Had an EPIC time – NCL Eastern Caribbean November 2011 @CruiseNorwegian

We adventured on the largest ship in the NCL fleet in November (2011) as we sailed from Miami to St. Maarten, St. Thomas, and Nassau with a dear friend (and first time cruiser).  We have enjoyed the freestyle cruising style of NCL and this proved to be a great choice again.

The ports are not the main attraction of this vacation, in my mind, it’s really the opportunity to enjoy the ship and entertainment options it provides.  This ship is second to none in entertainment.  From feature acts Legends in Concert and Blue Man Group to the comedy of The Second City and improv music at Howl at the Moon – – there is rarely a dull moment.  For amazing blues and jazz, the Fat Cats Jazz & Blues Club takes me back to Bourbon Street in New Orleans.

Now, on to the food, the ‘main course’ of the post.  First, overall the dining was improved over our 2 previous NCL cruises, especially in the main dining rooms.  The specialty restaurants are generally very good, as one might expect, but we returned for 4 nights of dinner in the main dining rooms and enjoyed them thoroughly.

  • Cagney’s: This clubby steakhouse provides solid steaks (not prime, but a high-end choice to be sure), perfectly prepared and some solid salads and sides to go with it.  I’m a big surf-n-turf fan and for $8 more, I had a lobster tail with my steak.  Our waiter strongly recommended the truffle fries and they were good, but considering that we already had mushrooms and creamed spinach already, we basically picked at them.  For as good as the main course was, I think the best part was the apple crumb cobbler with vanilla ice cream.  The apples tasted fresh, the crumb topping was uber-crunchy and spiked with a bit of cinnamon and the ice cream was a perfect compliment.
  • La Cucina:  We had the beginnings of a fun and enjoyable meal in this cozy, very italian feeling restaurant in the front of the ship on deck 14.  We went on our first night which was a rough night at sea and didn’t make it past the appetizers as it was really uncomfortable to not see the horizon in a dark room.  The server was wonderful and sent our unfinished meals which didn’t yet arrive to our rooms for whenever we wanted to eat them.  Sadly, I wasn’t hungry the rest of the night.
  • Moderno Churrascaria:  This Brazillian steakhouse inspired restaurant is on the other side of Cagney’s just above the Manhattan room.  The theme is cool and offers a similar style of dining that you might find in a Brazillian Steakhouse here, but that’s where the similarities end.  The salad bar was pretty and provided a fair amount of variety, but nothing was really special on it.  Then, the meats started to arrive.  The Picanha (top-sirloin) and Filet were the two top steaks in my mind due to overall flavor and tenderness.  The sausages, ribs, lamb, and garlic steak were fair – – not bad, don’t get me wrong, but not representative of the quality this ship has to offer.  We had better food at the lunch buffet in the garden cafe at lunch.  For dessert, they were able to accommodate our request for the apple crumb cobbler from Cagney’s and we enjoyed that (maybe more) again.
  • At both of the main dining rooms: Manhattan Room and Taste, we were very satisfied.  The Manhattan Room is more formal and features a big band that plays through dinner – loved that!  Taste is more casual, with a sleek note to it and we had a wonderful server there who couldn’t have been any better.  Food in both is the same, so it’s the setting that you’re going for.  In my mind they are really firing on all cylinders in both of these venues, from the braised lamb shank which doesn’t even require a knife to the pork loin which comes out perfect and juicy, they have mastered the art of large format prep.  However, what really takes the “cake” is the dessert.  I can’t stop raving about how impressed I am at the souffle that comes out of these kitchens.  The precision, and often timing required to consistently turn out a souffle in a fine dining establishment is known, but in a giant production like this, it’s really incredible.  On the last night, I enjoyed their coconut souffle which was moist, light, airy, and had the palatable weave of coconut throughout, but not at all overpowering.  If you go, find out which night they are serving the souffle and make sure you have it (any of the restaurant managers can ask the chef for you).
  • The garden cafe or the buffet as most know it is not to be missed.  This isn’t due to the opportunity to completely gorge yourself in the gluttony of widely available, all-you-can-eat food, but really, due to the quality.  If you enjoy Indian food, don’t miss whatever they are serving in the Indian specialty section of the garden cafe as it’s well spiced and accurately prepared.  Another good find, especially at lunch or for a pre-dinner snack is their pizza which is on a slightly sweet homemade crust and has just the right proportion of cheese and sauce.  The second to last day, they had a flank steak with chimichurri that was as good as any I’ve had in a steakhouse (and it was lunch), as it was tender and had that garlicy / parsley flavor.

There’s no shortage of eating on the EPIC, but in my estimation, the quality is truly impressive and the best I’ve seen from NCL to date.

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Had a blast on the NCL Pearl in Alaska – some great food too! @NCLFreestyle

When this is the view from your dining table, the food just tastes better!

In all seriousness, the food on the NCL Pearl was consistently good and in some cases, truly outstanding.

We have experienced the Freestyle cruising in the past, so we went looking for some old favorites and new ones as well.  It was a fun journey indeed.

  • The old-school steakhouse on the ship, Cagney’s is where we had dinner the first night.  The service is outstanding there (it’s good everywhere, but this is worth noting) and the food is a step up.  My wife’s filet was perfectly prepared, seasoned and tasted wonderful.  I opted for the surf and sRaspberry Creme Brulee NCL Pearlurf, salmon and crab legs.  Both were great and the crab legs were cut in half so the meat came out with little effort.  The highlight here was dessert which was a raspberry creme brulee.  It had just a hint of the aforementioned fruit with a crispy sugar top.  It wasn’t too heavy either, if you can imagine that.
  • Another favorite is Lotus Garden, the asian fusion restaurant.  My wife generally doesn’t love chinese food (that was until a visit to Han Dynasty in Philadelphia), but we ate here twice.  I could eat sushi 4 nights a week and here it’s greatSushi Lotus Garden NCL Pearl as it’s a slight upcharge, but you can eat as much sushi as you want.  This was as good as most of the sushi I eat at home – it tasted as good as it looks.  For dessert, the pride of the ships, we had the banana pancake which was too large for my camera to capture.  It was a light, fluffy pancake chock-full of fresh bananas and topped with a maple glaze.  What else could you possibly want?  Of course, we told the waitress we’d have 1 for both of us and she brought us individual ones.
  • While I don’t have a picture to share, the Black Bean soup at Mambo’s, the pan-latin restaurant was unbelievable.  It was smoky, flavorful, a tad spicy, and even a hint of sweet all at the same time.  Maybe NCL will spare me the recipe, because going on a cruise just for that seems a bit expensive.
  • Many people also enjoy the main dining rooms and we did that too.  The Summer Palace is a grand room with a more formal atmosphere.  We ate there for lunch and dinner.  For lunch, it’s a little more relaxed (if you have time) than the Garden Cafe which is the buffet restaurant.  One day, I had a strip steak for lunch that was as flavorful and tender as I’ve had anywhere and was a reward for not getting in line for dinner.  On our last night, we had a remarkably wonderful meal in the Summer Palace.  My wife had a vegetable risotto which had tender, fresh vegetables and outstandingly prepared risotto.  I’m always impressed when restaurants can turn out well done risotto as it’s hard to keep at the right consistency, but for a ship to do it is truly amazing.  This was better than some risotto I’ve had at some un-named celebrity chef restaurants in the lower 48.  I Braised Lamb Shank NCL Pearlordered the braised lamb shank which was absolutely amazing.  The knife was useless and unnecessary except to spread butter on the roll.  It was served with a mashed butternut squash which could have come off my thanksgiving table and with the chill in Alaska, I appreciated it.  The final course, dessert was an equal feat as they served a coconut souffle, potCoconut Souffle NCL Pearlentially as challenging on a large scale as risotto prepared to perfection.  It had just a hint of coconut, so as not to be mistaken for a pina colada, and was fluffy and dense at the same time.  Kudos to the Chef on this meal – wonderful.

Awesome Local Rock Crab at Santa Barbara Shellfish Company @CA_SantaBarbara

At the end of the Santa Barbara pier is a seafood shack that is the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company.  This is the spot for great shellfish as I watched fresh crabs dropped into the giant tank as I ate my dinner.  Considering that I was there by myself and waited about 20mins to grab a seat at the half bar (with a great view of the ocean), this is clearly a local favorite.

The value is clear as well.  For $25, I enjoyed a 1.5lb local rock crab (which has some similarities to the stone crab in Florida) served with a cup of clam chowder and a salad.  The chowder was fork-thick with a savory herb blend which I washed down with a Kona lager.  The crab, easily the star of my dinner was so fresh and flavorful.  Chances are that it was in the water that morning.   It took me a good 30 minutes to systematically decimate the meat from each section of the crab sitting in front of me.  While this was served with clarified butter and cocktail sauce, neither was needed at any point.  The claw meat, which most prize was sweet, not to be outdone by the knuckles and the legs.  The clusters took some doing, but provided a very clean flavor with each bite.   I made a complete mess of myself as no bib was offered, but enjoyed it thoroughly.  If I make it back to SB anytime soon, this will most certainly require a repeat-visit.

NCL Mediterranean Cruise Itinerary Tips and Reviews @NCLFreestyle

As the summer approaches and many cruisers are planning their vacation, I wanted to summarize my posts from our NCL Jade cruise in June 2010. We did the Western Mediterranean Cruise and had a great time.  Here are some tips on the food (ship), and at some of the ports:

Wine Tasting Part 2: Sonoma County (Sebastopol to Healdsburg) @InsideSonoma, @sonomavintners

After some great wine in Napa, we headed up to Healdsburg for our maiden visit.  We stayed there at the H2 Hotel which we really enjoyed (read my review on tripadvisor).  Our visit yielded some wonderful Pinot Noir and some other great finds too.  Sonoma County has a very different personality than Napa both in its wine and overall feeling; I recommend doing both.

  • Dutton Goldfield:  This was our first stop and the tasting room is relatively new.  We started with a Chardonnay and as I expected, I wasn’t a fan which isn’t anything against DG, I just don’t really like Chard.  The Pinot here is what brings in the rave reviews and you can see why.  Also, Sarah in the tasting room was very helpful and provided some great vineyard and lunch suggestions as well.  We visited most of the spots she recommended which proved fruitful.
  • Merry Edwards:  They welcome you into the winery version of a board room to do the tastings here.  While they suggest reservations, we didn’t have one and they accommodated us completely.  Their website suggests that you’ll receive an abridged tasting without reservations, but I can’t imagine trying anything beyond what we had.  Either way, they are known for small production Pinot and offer many styles from relatively fruit forward to more dry and earthy.  It’s hard not to find one you like.  Their staff is friendly and is happy to answer your questions, but doesn’t shell out much information without inquisition.  Definitely worth a stop.
  • Marimar Estate:  This quaint estate has a small tasting room pouring a nice variety of Pinot.  Marimar Torres, the owner is from Spain where her family is also in the wine business.  She’s been surrounded by it all of her life which is evident in the finished product.  Their Pinot we enjoyed showed a wonderful balance throughout the palate.  Their tasting room is pleasant, but had a bit of a strong push towards their wine club.  Beyond that, it was a good spot.
  • Arista Winery:  Along a curvy road and up a hill, you’ll find Arista.  This picturesque spot has a cozy tasting bar with space for about 10.  The staff is welcoming, knowledgeable, and outgoing.  Their wines were very enjoyable across the board and provided a nice variety of options throughout their tasting menu.  Their small production allows them to keenly focus on their craft, yet still provide a reasonable price/value in comparison to other vineyards.  A must go.
  • Iron Horse:  There was significant rain leading up to our visit, so we had to enter Iron Horse through their back entrance.  This took us past their stables and down a single lane, unimproved road to a hilltop with a spectacular view.  Their tasting room is completely outside with some propane heaters (like you’ll find at restaurants & bars) for the colder months.  On our visit, it was pretty chilly and the single staffer struggled to keep up.  She provided little information beyond the name of the champagne and minimal tasting notes, adding little value to our visit.  Their claim to fame is that their bubbly was served during the Reagan-Gorbachev summit and hopefully it tasted different then.  I’ve had my share of bubbly and this wasn’t my favorite or terribly remarkable – it was the one stop we made where we didn’t buy anything.
  • Gary Farrell:  Go for the view and stay for the wine.  Gary Farrell produced a somewhat mass market Pinot that you may find at home, but the juice they pour (with a sensational view behind them) is unique to their tasting room.  From a light Sau Blanc to their Zin, each choice showed the personality of the winery.  Scott in the tasting room was great and also provided some solid restaurant recommendations in the Healdsburg area.  More on our dinner soon.
  • Bartholomew Park:  A visit to wine country isn’t complete for us without a visit to Bart Park.  We stopped here on our way to the airport the following day and bought 1 more bottle than we had spaces in our wine packer for.  We found Bart Park originally on a recommendation from another winery who told us that “Bartholomew Park has the best Zin in the valley”.  We couldn’t agree more which is why we stop by to try each Zin vintage.  Their staff is great and each visit is always educational.  Beyond Zin, their Cab, Syrah, and Merlot are also wonderful.

Wine Tasting Part 1: The Napa Valley @NapaVintners, @LegendaryNapa

As we left San Francisco behind, our focus for day 1 of our wine tasting was squarely on the Napa Valley on our way up to Healdsburg.  We “worked” our way north and enjoyed some familiar and new spots along the way.  We planned an ambitious day of visits and have the following tips if you’re planning the same (and are driving yourself):

1)  Bring lots of water and snacks in the car
2)  Share your tastings!  The vineyards pour many different wines at a tasting and you have lots to try, so if you’re with significant other, definitely share.
3)  Don’t be afraid to pour out the wine in the glass.  That’s what the containers on the bar are for and no one is offended when you do it.
4)  Have fun and remember, no one can tell you that you have to ‘like a wine’, it’s your opinion.

Now, on to the spots we visited and my thoughts on each:

  • Sawyer Cellars: This is usually our first stop on our trip through Napa.  They are open at 10, which makes it easy and the people are so friendly.  Their wines are held in oak for a little longer than most, so the vintages are a bit older than others in the valley.  When we were there, they were pouring their 2006 vintage.  They will take the time with new visitors to explain the history of the valley as well.  Their wines are always wonderful.
  • Alpha Omega:  While it sounds like a fraternity, it’s really a warm space serving outstanding, big, reds.  They had some chardonnay as well, but I’m not a big fan of chard, so I generally skip it.  This was a new spot for us this year and the wine didn’t disappoint.  Their tasting room is a warm space, but our server, while pleasant wasn’t very chatty.  I like to get a feel for the winery in addition to the actual wine and I missed out on this one.  The wine does stand on its own quite well, however.
  • Rutherford Grove:  We found Rutherford Grove on our last visit to the Napa Valley and it’s a great spot.  This family owned winery produces ~8,000 cases a year which is small for sure (and another reason we like it there).  The tasting room is hit or miss, but the wine is solid for sure (and reasonable).  We still have a Merlot from our last visit.
  • Plumpjack:  This is on the Oakville cross road and they produce wine under both the Plumpjack and their new Cade labels.  This is a real Napa spot with big wines (and crowds) and strong performers.  Cade is a new label for them and we really enjoyed the 2007 Cade Cuvee.  The tasting room is cool and the two servers did their best to keep up with the heavy demand.  We didn’t hear much about their vineyards or the story behind their wines, but the wine itself was quite enjoyable.
  • Honig:  This was far and away the best find of our trip.  While they generally require appointments for the tasting room, they were able to accommodate us as a ‘walk-in’.  Their tasting room is like being in a neighbor’s kitchen as their team deftly takes you through their history and wines.  Within minutes, we felt like we were socializing with friends and enjoying their home.  Most know Honig for their Sau Blanc which they produce in earnest, but their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon is incredible if you can find it outside of their winery.  We will definitely add Honig to our ‘must-visit’ list for our next time in the valley.
  • Whitehall Lane:  We always stop here, but usually later in the day and it seems like happy hour.  On this occasion, were there in the morning and it was more relaxed and chill.  Our server was great – he really knew about the grapes and their vineyards and was able to compare past vintages for us.  We even tasted something that we bought on our last visit that’s sitting at home in our wine frig (always a fun thing to do).  This is quintessential Napa Valley to us and will be a constant on future trips.
  • Hall Wines:  Beyond the great wines, there was a couple there at the same time as us that had an adorable dog with them.  My wife took a special liking to him for sure.  Their tasting room offers the ability to taste wines which are only available there which is the road we prefer.  This place was hopping, but they shared the love well.  If you’re a fan of port, try their Cab Sauv Portfolio – really good stuff.
  • Trinchero: Yep, they’re owned by the Sutter Home conglomerate, but this is their high-end label and they produce single vineyard wines at vineyard blended prices.  Their tasting room is generally very chill and rarely very busy which suits me just fine.  We’ve had great luck there and have picked something up on each visit.
  • Lava Vine:  Truly small production, hand-crafted wines served by Joe, the owner and winemaker.  He’s a character, so bring your wit, but also really gets the wine and the whole experience.  The room is small and he keeps up with everyone well.  In the meantime, enjoy the bread and cheese on the bar with your reds and the chocolate with the port.  His prices are very reasonable for the production and quality.

Tartine Bakery San Fran – Great pastries if you have patience… @onlyinsf

For 5 days around the xmas holiday, my wife and I were in San Francisco with the family eating and drinking our way through the city.  Our hub was split between our hotel on Nob Hill and my sister-in-law’s house in Noe Valley.  It’s fitting that our initial food visit was to the well-reviewed and Tartine Bakery (600 Guerrero St) to pick up some breakfast pastries.  Tartine is an interesting study – they produce wonderful pastries (more on that shortly), but they don’t seem to be focused on efficiency or customer service.  The line stretches down the block (see pic) and I have a feeling that it is almost purposeful to create the aura of something worth waiting for akin to the red velvet rope before getting into a high-end club or bar.  Once we ‘arrived’, the aroma took us over and helped us ignore the waif-like, aloof service.  We were sent to Tartine for multiple items, but told of the wonderful morning buns.  Skipping past everything else and right to the enjoyment, these ‘buns’ are like nothing you’ve had before in a bun-format in the morning.  The hint of orange, chewy, but crunchy pastry and sweet enough dough was perfect, and I mean it.  On a side note, the ham and cheese croissant was heavenly as was the gougere.  These bakers know what they’re doing in the pastry and dough business, but could use some assistance in the customer operations end of things.  They’re certainly in the right place for this business to thrive.

La Griglietta – Amazing Italian Food…in Rome of Course!

Claudio, our tour guide from Drivers Guide Service (who was wonderful by the way) suggested La Griglietta (Via Germanico, 170 00192 Roma, Italia) which has been in operation for the last 41 years by 2 brothers who run it with pride and love which is evident in the food.  If you’re in Rome anytime, you should stop by and spend as much time as you have enjoying these home made specialites. 

Let me start by saying that I do not generally eat artichockes or like them for that matter, but that all changed in Roma.  They started with a fire roasted jerusalem artichocke which cooked for so long that the outer rings resembled baked potato chips and had the earthy flavor of the soil likely not far from our lunch.

The restaurant was relatively small and when we sat down, the waiter broke off some bread from the drawer in the cabinet to the left here.  He brought us an eggplant crepe – meets pressed lasagne.  I don’t know really what it was beyond perfect, and too small (I could have eaten more).  He also brought peas and pancetta and a variety of croquettes stuffed with fresh mozzerella and other fresh fillings.  Luckily, they left enough space for the feature dish: pasta.  They really know what they’re doing on this front as they brought out homemade gnocchi and spinach ravioli in a pasta that tastes like it was just made when we ordered as it had the consistency that only a fresh noodle can.  The sauce was equally good on the pasta and on every piece of fresh bread I could find to absorb it off the plate.  I don’t think licking a plate in Italy is any more cooth than it is here, but the thought did cross my mind.  If you’re in Rome, make sure you visit La Griglietta and give yourself the afternoon or evening to walk it off.

Review of NCL Jade Dining…From Steak to Souffle

On our recent journey through the Mediterranean, we sampled all but three of the dining options on board which is to say a lot as there are 12 separate restaurant choices.  The NCL Jade and their fleet for that matter offers Freestyle Cruising which means that you can eat when you want and with who you want – just make a reservation at the eatery of your choice and you’re set.  You don’t have to eat with a bunch of strangers unless that’s your thing…

Overall, everything was well prepared, which is impressive in itself considering the volume of people served on a daily basis.  The only critique overall is that some of the food was under-seasoned.  Here are my favorites and opinions on each:

  • Grand Pacific Main Dining Room:  The Jerk Chicken was moist, flavorful and well prepared.  The Vanilla Souffle was perfect AND you didn’t have to wait for 40 minutes to enjoy it.
  • Alizar Main Dining Room: The Monkfish (poor man’s lobster) was cooked to perfection and had the meaty texture you want without the fishy taste.  A definite winner.
  • Cagney’s Steakhouse: The Wedge Salad – could have been at (insert steak chain name) steakhouse anywhere in the states: lots of blue cheese and bacon.  Filet was well prepared, but the creamed spinach and gratin potatoes stole the show for me.  Also, spend the additional 10 beans and get the full plate of king crab legs – that’s surf and turf!
  • Le Bistro: This is really fine dining on the NCL Jade.  The service is better here than anywhere else on the ship and food timing is right on the money.  The cream of four mushroom soup is right there with some of the best I’ve had.  The scallop appetizer was fresh and well prepared, but could have been a little larger (tasted great though).  Both entrees were outstanding: the duo of duck (confit and duck breast) and Rosemary roasted pork tenderloin, but dessert as always in French restaurants stole the show: the vanilla creme brulee was HUGE and also rich in vanilla flavor with the warm, crispy, crusted sugar top.
  • Paniolo Tapas & Salsa Restaurant:  Ok, so no on Tapas here, but yes on Mexican/Tex-Mex.  They really served bold flavors from the punchy black bean soup to well executed Fajitas.  Their signature dish, Lobster Tacos are good, but a little too creamy for my taste.  Overall worthwhile indeed.
  • Garden Cafe: This is the main breakfast and lunch place.  For breakfast, we didn’t stray much and enjoyed well prepared eggs and oatmeal.  Lunch was either a juicy hamburger at the pool or roasted tandoori chicken in the cafe.  The garden cafe really came to life for the chocolate buffet on the 2nd to last night of the cruise.  Cupcakes to dipped champagne glasses (with champagne of course) fit the bill here.

Cruise Ship Error in Our Favor – Krug 1995 Brut at a Bargain Price

On our first day of our cruise just 3 weeks ago, we elected to do the wine program on the ship (NCL Jade) which allows you to choose 6 (or more) bottles of wine at a 20% discount.  These wines can be served for room service or at any restaurant/bar on the ship.  We decided to splurge and opted for the Krug Champagne on the menu.  It wasn’t cheap and let’s leave it at that.  So, on the 5th night of the cruise, we had dinner in Le Bistro, the french restaurant on the ship (future post coming on that) and thought the Krug would be a perfect choice to accompany this cuisine.  We expected to receive a NV Krug which would have been a fine bottle I’m sure.  However, when the 1995 vintage arrived and list price on it is more than we paid, I was pretty psyched!  Let’s just say that our price was less than the shelf price and at least half the cost it would have been in a restaurant.  Once I got over that shock and actually tasted it, I didn’t know what do think.  It tasted different than I expected, but was quite enjoyable.  A reviewer from Wine Spectator who gave it a whopping 98 points described it as having a “multi-grain bread” taste and I completely agree.  It sounds odd, but it’s really true.  I’m looking forward to more splurges like this indeed!