garlic prawn linguine and JI super salad – we loved the simple but tasty style. This is Jamie Oliver’s first venture into the cruise market and it’s going well. His health-conscious approach is novel and welcome. Particularly good for families.
Service: Attentive and particularly good for younger cruisers with children. The wait staff have been well trained to make them welcome.
Ambience: It’s Jamie Oliver, right? So lots of books featuring the man himself, plus tea towels and other rock-chef goodies.
Verdict: Pricey, but an altogether pleasant experience
Food: This is food as theatre. The fare is split into Sun (vegetables, such as our slow-cooked baby beets), Ice (chilled, such as our crispy crab cones), Fire (buffalo chicken eggs), Sea (liquid lobster – bone marrow and caviar) and Earth (river stone potatoes). It’s a set menu and the food just keeps arriving, along with a sometimes hilarious explanation from waiters clad in colourful clothes.
Ambience: From the moment you arrive, the astonishing white decor and dandy waiters tell you this is different. And it is. You apply water to your menu to read it (like a secret agent), and your waiter has scripted a series of quips about the food. The influence is Alice in Wonderland. The menu is curiouser and curiouser. Channel Brit chef Heston Blumenthal.
Price: additional charge
The Verdict: A completely different dining experience. A must-visit venue you’ll talk about for years. Brilliant.
American Icon: ****
Food: Every American cruise ship has a steak house. Excellent surf and turf; Jack Daniels chocolate cake was a revelation.
Service: Fun, fast, efficient. They forgot our mustard – but let’s not hold that against them.
Ambience: Smart and sassy; New York diner style.
Verdict: Great New York restaurant. The steak was excellent and the dessert was as yummy as they come.
Food: modern – the catchphrase “stylish never tasted so good” works well. We had an excellent beef carpaccio and prawn risotto. The crab cake is also good.
Service: attentive and quick.
Ambience: modern and slick.
Verdict: Modern, light dining in a relaxed atmosphere.
Kung Fu Panda Noodle House: **
Food: On other Royal Caribbean ships, this is Johnny Rockets burger bar. But the line is banking on the Noodle House to see them through Ovation’s tour of China. But there is a problem – safety laws mean no wok cooking over an open flame. While the results are still good, our beef chow fun noodles lacked that gorgeously smoky flavour. Main dishes are US$5, Dim Sum is US$4 for four pieces and desserts are $US2 for dishes such as sesame balls and fungus soup.
Ambience: At the very top of the 18-storey Ovation, so think beach-side yum cha. Hard to imagine, right?
Service: Hawker style.
Price: individual dish prices.
Our verdict: Good try, but there is something missing. We think it’s chilli.
Food: Terrific sashimi – we can heartily recommend the Sashimi combo with wonderfully large helpings of everything from halibut and yellow tail to tuna (the lightly seared tuna is a particular delight). Great desserts, especially the ice-cream.
Service: We arrived at closing, but the chefs happily opened up again and served dessert. They produced a surprisingly good birthday cake for a child, all delivered with great humour.
Ambience: Open, airy and even though close to a corridor, still has an authentic atmosphere.
Price: A la carte pricing.
Verdict: We were warned that company regulations means, even though the fish is sourced from Japan, it has to be frozen. While this did mean the salmon was soft, it was still delicious.
Food: Ovation’s Asian restaurant should be outstanding, given she is sailing in the region. But sadly, it was bland. Our Vietnamese tacos were plain and our Asian-style duck had little spice. We get that it is all things to all diners – there is strip steak, roast salmon and chicken breast along with chicken masala. The trouble with fusion is it breeds culinary confusion.
Ambience: Definitely Asian – full to the brim on the night we went, with a nice buzz.
Service: Fast and furious.
Verdict: Hot-food destinations serve hot food. Where’s the chilli?
Coastal Kitchen: *****
Food: Classy cuisine. Our scallop carpaccio was delicious and the green-coconut soap was also good. Plenty of classics, all classically served.
Ambience: This is for Suite Class passengers – these are serious cruisers (and eaters!). Two couples from Texas at the next table had 18 cruises booked in the next 18 months, and another lady had been on board Royal Caribbean ships for 9.5 years!
Service: Slick and professional, with great advice.
Price: included for Suite Class passengers.
Verdict: As comfortable as a custom suit; Manager Robert Menhardt knows his guests can be as tough as Gordon Ramsey, so he makes sure service and servings are smooth as silk.
Michael’s Genuine Pub: **
Food: Okay, it is pub fare: fish and chips and bangers and mash. But the venison and onion pie could easily be served on the white-linen table cloths of any restaurant.
Ambience: dark, wooden and very pubby. Brits would be right at home.
Price: $12 for mains, $4 for desserts such as peanut-butter pie in a jar.
Verdict: Great for a quick bite.
Windjammer Marketplace: ***
Food: Every ship has it buffet – and while culinary stars like Jamie Oliver steal all the glory, the unsung heroes of the galley do the real heavy lifting. This 860-seater is a bit of an extravaganza. There are dishes from around the world – while we were onboard, Singapore flags showed us where to find the noodles, porridge and curries. Breakfast all day, special event lunches and all-you-can-eat. It’s buffet heaven!
Ambience: Plenty of nooks and crannies to get some privacy, and outdoor dining too.
Verdict: Plenty of cooked-to-order dishes and a huge array of buffet-style plates. Prepare you tastebuds for a feast and book the gym for a workout.
The Grande: ****
Food: It lives up the name. Tuna carpaccio, broiled lobster tail with leeks – it’s certainly dining on a grand scale. Chandeliers and over-sized chairs make it a statement venue. And the desserts? The molten chocolate lava cake is exactly as it sounds – volcanically chocolate.
Service: Impeccable and personal. The captain was entertaining the top brass while we were there and we gathered he was a regular.
Ambience: This is a formal restaurant, so expect to dress up so you compliment all those mirrors and crystal.
Verdict: Great food, good service. If you want to feel special, this is the venue to go to.
The Café@two70: ***
Food: Wholesome wraps, sandwiches, soup, noodles and desserts. Excellent place for breakfast, lunch or snacks. And you can sit outside in the magnificent Two70 auditorium, with its amazing panoramic windows to the stern of the ship.
Ambience: Light, bright, self-service cafeteria atmosphere.
Verdict: Good, wholesome fare for those that want a break from the copious dishes in the restaurants. You’ll feel all the healthier!
Food: It’s billed as a little slice of Italy, New York style. What you get is a big slice of pizza. Cheese and pepperoni has to be the specialty – and it is indeed special straight from the pizza oven. Salads, anti pasta all served up in a kerbside table style.
Service: Fun and attentive.
Ambience: Tables and chairs outside on the piazza – sorry, I mean Deck 4.
Verdict: A little bit schizoid, is it New York or is it Italy? But hey – as the ship’s own program says, who doesn’t like pizza?
Café Promenade: ***
Food: Sandwiches and cakes – “a sidewalk cafe on a ship” is there motto, and they live up to it 24 hours a day.
Service: Good but under pressure during meal times. It’s a popular cafe.
Ambience: Great for people watching.
Verdict: Good coffee – on a ship awash in American filter, you’ll be glad of that.
Chops Grille: ****
Food: This is what American’s do best: great steaks and lobster, Ceasar’s Salad and cheese cake deserts. Chops Grille is a staple Royal Caribbean brand and you’ll need to book. It is a signature restaurant so you will pay extra.
Ambience: Casual chic is the order of the day. Not quite as grand as the Grande, but not as relaxed as Sorrentos.
Service: A strong point. Staff know their steak, so take the waiter’s word for what’s good and you won’t be disappointed.
Price: additional charge
Verdict: Rare and well-done. A nice night out.