I thought I would combine my food (and culinary) experiences on my Crystal Symphony cruise. To my mind juxtaposing the quest of those simply needing a nutritious meal against my rather critical discussion of the cuisine onboard the Crystal Symphony makes one (that would be me!) appreciate that sometimes culinary criticisms are really unimportant in the overall scheme of things.
During my cruise on the Crystal Symphony I am taking advantage of Crystal’s Voluntourism opportunities by volunteering (and be educated at) three different food banks: San Francisco, Astoria, Oregon and Victoria, British Columbia (which was, unfortunately, canceled at the last minute due to a lack of food bank staffing). I am a longtime supporter of charities that offer aid to those who cannot afford to properly feed themselves and, so much related thereto, victims of domestic violence.
I truly wish more cruise lines would offer these programs. While the actual work performed probably is of limited value, being made aware of the problems and needs associated with the various ports ships visit can truly provide guests with both personal enrichment and, from a travel perspective, a bit of a different connection with a truly local experience.
My morning at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank was spent, after a quick tour, moving 100 pound bags of rice while the other Crystal guests repackaged them into one pound bags.
My Astoria, Oregon experience was far more personal and enriching. The COO (sounds much fancier and distant than this small operation’s driving force actually is) Dusten Martin spoke from his heart and with enthusiasm about the program, the people that are served, how they do what they do and their vision. Astoria is small town with a large county-wide problem: Too many people unable to obtain proper nutrition. And then it was back to opening bags of beans and rice so that our group could repackage them into smaller ones.
One thing I notice as I wandered the warehouse is that a number of not very nutritious items were donated including candy, cookies and highly sugared cake mixes. I asked what they did with them as teaching the undernourished how to eat healthily is critical. I was surprised that Oregon has a more laissez-faire approach to feeding those in need: Each individual can pick and choose what they want. I’m not sure I agree with that.
An interesting aside, and a great example of how engaging in charity work can truly provide some local travel engagement, the Astoria food bank provides ground bear meat as a protein. When a nuisance bear (aggressive or too much human contact) is killed, it is required to be butchered and given to food banks. It is considered a good way to get protein to those in need. I cannot imagine the protests if bear meat was offered in San Francisco. Personally, I am a bit conflicted as I live among the bears and feel humans have encroached upon their environment so why do they have to pay the price…but some interactions in the world that exists just are unsafe for both bear and human.
And now: Back to the Crystal Symphony and her food!
On my second night on the Crystal Symphony, I dined at Umi Uma, the Nobu Japanese cuisine restaurant. I was excited to return to what was my favorite culinary experience on a Crystal cruise. Nobu is a world-famous Japanese chef known for his modern twists on traditional Japanese cuisine. I have been fortunate to dine in a few Nobu restaurants, most recently as a few months ago with my son and a dear friend. While I have no expectation of Nobu being the same at sea, my having also experienced Nobu on Crystal a few times, I do have my expectations.
Unfortunately, while I did enjoy my meal overall, both the service and the cuisine lacked the flair I previously had experienced and seemed to have no relation to Nobu beyond the name burned into each chopstick. (Right up front before I start getting hate mail: I heard others voluntarily relate similar feelings after their dining there as well.)
|Umi Uma cold sake presentation|
Service seemed very rushed and impersonal, but the restaurant was actually not crowded and most people I observed were already well into their meals. I was offered merely hot or cold saki or wine, but never offered any cold saki options. And with saki there are so many different flavors I found this “Americanization” of a Nobu dining experience a bit off-putting.
I did enjoy the monkfish liver pate, though its presentation was rather ordinary. I also wondered what the deal was with a cored-out cucumber and sliced cherry tomato as garnish; thinking this is not exactly “East meets West” cuisine.
The sushi and sashimi that was offered were very ordinary, so I figured I would try the “new” sushi (as Crystal calls it), which is really lightly cooked fish and beef. I was anticipating something like quickly seared scallop and flamed wagu (such as I had in Kyoto, Japan). I was served fish and meat that was bland and smothered in oil and sesame. A tragedy for scallops and Wagu beef. (Not shown in the photo is the same cored cucumber and sliced cherry tomato garnish. Why do that?)
Clearly what was presented was not sushi (sashimi) at all, but something concocted to appeal to those who do not like or will not try raw fish. But why call it sushi?
I did enjoy my Black Cod, but found it to be slightly overcooked…though I know many are concerned with allegedly undercooked fish, so I guess I am being a bit nit-picky. But I do love a good black cod!
I also tried the Udon Noodles which were fine, looked great, but the broth was unexceptional.
After this, my server, when I saw her, was really pushing tempura…not exactly a Nobu favorite. I succumbed and did try the lobster tempura. For tempura it was quite good.
I wanted to find Nobu, but sadly that didn’t happen. My meal wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t the exceptional I had previously enjoyed in the restaurant and, when I had one, in my Penthouse (something not available to those in a stateroom).
But still wanting to find Nobu, I returned another evening to sit at the Sushi Bar; a second visit (assuming you also dine at Prego – see below for a much better experience) costs $30 per person. Suffice it to say, I was again not impressed by either the service or the cuisine…and I went there looking to find ways to elevate my experience!
This time I asked if there were any premium saki, as last time it was not offered. I was told there was one, but it has to be purchased by volume so he would bring me the wine list. And there it was: One premium saki with no description of its characteristics, but a hefty price tag. So I asked it the sommelier to could tell me about it and was told, “I don’t really know.” So I just ordered the included cold saki and left it at that.
I then spoke with one of the sushi chefs and requests a few sashimi items. I received instead a platter with my requests and some other items…including some farmed salmon, which I never will eat. The two tiny slices of octopus were dry and flavorless, most all were at best OK, though the scallops were delicious. The ubiquitous cucumbers were also present.
I ordered the Tuna Tataki and it was acceptable, but as you can see from the photo below, the tuna was not exactly top quality and was drying out.
And then food I didn’t order started to appear, as if this is “just what is done”. Some sort of King Crab dish that wasn’t very good (it has a warm mayonnaise-type dressing) …
followed by the Lobster Tempura and then the “new” sushi (cooked) that I didn’t like the first time…and it was even less well received this time because I was sitting at the Sushi Bar, wanted sushi and sashimi, I didn’t order it, and I already knew I didn’t want it because it isn’t very good.
I then order white fish, though what sort was never said, but it was – fortunately – excellent.
Feeling obligated to try a sushi roll, I ordered the Soft Shell Crab roll. It was, again, acceptable, but most certainly of lower quality than I had previously experienced on my prior Crystal cruises.
The chef then presented me with lobster tacos that I didn’t order. While the filling was quite good, the shells were too thick and overcooked in underheated oil, or so they tasted.
In the end, my impression is that the Umi Uma version of Crystal’s Nobu is a reflection of clear cutbacks in quality and an expanded Westernized menu trying to appease the palates of those who ultimately do not like or are not attracted to Japanese cuisine. As for the uninspired service, I am baffled because almost everywhere else on the Crystal Symphony the service is excellent.
So with my formerly favorite restaurant disappointing, I also tried Prego, which in the past was disappointing. This time Prego and my charming and very efficient server, truly made for a wonderful dining experience! (Of course, having some humpback whales spouting and diving next to me didn’t hurt the atmosphere!)
The sommelier promptly came over to my table and had a discussion with me about my wine options for the evening. Having decided on a Banfi Italian chardonnay to pair with my beautifully presented Lobster and Octopus Carpaccio that was presented with just the right amount of oil (though a lot of capers!) I settled in for an evening of “enjoyable dining” rather than “eating”.
A Caprese salad followed though I knew that having rich, red, ripe tomatoes on a cruise ship is near impossible. The bufala mozzarella was light and rich paired nicely with some extra very good olive oil and aged balsamic. A refreshing interlude to be sure.
I had the Prego classic cream of mushroom soup in a bread bowl at the suggestion of my server. She asked me if I had had it before (I had) and if I thought it was too thin now. I actually liked it a bit thinner and said that when eaten with a bit of the bread bowl scraped with one’s spoon it was actually better. Talking about cuisine and discussing different perspectives…even on little things…is enjoyable.
I followed this with the seafood pasta with fettucini rather than spaghetti (not a problem for Crystal) with a light red sauce. This brought the sommelier over and after deciding I didn’t want to purchase a bottle of Barolo, I settled on a decent complimentary Chianti Classico Reserva. The pasta was fresh and perfectly cooked with just enough seafood (clams, mussels and shrimp).
But I also asked for a small side of the lasagna because it is another Prego classic. I have tried it twice before and, while good, it ain’t no stinkin’ lasagna I have had in Italy or the New York area. It was very well prepared and, to me, something other than lasagna but might be worth ordering if you are not expecting mama’s lasagna.
For me, with two included alternative dining evenings, I would wholeheartedly recommend Prego for both nights.
Silk is the reservation suggested, but not required, no charge casual Chinese-ish restaurant that was installed during the Crystal Symphony’s latest refurbishment. As I noted in my prior article I tried it for lunch and was left uninspired, so I thought I would give it a try for lunch and dinner. Lunch was exactly the same, so now onto dinner.
When the space is empty is it quite attractive with its semi-open kitchen and beautiful living walls of plants. However, when Silk is full, it sounds and feels more like a cafeteria…especially on this cruise as there are many children onboard. Possibly with the magradome open or dining later in the evening the ambiance would be better.
Anyway, to make sure I gave it a fair shot, I ordered a lot of food. Things started out well with a crisp Duck Salad…with the duck hidden below a pile of greens. The duck was perfectly prepared and the salad was delicious and had interesting ingredients.
This was followed by your “standard” starters of dumplings, potstickers and a fried shrimp ball. I found all of them to be quite bland and uninspired.
Next up was Hot and Sour Soup. Now, having just been in China and having the best of the best at a Michelin star restaurant, it isn’t fair to judge Crystal’s soup against it. For an American-style hot and sour soup it was good, but needed a bit more “hot”…but I am certain it, like most else on cruise ships, has been toned down to appease most guests.
I then ordered the King Crab with vermicelli. I can explain it in one word: Don’t! What a mushy and flavorless mess. It would have been better if the waiter left it in the pot as presented (the first photo) rather than stirring it all up into the aforesaid mess (the second photo below).
The shrimp fried rice was also a bit mushy, but did have good flavor.
I finished off my main meal trying the signature beef dish and it was pretty good, but not memorable.
For dessert, I had the Tapioca with Lychee and Green Tea Ice Cream, which was very good.
Overall, Silk is nice for a change, but I would not call it a destination dining experience.
I wrote about this casual, no reservation, fun dining experience located aft in the breakfast/lunch Lido, which is renamed Marketplace, in my last article. It is a delightful, if a bit noisy and cramped, dining experience that is great for a casual evening and a deep desire for meat…lots of meat.
It is a fun night; especially if you take advantage of the excellently prepared caipirinhas!
I don’t have much to say about the Marketplace. To me, it is a remnant of “old school” cruise line buffets, though the diversity of choices for both breakfast and lunch are quite good. The morning omelet and lunch pasta station are quite popular. I have enjoyed my lunchtime pasta, but was disappointed when my excellent seafood spaghetti could not be kicked up a notch with crushed red peppers. The woman next to me said, “So close!” and I agreed. Still very good nonetheless.
I do have an issue with the frenetic nature of the area because the buffet is literally next to the seating area pretty much everywhere but at the entrance. I was lucky enough to have one warm enough morning to enjoy an al fresco breakfast at one of the few outside dining tables. I would think in warmer climates this area would be highly valued!
The Trident Grill has, to my mind, improved because the load that this small venue that to take on has been reduced with the introduction of Silk. It is akin the Patio Grill on most other cruise lines, offering hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza and the like.
It is also the venue I chose for my usual Hamburger and Hot Dog Test.
As in the past, Crystal’s presentation is great. I love the basket of French fries. The burger is thick, juicy and prepared to the proper temperature with crisp and properly proportioned garnish. However, the hot dog was a disappointment. It tasted like a cheap Ballpark frank and was about 30% of the size of the bun, creating a bit of a logistical nightmare to boot. And, while the fries were nicely presented, one can readily see in the photo that they were undercooked. What you can’t see is they also were not hot.
Believe it or not, after spending six nights onboard I had no urge to dine in the main restaurant. The menus just haven’t grabbed me thus far. Of course, the demographic of Crystal is not one which lends itself to more avant-garde cuisine, as there is a definite older passenger skewing with more canes, walkers, wheelchairs and motorized scooters than I have seen on any other line. So with so many alternative dining venues, I cannot fault Crystal for its main restaurant menus.
It is interesting to hear many Crystal Society members comment on how much they enjoyed fixed dining and how it is hard for them to like open-seating as much. They loved their table, getting to know their waiter and having their regular dining and beverage desires instantly appear without asking. But with that, there is a noted acceptance that times have changed and so much they. (I also noticed some tables were actually reserved.)
I decided that I would try Waterside at 7:50 PM, right after the early show’s start so that there would be no excuses of rushing around to get everyone fed so they could get to the show on time. Well, there was no excuse for rushing me, but no matter how I tried to slow my waiter down he pushed me out of the restaurant as fast as he could. I ordered more bread. I told him I was in no rush. I even took my phone out and started to read a book; signaling yet again I was in no rush. And, in the end, my meal was over in a blazing fast (and very uncomfortable) 45 minutes for a starter and two mains (I wanted to try two instead of say a soup or salad course) served one after the other.
The sommelier was good enough, I guess. I did not want the evening’s white wine so I asked for a Sancerre and he said he had a nice Chablis. He brought over the wine, did not present it, and poured away. No presentation of the wine. No description. Nothing. Just like my waiter: Technically efficient, but contrary to providing a dining experience.
Now the good news: The cuisine was excellent! I tried the Octopus Salad intentionally, as I was very disappointed in the octopus at Umi Uma and enjoyed it at Prego. It was extremely well prepared and tasty.
I then tried the Dover Sole. Again, perfectly prepared and deboned artfully tableside. The garnish (small potatoes and spinach presented as if scooped with an ice cream scoop) was lacking.
The highlight of my meal, however, was the Venison. It was beautifully presented and perfectly cooked (rare). It was so tender I was able to cut it with just my fork. I also switched wines to the offered Red blend…with props to my waiter for asking before I could make my request.
I looked around the dining room with many empty tables I just could not find an explanation as to why the service was so impersonal and rushed. I did not see, but one exception, any social waiter-guest interaction.
As I have often said, “If you have just acceptable cuisine with a great waiter, you will have a wonderful evening. If you have great cuisine with a lousy waiter, your evening will be a disappointment.” My evening was somewhere in between. The cuisine was spot on, and the waiter was efficient and inoffensive, but my dining experience was just too impersonal and rushed.
The Bistro is the coffee and lighter fare venue on the Crystal Symphony. If you want an espresso, latte, etc., a pastry or a light breakfast or lunch, this is the place to go. As I am not a big breakfast eater and the more frenetic atmosphere of the Marketplace (buffet) I have found grabbing an Americano along with a “bagel”, lox and cream cheese here is a quieter way to start my day. A later afternoon coffee without the temptation of Crystal’s Afternoon Tea.
The coffee is freshly ground and pretty good. Like much on Crystal: Good quality, but not pushing any limits; so it is not terribly flavorful. Best coffee on the ship by far!
Other than the never changing offerings (they do change them appropriate options throughout the day, but the same things every day) one thing that is in need of changing is the furniture. While it may be designed to look like an old French (Italian?) bistro, the furnishings remind me of a wornout 1960’s den.
I think this represents my overall dining experiences so far on the Crystal Symphony: Some things are really good to excellent and others make you shake your head. But one needs to take the latter in perspective. I expect more from Crystal than most any other cruise line. It has been THAT GOOD in the past, so I expect it to be THAT GOOD now.
I have to admit that I am holding Crystal Cruises to a high standard. I know Crystal. I have enjoyed my prior sailings on Crystal. I have endorsed Crystal. So my expectations and requirements are higher. So if you think some of my comments are too harsh, I believe that if I do not say them or in some way treat Crystal less judgmentally than I do, say Viking or Regent Seven Seas, then I am not doing my job.
That said, if you read closely and not too emotionally, you will see that Crystal has some great dining options and interesting venues. With just a bit more polish and/or upgrade in food quality, Crystal could easily be a 10 out of 10.
And let’s keep in mind I am talking about the best of the best…and always remember those that do not have enough to eat. Perspective is always important!
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