Mal Chenu discovers a gastronomic wonderland on a Mediterranean cruise aboard Celebrity Silhouette.
Luciano Pavarotti's soaring Nessun Dorma erupts from the speakers and we sip champagne as we cruise past Piazza San Marco. Today Pavarotti, King of the High Cs is King of the High Seas. As the legendary tenor's immaculate instrument ascends and the architectural majesty of Venice passes by, conversation ceases. This is a time for throat lumps, gratitude and photos that cannot hope to capture the emotional grandeur.
As Luciano and the city fade, the ship turns south towards Dubrovnik in southern Croatia, our first port of call on this seven-day cruise of the Mediterranean that will also take in Ephesus in Turkey and Mykonos and Corfu in Greece before returning to Venice.
Our thoughts turn – as they tend to on a cruise – to drinks and dinner. Having just experienced one hard-to-beat "world" moment, we find another at Qsine, one of the ship's three specialty restaurants. Going by the grammatically dubious but intriguing epithet "Uniquely Unordinary", Qsine is a world tour of fascinating and delectable dishes, inspiring presentation and upturned lampshades on the ceiling for some reason. Ozi, who is more a culinary tour guide than a waiter, distributes the e-menus – iPads that list the dishes and display mouth-watering pictures, colourful descriptions and even video, and we flick through the global offerings before tapping the screen to order.
The 20 dishes at Qsine are designed to be shared and Ozi delivers them, summarising each with worldly aplomb. The first to arrive is M's Favourites, a collection of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern delicacies. Like everything at Qsine, the dish comes with a flourish, this in the form of a three-tier, four-column open server, each containing something yummy. Ozi, who is a Turkish delight himself, points out the patlican salata, eggplant imam bayaldi, goat cheese cigars and za'atar crusted lamb chops as well as the anticipated olives, tabouleh, falafel, hummus and chicken kofta. This exotic opener is just the beginning.
We visit Mexico for the Taco Royale with its sirloin steak base and guacamole ceviche we make ourselves, drop by Japan for soy-centred Sushi Lollipops with soy wasabi mayo dipping sauces and a pickled ginger-radish salad and even try good ol' American mini-burgers with aged Wisconsin cheddar. By the time we reach India and its Taj Mahal of chicken tikka masala, rogan josh and palak paneer, our gastronomic passports are full and so are we. Bravely, we push on and try the make-your-own-topping cupcakes.
Qsine could well be the funnest and funkiest restaurant on the high seas. Uniquely Unordinary? Absolutely Unequivocally.
The next day – after the gym, which is full of the gluttonously guilty working off their own cupcake variants – we build up another appetite walking the walls of Dubrovnik's Old Town castle. But before dinner we sample the luxe libations of Molecular Bar, where Mixologist Loida recreates Celebrity's Master Mixologist, Junior "Liquid Chef" Merino's range of "hand-crafted" cocktails. There are as many slogans here as there are cocktails and Loida, in her "taste the art" blouse, tells us she is "practicing the philosophy of balance and harmony" and invites us to "drink with all our senses". She assembles a range of alcoholic installations with alacrity. Some she garnishes, others she sets on fire and, as the piece de resistance, she deftly decants liquid nitrogen into a Miami Breeze like an impish chemistry teacher. Smoke spills from the glass as she smiles and tells us Junior Merino's cocktails "bring science to the shaker".
Feeling a bit woolly from Merino's concoctions, we head to dinner at Murano, the ship's ultimate fine dining experience, which attracts a US$45 cover charge plus wine. Tuxedoed waiters guide us to an immaculate table of silverware, china, crystal and linen and the classic French cuisine begins with artichoke and black olive bread and an amuse bouche of zingy carrot soup avec coriander.
Head waiter Alejandro prepares an entree of lobster tails at our table while Vlad pours my bisque and tells me I can dilute it to taste with a dollop or two of cognac cream. Sommelier Gjorgji explains how the chablis from this particular part of northern Burgundy in infused with minerals laid down during the Palaeolithic era. Just as I thought.
The main courses arrive together and a grand reveal is staged as the silver domes are lifted at once. It's just another touch of class, en cloche en masse. Murano is a delight in every way, from the VIP welcome to the Grand Marnier souffle and artisanal cheeses with vintage port. They also offer a Five Senses Menu, a six course degustation paired with wine.
Murano is also the venue for Champagne High Tea, an elegant addition to any day at sea. The appetising savouries, pastries and scones are complemented by a glass of Perrier Jouet champagne and fresh strawberries and a duo of incomparable classical guitarists. And tea. The best place for a caffeine fix is Cafe al Bacio, also offering a dozen varieties of tea, ice teas, coffee cocktails and gelato. Mornings are very busy as non-Americans converge in search of real coffee.
At the stylishly decorated Cellarmasters we sample the improbable pairing of beer and chocolate. Milovan enlightens us as to why Belgian pale ale is best paired with the white chocolate covered strawberry and that Highland Dark Mocha Stout is immeasurably enhanced by dark chocolate balls. For best effect it's beer-chocolate–beer. Milovan discusses palate, acidity, peppers, barrels, smoothness, bouquet and balance. "Without chocolate," he tells us, "beer is just beer." Cellarmasters also do Champagne Savouring, Single Malt Tastings, Beer Education and Wine and Cheese Pairing.
Serious carnivores are catered for at The Lawn Club Grill, which offers entrees of flatbread pizzas followed by superb steaks, cutlets, chops, bratwurst and fillet mignon. If you like, you can grab an apron and tongs and cook your own. You can't do this at Tuscan Grill, another speciality restaurant, but you will get a superb steak nonetheless.
As a ship catering largely to Americans, it's no surprise to find the Martini Bar doing a roaring trade. The added flair this time is that the top of the bar is actually ice. Our group orders three Martini Flights – a tasting experience of six mini-martinis. That's 18 drinks in all and what happens next is perhaps the highlight of the cruise. We watch in awe as the bartender builds a 'skyscraper' row of 18 martini glasses, each perched at different levels atop other glasses and bottles. He then creates the martinis on ice in 18 separate shakers and places one into another until he has a tower of shakers. The crowd is hushed and cameras flash. He climbs onto the bar and to a growing roar of appreciation, pours the mixes slowly from his shaker snake. Each of the 18 glasses are filled in turn with nary a drop spilled and the crowd goes wild! Never has waiting 20 minutes for a drink been more rewarding.
In an endeavour to raise their "foodie" brand awareness, Celebrity Cruises was a major sponsor of Taste of Sydney last March, offering a Food Matching Master Class, and canapes and martinis on their 'Lawn Club on land' in Centennial Park. On the water, Celebrity has come up with innovative and fun ways to serve up superb cuisine and drinks. They even have a Top Chef (aka Masterchef) competition for passengers during the cruise. The surprise is not so much the quality, as Celebrity has always positioned itself as a purveyor of fine food, but the classy, cool and theatrical presentation.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO ENJOY AT SEA
(OTHER THAN FOOD AND DRINK)
The Shows A staple of cruising, the nightly live entertainment features a variety of acts including comedians, cabaret, dancing, revues, contortionists and acrobats.
The Spa Unwind between relaxing and chilling out with a health and/or beauty treatment at Canyon Ranch Spa. Don't miss the heated mosaic tile lounges.
The Porch Stretch out on a patch of the more than 2000 square metres of real lawn on the top deck. Cabanas on the grass can be reserved for US$149 on sea days and US$99 on shore days.
The Shopping On-board duty-free retail therapy includes top-end fragrances, jewellery, alcohol and fashion. Daily sales offer further discounts and the Celebrity iLounge is like an Apple Store at sea.
The Vibe Think tasteful art, a towering atrium, quiet nooks, sophisticated parties and entertainment, formal nights, adults-only pool and informative shore excursion lectures. Do not expect bellyflop or rubber chicken throwing competitions.
The writer travelled as a guest of Celebrity Cruises
Emirates Airlines fly to Venice via Dubai daily, emirates.com. Various transfers are available from Marco Polo Airport to the city. Taxi to city costs around 40 euros. Celebrity Solstice and Celebrity Century offer similar experiences and will visit Australia this coming cruise season.
Celebrity Cruises offers many itineraries. Fares vary based on ship, itinerary, duration and standard of stateroom. As a guide, fares for a nine-night Western Mediterranean cruise on board Celebrity Silhouette sailing round-trip from Rome and departing 24 September, 2015 start at $2,359 per person twin share for an inside Oceanview stateroom. Celebrity Silhouette mainly cruises the Mediterranean and Caribbean.