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BLOG: Specialty Restaurants Mature, Evolve With Sophistication

David Yeskel, who has covered the cruise industry for over 25 years - often writing with a focus on F&B topics - shares his experiences from several recent sailings in a series of stories for Seatrade Cruise.

Specialty restaurants in the cruise industry’s contemporary and premium segments have proven to be a win-win proposition for all involved by offering curious guests myriad dining options while boosting revenue via upcharges.  On upper-premium and luxury lines, however, the calculus is significantly different:  to offer demanding clientele authentic, ethnic cuisine to stimulate their palates and keep them loyal to the brand.  In all industry segments, however, the overarching trend is clear:  as specialty restaurants evolve, an increasing level of sophistication is driving menu diversity and quality.

Shaking Up the Steakhouse Menu on HAL

In the universe of the industry’s specialty restaurant segment - especially on mass-market and premium brands - steakhouses occupy the most real estate due to their popularity.  But the unfortunate reality is that most cruise line steakhouse menus are extremely similar, relatively static and mostly mundane, hence this routine:  lobster bisque, steak, creamed spinach and creme brulee.  Rinse and repeat.

But Holland America Line broke out of the same-old, same-old rut with the introduction of innovative dishes crafted by their noted chef partners at Pinnacle Grill.  David Burke’s Clothesline Candied Bacon starter is a creatively presented, guilty pleasure that we could enjoy even for dessert, perfectly followed - or preceded - by his standout Beef Tenderloin with luscious Lobster Dumplings.  And New York-based artisan chocolatier Jacques Torres’ chocolate souffle takes the classic dessert to another level in a decadently-rich rendition that has the proper texture and intense flavor.

Pinnacle Grill Candied Bacon Clothesline

Windstar Says “Hola” to Cuadro 44

Windstar Cruises’ $250-million, pandemic-era initiative to stretch the line’s three motor yachts yielded the intangible benefit of moving the boutique line’s onboard product closer to the industry’s luxury sector than ever before, while maintaining a starting price point typically below that competitive set.  And of the two new restaurants added as a result of that enhancement process, Cuadro 44 is certainly the most impressive.  With a menu developed in partnership with Michelin-starred chef Anthony Sasso, Cuadro 44 features a sophisticated, eclectic and bold array of Spanish favorites that is ambitious in its scope and impressive in its execution.  Particular highlights are the Pulpo Gallego (charred octopus), iconic Iberico ham and Catalunya lamb chops.  But Sasso also saves what is possibly his best for last, with warm churros dipped into a lusciously-complex, salted hot chocolate sauce as the perfect finishing touch.

Pulpo Gallega Octopus Cuadro

A Lab Lesson at Test Kitchen by Virgin

Dovetailing perfectly with the line’s counterculture ethos, Virgin Voyages’ Test Kitchen unabashedly pushes the envelope of specialty dining with innovative gastronomic wizardry delivered amid a stunning, laboratory-inspired setting (think bright lights, lots of chrome, muted colors).  Inspired by Escoffier’s Ma Cuisine, the six-course, fixed menus feature dishes presented solely as ingredient lists, but the results often achieve fascinating flavor profiles and ingenious presentation - with a bit of whimsy thrown in.  There’s the corn course, which appears to be a half-ear of corn, but is actually a delicious pate ready to spread.  Then there’s the shrimp pasta, in which the noodles are made from - you guessed it, shrimp.  And the palate cleanser, a la the asparagus course, arrives as a scoop of surprisingly-tasty asparagus sorbet atop a champagne sabayon.  In essence, Test Kitchen is an incredibly bold and creative way to approach cuisine using molecular gastronomy and other techniques, but the end product is definitely not for the meat-and-potatoes crowd.  

Test kitchen Interior

Princess Lands The Catch by Rudi

Chef Rudi Sodamin has had a long, distinguished career in the cruise industry with several impressive notches under his belt, including turning Holland America Line’s culinary program into a best-in-class product.  But his latest endeavor - The Catch by Rudi - as Head of Culinary Arts at Princess, is a culmination of his many successes over the years and possibly his greatest creation yet.  Operating on Enchanted, Majestic, Discovery and Sky Princess and coming soon as a pop-up on the new Sun Princess, The Catch brings to bear the complete universe of Sodamin’s skill set with cooking, presentation, tableware and artistic flair in a unique combination unmatched in the industry.  With the distinct advantage of dining twice at the venue on a recent Enchanted Princess sailing, I was able to sample - and appreciate - a broad cross-section of dishes from the expansive menu.  And while Sodamin’s Lump Crabcake with Caramelized Mustard Hollandaise is a flavor sensation, the Tuna Salad Nicoise and The Iced Catch are truly works of art - on every level.     

Tuna Salad Nicoise The Iced Catch by Rudi's