Princess Cruises previews specialty dining experiences

By Carl and Jamie Dombek

Among the current trends in the cruise industry is the introduction of specialty dining experiences. While specialty dining venues have been a feature aboard cruise ships for some time, the latest focus is not on the venue but what happens and how diners interact at those venues.

Last fall, Holland America Cruise Lines introduced BLEND, a joint venture with Chateau Ste. Michelle winery that encourages diners to interact as they experience one aspect of wine-making: blending different varietals.

Communal table at SHARE

With the Alaska cruise season just getting underway in the Pacific Northwest, Princess Cruises gave travel writers an opportunity to sample the latest addition to its specialty dining experiences, including a venue called SHARE, created in conjunction with celebrity chef Curtis Stone.

On Sunday, we were among several travel journalists who boarded the Ruby Princess at Seattle’s Pier 91 to sample the SHARE fare. The Ruby Princess is one of three ships that offer the experience unveiled last summer. SHARE is also available on the Emerald Princess and the Sun Princess.

On a personal note, the Ruby Princess is the very ship we will be taking when we cruise to Alaska later this summer, so it was an exciting opportunity to get a special preview.

The focus at SHARE is on small plates that diners can share, either with their travel companions or new friends. While tables for parties of two and four are available, the focus is on larger, communal tables and the sharing experience they inspire.

Stone’s menu is quite creative, as fans of his would expect.

Jamie enjoying the charcuterie plate

Each SHARE experience starts with a charcuterie plate of jamón iberco, salami finocchiona, chicken liver parfait, house pickles and an epi baguette. Far lighter than a paté, the chicken liver parfait was my favorite item, though both the ham and salami also appealed to the carnivore in me.

Diners then choose from one selection in each of five courses: Appetizers, main courses, side dishes, cheese and desserts.

We shared a table with Dan Anderson, the gentleman who writes the blog, and his wife, Amy. True to the SHARE philosophy, we were presented with two appetizers per couple: a shrimp salad with lemon gel, turnip, citrus salt and brioche; and fresh, hand-made pasta tagliatelle with roasted Alaskan king crab, chili and parsley. Two other appetizers grace the standard menu: pickled pearl onions and a beet salad.

For our main dishes, we shared a white fish gratiné of roast turbot with gruyere crumb, white vermouth and mushroom duxelles; and twice-cooked duck confit with fennel, bacon jus and parmesan crumb. Three other main dishes on the menu include butter-poached lobster, wild mushroom ragu and beef cheek pie.

Shared side dishes included braised kale with smoked ham and crispy shallots, and potato gratin with truffles and cream. Although my wife and I generally steer well clear of kale, this presentation was a notable exception. The kale was well cooked and tender, with the ham bringing a bit of salt along with its smoke, and the shallots adding their onion/garlic complexity. The potatoes gratin? How can you go wrong with potatoes covered in cheese? Melted leeks with confit egg yolk is also an available side dish.

Four chesses are available on the cheese course. We were plied with a buttery la gruta from Spain. French bethmale, Italian pantaleo and a shaft blue from California rounded out that course’s options.

While SHARE offers diners a choice of three desserts including a dark chocolate crémeau, ricotta fritters or a tarte au citron vert, our dessert was to come later in the afternoon.

The "Ernesto" burger

Following a tour of several of the ship’s features, we were ushered to the Wheelhouse Bar which, in the evening, becomes the Salty Dog Gastropub, another specialty dining experience.

Created in collaboration with Ernesto Uchimura, a founding chef of the original Umami Burger, diners at the Salty Dog can choose from several gourmet creations inspired by pub favorites, including the “Ernesto,” a rib eye burger crafted by Chef Uchimura. Although similar in size to burgers known as sliders, that is where the similarity ends. The Ernesto features a thick patty of ground rib eye done a perfect medium-rare, served on a brioche.

Other featured items included a Maryland-style jumbo lump crab cake with Old Bay spice and roasted garlic remoulade.

The Salty Dog also offers a selection of craft cocktails. We were offered one called the Seawitch Steam – a combination of Woodward Reserve bourbon, sweet vermouth, syrup made of Seawitch IPA, and fresh lemon. The additional ingredients had obviously been added by a deft hand as they enhanced the complexity of the Woodford Reserve without overpowering its subtleties.

True to the gastropub theme, the Salty Dog has an extensive list of craft and draft beers and ciders, as well as bourbons and scotches, offered by the glass or in flights. For example, a flight of three Johnny Walker scotches was available with one-ounce pours of Johnny Walker Gold, Johnny Walker Platinum and Johnny Walker Blue for a very reasonable $25. A 1.5-ounce pour of Johnny Walker Blue can fetch $45 at many landside bars and restaurants.

The Salty Dog experience again encourages guests’ interaction with each other while dining and is the only specialty dining venue to offer entertainment.

Love's layered parfaits

The final experience to which we were treated was Chocolate Journeys. Presented in the ship’s third specialty dining venue, the Crown Grill, it featured the work of master chocolatier Norman Love. We shared this portion of our experience with Tara Theoharris, "The Geeky Hostess," and her husband, Alexander.

Although our tastes run more to the savory than the sweet, there was no denying that Love has the touch. Though thoroughly satisfied by our visits to SHARE and the Salty Dog, we had to at least try the desserts. From the chocolate tiramisu to the layered parfaits, we found them to be rich and flavorful, yet light.

As with most cruise lines, specialty dining is not included in the standard fare, though the prices seemed reasonable enough. Dinner at SHARE is $39 per person for one selection from each course. Additional selections are available at what the line calls a “nominal surcharge.”

Dinner at the Salty Dog carries an additional charge of $19 per person while Love’s chocolate creations are available without additional charge at many of the dining venues throughout the ship.

A video of the preview is available here.

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Photos by Carl Dombek
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