Journalist Rochelle Almeida sailed a seven-night Gems of the Baltic cruise on Eurodam and wrote about her culinary adventures. Come along on her tasty journey throughout the shipboard dining venues.
Our days began with humongous breakfasts served in the spacious Lido dining room on the ninth floor that offered enticing views of each port of call as we feasted on custom-prepared omelettes, waffles or French toast with maple syrup, cold buffets of smoked fish and herrings, cold pressed meats and sausages, bagels with flavoured cream cheese, every conceivable kind of baked pastry from croissants and brioches to muffins and scones. And for those keen on a post-sightseeing meal, there were High Teas served each evening with the traditional three courses of the British table: scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam, finger sandwiches with a wide array of fillings and tiny creamy pastries that tided one quite effectively until dinner.
Since Holland is still conscious of its colonial Indonesian history, one evening saw us enjoying an Indonesian High Tea with the tongue-tingling temptations of the Dutch East Indies brought tantalisingly to our tables even as we sipped teas fragrant with local essences such as cinnamon pieces, cardamom pods, ginger root, ginseng, passion fruit and jasmine. The coffees were equally intriguing with hints of nutty, chocolatey aromas and spicy, robust overtones.
Clever planning and scheduling saw us experiment with foods that reflected the freshness, colour and flavour of our myriad Baltic Sea ports. Smoked salmon, for instance, was on the menu at every breakfast buffet – a tribute to the competence with which fish is smoked with only the subtlest of herbs and spices (dill, pepper) in that Scandinavian curve of the globe. On the two nights we spent in Russia, there was borsht (sweet-sour beetroot soup), crispy Chicken Kiev and creamy Beef Stroganoff. Smorgasbord featuring the tapas-like finger food temptations of Scandinavia’s tables were in evidence in Stockholm and Finland and because it happened to be the Fourth of July when we arrived in St. Petersburg, America’s birthday was celebrated in Russia with cake – a red, white and blue flag-shaped one, naturally – plus barbecued spare ribs and grilled salmon. And for those with more pedestrian pleasures, well, yes, there were hamburgers and hot dogs sizzling on the grill! When we docked in Berlin, we were treated to a full-scale Oktoberfest on board with every conceivable kind of wurst (sausage) on the menu – sitting cheek by jowl with tangy sauerkraut, spicy mustard and peppery coleslaw. Ditto in Hamburg where German heartiness of food and flavour accompanied us as we cruised out of Kiel Canal.
It was not long before we wizened up to the quality of culinary offerings on board the Eurodam, the ship that would take us to exotic Scandinavian and former Soviet Union destinations over the next week – at each port of call providing us with the sort of gastronomic concoctions of which only the world’s most talented chefs are capable. Indeed, we realised that although we returned ravenous from our fascinating sightseeing forays in exotic locales such as Tallinn and the enchanting islands of the Swedish Archipelago, we would be wise to merely nibble at the deck-side temptations in order to save our appetites for the seductions of renowned master chefs who had planned our menus with the precision of engineers.
Dinner at Copenhagen, for instance, that first night, in the commodious Rembrandt Restaurant (so–called because life-size reproductions of the Dutch master’s works decorate the landing on every floor of the ship) featured the creations of Master Chef Rudi Sodamin who has been decorated with awards more numerous that can be counted. Upon his recommendation, I ventured, that first night, towards the Coconut-Crusted Scallops served with mango-pepper salsa, hints of cilantro and fresh lime. And with the very first mouthful, I knew that all my expectations would be met, and then some. The scallops were crisp on the outside, cushiony within, the accompanying sauce so flavourful that all the musical notes of the Caribbean sang in sweet harmony upon my tongue.When my entrée arrived – Apple-Cider Brined Pork Chop with Cherry-Raisin Chutney served with sweet corn polenta and sautéed green beans with shallots – I wanted to sing as heartily as did the Indonesian waiters who appeared, as if by magic, to croon a song of congratulations for two couples in our party who just happened to be celebrating their ruby wedding anniversaries. As the deck resounded to their vigorous native rendition, the couples cut hefty portions of chocolate cake that were then sliced and served to us with the real dessert menu. Deciding to have a lighter sweet as I had already over-indulged, I opted for the Balsamic strawberries – sweet strawberries marinated in a Balsamic reduction and topped with rich white chocolate mousse. My husband’s choice, Bitter Chocolate Tart was scrumptious, featuring a flaky pastry shell filled with a decadent bitter chocolate ganache. Other choices included a no-sugar added Lemon Torte – so diabetics were not excluded – and a Raspberry Cream Cheese Gâteau featuring layers of light vanilla sponge.
It took me just that single memorable first dinner to dispel all my misconceptions about cruise cuisine. Everyone had raved to me about the food aboard cruise ships – how abundant it was, how ubiquitous. Throw a sea shell, they had said, and it will land on a pizzeria or a coffee shop on board the liner. While this had led me to expect a surfeit of food, I remained skeptical about taste. No matter how massive my portion, if it lacks flavour, it fails to impress. Well, I had to dispel my pre-conceived notions of mediocrity. Holland-America’s portions are small – not exactly as minuscule as those that ushered in nouvelle cuisine, but close enough. And thankfully so, because I never got up from a Rembrandt table feeling stuffed. The sense that I could well have savoured one more morsel of a savoury crust or another spoonful of a silky syllabub followed me throughout the cruise – and quite rightly too, for it whetted my appetite for the next wonderful meal to follow.
Since food plays such a dominant role in the consciousness of the contemporary cruiser, it is no wonder sailing companies invest a great deal of thought and talent into providing memorable meals. Not for nothing do Holland-America Line lead in that regard. Having hired the likes of world-renowned master chefs such as David Burke, Elizabeth Falkner and Jonnie Boer in addition to Sodamin, they have ensured a standard of excellence that is hard to beat. And for dessert? Well-loved Brooklyn-based French chef Jacques Torres presents his chocolate magic several times a week in delectable pastries that are both unique and delicious.
As if this were not enough, the Eurodam has reproduced the classy splendour and impeccable service of New York’s reputed Italian chef Sirio Maccioni’s flagship restaurant Le Cirque on one evening of each Baltic Sea cruise at The Pinnacle Grill, one of the speciality restaurants on board. I gasped at the dramatic change of décor achieved for a single evening by replacing the regular collage of Flemish paintings with graphic black and white circles, reminiscent of Maccioni’s Manhattan landmark. What a thrill it was to be seated at a table, waited on by attentive staff who held out my chair, unrolled my napkin and took my order with the warmest of smiles. Amuse-bouche arrived, fresh from the kitchen, on Le Cirque’s signature plates complete with cheeky graphic monkeys frolicking about the striking red and white porcelain borders. A light seafood mousse over cranberry jelly was a great palate-tickler provided with compliments of the chef.
As for the meal? Well. At $39 per head, it was a steal and simply the last word in elegance. For starters, we chose the Lobster Salad Le Cirque – a signature dish that Chef Tomas (also part of the executive team) had demonstrated in the Culinary Arts Center one morning at sea. A delicately-poached lobster tail surrounded by a medley of raw and cooked veggies (boiled potatoes with chives, tangy grapefruit segments, green beans, avocado wedges) flanked a dollop of tomato-flavoured mayonnaise known as Marie Rose sauce to make a light dressing for a worthy first course. But it was the Butternut Squash Soup with Huckleberry Compote that simply blew me away. First and foremost, the presentation … Exquisitely served, it came in a deep soup bowl with a spoonful of what looked like berry jam in the centre. Then, along came our waiter with a metal kettle through whose spout he carefully poured the elixir of autumnal squash instructing us to eat from the centre outwards. The contrast in flavours as the tang of the soup met the sugary sweetness of the compote is indescribable. I could gladly have opted for a second serving and forgone my entrée. But good job I didn’t. For my Steak Chateaubriand served as I desired – medium-rare – was scrumptious with a silky-smooth horseradish flan and cooked sweet-sour beetroots with plum sauce. Even had I looked for flaws, I would have found none. My husband’s Rack of Lamb was equally good and although we opted for different desserts, that we shared – Crème Brûlée (that had also been demonstrated by Chef Tomas earlier that week) and Chocolate Soufflé served with vanilla ice-cream, both of us were hard-pressed to decide whose was better. To crown off our meal, the ladies were presented with Crème Brûlée porcelain ramekins with the recipe seared into the bottom.
I had, by this time, realised that overeating was not likely to occur as portions were controlled. So it was not greedy to select a Seafood Soup Provencal [another night] as a second course that presented itself as a saffron-fragrant stew, similar to France’s bouillabaisse, with a judicious combination of white fish, bay shrimp and mussels served with a rouille croûton. C’est si bon! There was ample room for an entrée that turned out to be the inimitable Roasted Pheasant with an Orange Game Sauce – perhaps the most delicious thing I savoured on the cruise. Served with pureed sweet potato, tangy toasted apple-cranberry compote and braised cabbage in a sweet sour sauce, it was simply out of this world. A flavourful, zesty stew brimming with the smokiness of bacon and the heft of chestnuts, it was a hard act for dessert to follow, but it made a great effort: Chocolate Decadence was layers of chocolate mousse served with whipped cream and chocolate shavings. How could one fail to be floored by the quality of the food and the manner in which everything not only looked exceptional but tasted delectable as well? How, I wondered, could they possibly cater to so wide a clientele with such attention to detail?
Answers were provided on a tour of the kitchen to which we were happily treated on a free morning at sea. As we filed past the massive prep areas and pantries stocked with every manner of appliance and ingredient, we watched orchestrated teams of sous chefs prep items for forthcoming meals. Visitors were encouraged to nibble on samples of cheese, cookies and other titbits as they did the rounds of the innards of the kitchen to discover exactly how streamlined an operation it is to cater to the fastidious likes of sophisticated passengers who expect the best bang for their buck.Not to miss the offerings of the other specialty restaurants on board, we made a reservation one evening to eat at Canaletto, the Italian trattoria, for the additional fee of $15 per head. I suppose it would be too much to expect an Italian meal to provide manageable portions. Or maybe we were mistaken in feasting on the antipasti platter which included all sorts of goodies as well as really good garlic bread with olive oil and excellent aged Balsamic vinegar. It took the edge off my hunger but prevented me from enjoying Mrs. Maccioni’s recommended appetiser (or primo) – herb sausage with cannellini beans and polenta. The portion was huge and filled me up so thoroughly that I was loath to even nibble at my secondo: Veal Osso Bucco. Really great but I felt saddled by yet another gigantic portion! Indeed, every course provided enough for two. Was it any wonder that we merely picked at dessert? Yummy though it seemed, I had to force myself to taste the Millefeuille of Madagascar Chocolate served with walnut praline ice-cream and fresh berries.
We decided to conclude our gastronomic experimentation with an evening at Tamarind where we were treated to all the courtesy and softness of the legendary Far East. Waitresses in sarong kebayas with deftly made-up faces and genuinely warm smiles guided us to tables where the food was superb and the service impeccable. Deciding to go with a sampler, we ordered a bunch of appetisers for the table – sushi and sashimi and tempura arrived in generous portions – and entrées that were just as pleasing followed: Cantonese Duck served over chicken broth-infused rice garnished with chilli and cilantro; Penang Red Curry Coconut Chicken redolent with the fragrance of Thai basil and lemongrass in a base of coconut milk; Steamed Pompano baked in rice paper steeped in citrus-infused sake and served atop steamed Asian greens like bok choy; scallops and prawns steamed to perfection with chilli, ginger and garlic adding gently tantalising hints of flavour.
Brilliantly crafted to reflect the five Chinese elements that signify the different types of energy in a state of constant interaction, at Tamarind, the chefs employ wood, water, fire, earth and metal (their cooking tools) to combine essential aspects of Asian cuisine to craft dishes of both beauty and wonder. They tease the eye and tickle the palate even as they satisfy the tummy. As our ship sailed directly under the famous landmark bridge that connects Copenhagen to Malmo in Sweden, we finished off with a dessert fit for an emperor: Tamarind Chocolate – a bittersweet chocolate shell filled with a rich tamarind-flavoured chocolate and ginger mousse that had to be tasted to be believed.
All cruise lines have come to recognise the importance of satisfying passengers’ needs for culinary excellence. But when a cruise takes one to the doorstep of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg where Old Masters’ works are thicker than flies, to the architectural wonders of Sweden’s Town Hall where dignitaries no less than Nobel Laureates receive their honours and to the remnants of the Berlin Wall that once divided the Eastern Bloc from the Free World, and you return home raving about the food on board … well, then, that food must certainly have been something!
Would you like to dine your way around the ship? Where would you go first?
This story originally appeared in Upper Crust Magazine. To read it in its entirety click here.