My parents adored cruises. For the first 10 years of my life, a cruise was always part of my school holidays. From Singapore, we would sail to nearby Southeast Asian ports such as Phuket and Langkawi or embark on a fly-cruise to Japan or Taiwan through the Okinawa or Keelung routes. Their reasons were always the same: cruises were hassle free and full board, with plenty of activities to keep me and my brother occupied.
Ah, yes, I remember the all-you-can-eat buffets and set meals on cruise ships. Old pizzas, gloppy Alfredos, soggy fried fish fillets, pale and lukewarm raw tuna entrées and soft-serve machines that looked as if there had been an ice cream explosion earlier. On the other hand, the food portions were generous and there were plenty of cuisine options. But these buffets encouraged overeating, and the sets almost always looked underwhelming, even the fanciest dinners on Captain’s Night.
Then came an invite from Oceania Cruises, which have boldly claimed to serve the finest cuisine at sea. The ships‘ gastronomy teams are led by renowned French chef Jacques Pépin. I boarded one of their smaller liners, Nautica, for lunch with an open mind and higher expectations.
The first course was Maine lobster and daikon with caviar, which was served with acacia honey and sherry vinegar foam. The waiter set down my appetiser and the plate took me by surprise. I could see that each element was planned with TLC and there was attention to detail in the presentation. If this was the sort of dish they would normally prepare for 600 passengers at a time, they certainly did it well. The lobster was succulent and the dish as a whole tasted fresh and light.
The starter came next. Fagottini al formaggio, or provolone-stuffed pasta purses with butternut squash cream, was heavenly. The aged cheese in these little wontons wasn’t as sharp as expected but tasted creamy and it went well with the nutty flavours of the sauce. The butternut squash was also lovely. I would have slurped every last bit of it if there had been a spoon on the side.
For my main, I selected the catch of the day: den-miso-glazed sea bass. This was art on a plate. The fish was wrapped and cooked in a hoba leaf and tasted so fresh that there was a bounce when I slid my fork through the flesh. This dish was dainty and light yet satisfying.
My meal ended with an “explosive” dessert, the Papuan chocolate volcano, with a passion fruit heart centre and flowing caramel lava. This was a mousse pyramid with cute little sugar and nut crisp ears sticking out that looked absolutely devilish. The passion fruit provided small tastes of zest and the caramel added sweet notes to the rich and slightly bitter chocolate.
My earlier cruise dining experiences were definitely not as glamorous as this one. My lunch on board Nautica created a new and lasting impression on how people dine at sea today. Delicious as the culinary offerings on Nautica may be, it will still be awhile before I embark on a cruise holiday, but I highly recommend this experience to those who enjoy the hassle-free provisions available on a cruise vacation, especially if you have a hunger for fine dining.
Oceania Nautica is a cruise liner with a focus on a complete gastronomic experience. It offers a range of dining options including Italian and French restaurants, steakhouses, grill bars, pizzerias and coffee lounges. The liner organises different food activities both on board (tiramisu-making demos, martini tastings, cognac workshops) and when it docks (offshore tours to local markets, hydroponic farms and coffee plantations). The ship also offers a traditional English afternoon tea daily, with white-gloved butlers serving a selection of finger sandwiches, colourful petits fours, freshly baked scones with clotted cream and jam and a selection of teas.
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