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Restaurant Review -- Royal Caribbean's Chef's Table

When Janet and I take a working cruise we spend a fair bit of time experiencing things we think our clients would be interested in. We aren’t without free time though, and when we have it we like to indulge in things that make us happy. On our recent Seminar at Sea aboard Enchantment of the Seas that meant spending a few hours lingering over fine food and wine at Chef’s Table.

Some people describe Royal Caribbean’s Chef’s Table as Michelin Star dining at sea. It is not. Not even close. But Janet tells me sometimes I have to set aside the snooty culinary snobbery that I’m so full of and let my taste buds enjoy themselves without the grey matter getting in the way. So, I did that a little over a week ago at Chef’s Table. Before I knew it, three hours had gone by, the evening was over, and I wasn’t ready for it to be. I’m glad that for once, I tabled the snobbery, and so were my taste buds. I’ll still make a few critical observations about the food where warranted. After all that part of my brain runs on autopilot and if I can’t be at least somewhat critical in a review, what’s the point? But I won’t let that get in the way of sharing how much I enjoyed the entire experience.

We met our host for the evening, Eduardo, in one of the ship’s lounges. Using a lounge for the meeting point made it easy for everyone to find, and the ship’s staff had arranged chairs and tables just for our group in a semi-private corner of the lounge which set the tone for the evening. Chef’s Table is meant to be an exclusive event. It is capacity limited with a single seating, and it isn’t offered every night so if it is something you are interested in, be sure to book early. Group size is limited to 16 guests…our group numbered 12. On a ship carrying over 2,200 passengers with a main dining room that seats 1,180 guests, that’s exclusive.

Eduardo welcomed each guest with a menu card and an interesting take on a Hugo Spritz cocktail that featured a splash of mint oil to go along with the elderberry of the St. Germaine and a robust Domaine Chandon bubbly. As we sipped our welcome beverages, he double checked with each guest about any food allergies, consulting his prep sheet to make sure the necessary accommodations had been made. I read the menu card salivating over the description of the six courses we were about to enjoy, and the rumblings in my surgically reduced stomach signaled that it was ready to get started. Eduardo ushered us to our private dining room which featured a single long table elegantly set for 12 in anticipation of our arrival.

As we settled into our seats, Eduardo described how things would work. He would offer a 2 ounce pour of each wine with refills available on request, as long as our supply of two bottles for each wine lasted. It was more than enough without being so much as to get anybody stupid. As a quick aside, I no longer drink alcohol and limited my enjoyment of the wines to the sight and smell. Eduardo bent over backward to make sure my experience was just as special as everybody else, directing the bar staff to prepare special non-alcoholic libations just for me. I don’t think I missed a thing. After Eduardo went over the tasting notes for each wine, the Executive Chef would join us and describe the course about to be served, letting us know how she prepared it and the flavor notes and complexities we should be tuned into. And then we would enjoy it.

Our meal opened with freshly baked and still hot Parker House rolls, glistening with a generous slathering of butter and olive oil punctuated by herbs and bits of roasted garlic. Each guest was served their own slab of a half dozen rolls and I was surprised to note that several of my table mates managed to eat all of theirs. I did not. Not that I didn’t want to. I have always loved fresh bread, but ever since having bariatric surgery what’s left of my stomach has a capacity of about a cup and a half, so I have to be strategic about what I eat and how much. Bread usually doesn’t make the cut because it is too filling. I made an exception in this case because…well, they just smelled so damned good. I limited myself to one roll, but it wasn’t easy. Fortunately this meal proceeded at a very relaxed pace, allowing me to process one course before the next was served so I was able to enjoy a small amount of each dish. The pace of the meal was slow enough to satisfy both my stomach and my palate. And I’m glad, because that roll was really good.

The appetizer course was a scallop carpaccio served with yuzu vinaigrette dressing. The overall appearance of the dish was stunning, a study in contrasting colors. The picture I took doesn’t come close to doing it justice. The carpaccio was presented on a plain white plate rimmed with a thin lemon-yellow ribbon of yuzu dressing with a bit of honey and Dijon mustard whisked in to give it a nice citrusy sweet zing. The scallops were the most delicately sliced wafers I’ve ever seen, arranged in a circle, slightly overlapping as they chased each other around the plate. Four thin radish slices rested atop the portion of the scallop wafers closest to the center of the plate, their outer peel a delicate but striking red ribbon of color announcing their presence in the dish. The radish slices in turn were topped with a nest of shredded white lettuce with a few sprigs of Bull’s Blood beet microgreens and a dozen or so bits of red quinoa scattered about to finish it off. It was exquisite.

As visually appealing as this dish was, the flavor and texture fell a bit short of the promise. The knife work on the scallops was amazing. I have no idea how Chef cut them so wafer thin, and I think that was part of the dish’s problem. Scallops are subtle, and these were so thinly sliced the delicate flavor of the sea they brought to the dish was overpowered by the spicy earthiness of the red radish. Their gentle texture got lost as well, both in the crispy crunch of the radish and the heavy-handed abundance of lettuce. Which is not to say the dish was disappointing…far from it. A single scallop wafer dipped into the yuzu dressing was the perfect combination of flavor and texture with everything else being a distraction easily avoided.

The carpaccio was paired with a Pinot Grigio from Attems, a winery located near Trieste in eastern Italy along the border with Slovenia. I’m not usually a fan of Pinot Grigio, but the old world character of the wine along with its crisp green apple, honeysuckle, and white peach notes chased by a hint of citrus paired well with the scallop and yuzu. Getting the most out of a food and wine pairing when you are limiting yourself to smelling the wine as you eat the food was an interesting experience for me, but I have to say I feel as though I got every bit as much out of the wine as if I drank it. Not having the alcohol dull my palate was a welcome change from past food and wine pairings where I tended to put too much of my focus on the wine.

Even in the best land based restaurants at a Chef’s Table format there is always one dish that doesn’t hit my wheelhouse and at this meal, it was the soup course. There wasn’t anything special about it except it had liquid smoke added to give it an unexpected edge. It came with garnishes of garlic focaccia croutons, a couple of slivers of well-aged Parmesan, and a dollop of crème fraiche. My taste buds were intrigued by the description Chef provided, but bitterly disappointed by the flavor profile the soup delivered.

The presentation was clever, the bowls placed in front of us sans soup with the garnishes neatly arranged on the bottom. The soup was then poured over the garnishes, and we were instructed to stir gently before tasting. I’ve seen a similar approach to soup at higher end land-based restaurants. Your first couple of sips are all soup, but as the garnishes slowly infuse into the soup, the dish transforms into something greater than the sum of its parts with each sip a new exploration in a growing complexity of layered flavors. At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen. It didn’t work out that way in this case.

All culinary snobbery aside, the soup course didn’t thrill me because of the liquid smoke. I found it to be gimmicky with the pungent smokey aroma arriving long before the first sip of soup hit my taste buds, obliterating all other flavors. The garlic focaccia croutons were the only part of the dish that managed to stand up to the liquid smoke, offering the barest suggestion of a counterpoint. The crème fraiche got completely lost…too little and too subtle to cut through the harshness of the liquid smoke. The slivers of aged Parmesan melted into globs that sunk to the bottom of the bowl where they stayed until I scooped one up in a spoonful of soup. It gave me an unwelcome mouthful of overly pungent cheese and little else. It was not pleasant. I should say I’m not a fan of Parmesan to begin with, but I can tolerate it where it makes sense. In this dish it didn’t make sense, at least not in that form. It would have been better freshly grated into the soup table side where the diner could direct the addition of as much, or in my case as little, as their palate cared for.

The soup was paired with a Mer Soleil Reserve Chardonnay which is one of Royal Caribbean’s go to wines for Chef’s Table. At under $20 per bottle retail, this wine punches above its weight. As much as I like this wine, I would not have paired it with this soup. The wine is aged in new French Oak barrels that imparts a delicious array of oak and spice notes even on the nose…especially on the nose. Sadly, the oak and spice rack notes from the wine conflicted with the liquid smoke in the soup. This was the only course of the meal that didn’t leave me wishing I had a bigger stomach. I left most of it in the bowl.

The salad course more than made up for the soup. It was sublime and one of the reasons I love these dining experiences. The dish was described as a Maine Lobster Salad served with hearts of palm, pineapple and cilantro. As served, the salad consisted of 5 ounces of nicely cooked lobster meat laid out in a semi-circle to one side of the plate, topped with field greens and a little more of the red beet microgreens, finished with a drizzle of vanilla dressing. There were 4 dollops of mango puree in the middle of the plate, and opposite from the lobster, 4 petite dices of pineapple resting atop quarter sized slices of hearts of palm with a few parsley leaves sandwiched between. The parsley was apparently a substitution as the menu card listed cilantro.

It was a visually fun looking plating, not stunning in the manner of the scallop carpaccio, but playful in a tropical sort of way. The lobster was buttery and rich as lobster should be and not at all rubbery as it often is. The greens it was topped with were gratuitous and added nothing except an excessive bitterness. The mango puree was scrumptious…a nice dip for the lobster that played surprisingly well with the vanilla dressing. The combination of the sweet pineapple and slightly vegetal hearts of palm was refreshing, the crispy texture a nice addition to the plate. The parsley leaves were fine, but I do think cilantro would have been even better. A single fork with a bit of everything on the plate, with the exception of the greens, made for a pleasant journey through a tropically lush palate.

As good as each component of this dish was, the use of vanilla freshly extracted from the pod as the Chef described, made the dressing the standout of the dish. Well, that and the lobster. Because…it’s lobster! That dressing was rich, it was flavorful, and it brought together all of the tropical components of this salad into a nice medley of flavors and textures. I loved the dish, though in deference to my taste buds I left the greens on the plate.

The salad course was paired with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. In this case it was Peter Yealands, and though it exhibited the classic grapefruit flavored acidity typical of Marlborough wines, it was not quite as pronounced as you normally get from the region. The wine was a lost opportunity…it did not detract from the dish, but neither did it add anything.

Next up was the fish course…a pan roasted crispy skin branzino over ratatouille with a single spear of asparagus on the side, a yellow squash slice and a single poached cherry tomato serving as garnishes. The fish was well seasoned, almost too well for me as I tend to go light on the salt, but Chef showed just enough restraint to keep it palatable. The skin had the proper degree of crispness to give it texture without being oily, and the flesh was nicely cooked and flaky. It lacked the strong fishy flavor I sometimes get from the fat layer between flesh and skin which tells me Chef took care in her selection of branzino portions to use for this course. It’s that level of attention to detail that made this meal such a treat.

The branzino was good, but what made this dish interesting to me was the ratatouille it was resting on. It had no eggplant, and no cheese. What it had was another ingredient from Provence, sliced oil-cured black olives. I suppose I could have faulted them for even calling it a ratatouille without the eggplant, but the composition was unapologetically simple and the rustic flavor and character was exactly what ratatouille should be. The olives added a touch of salty bitterness that brought everything together in a rich and somewhat briny mouthful that was delicious. I liked it so much I might try to copy it in my own kitchen. The squash and cherry tomato garnishes were unnecessary, but the tomato in particular was so pretty I felt guilty not eating it. The only thing I really didn’t care for was the single spear of asparagus placed on the side of the plate. It felt like an afterthought that didn’t belong with the rest of an otherwise well composed dish.

The fish course was paired with a Kendall Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay from Sonoma that was unremarkable, another lost opportunity. And I say that not because it retails for $11 per bottle. It just wasn’t that good paired with a dish that deserved better. I know the Royal Caribbean wine list well and they had multiple options that would have been a better choice without busting their wine budget.

Eduardo had taken the trouble to decant the one and only red wine for the evening at the beginning of our meal. It was the highest price point wine for the meal, a Robert Mondavi 50th Anniversary Maestro Bordeaux blend from the Mondavi Oakville and Stag’s Leap vineyards that retails for about $45 per bottle. It was a good fit for the 10 oz USDA prime grade filet, though just about any California Cabernet or Claret of similar caliber would have done as well. The filet was good. It wasn’t the richly Waygu-ish flavor I’m used to from Roseda Farms beef, but I didn’t expect that. It was the best beef I’ve had on a Royal Caribbean ship, fitting to the elevated format of the meal. The filets were cooked to order, though Eduardo warned us Chef would take an order of anything more than medium rare to be an insult. He said it as a joke, but not really. With beef that good it would have been an insult. Mine came out just a touch on the rare side of medium rare which was fine by me.

The beef was well seasoned with a pleasantly pungent tasting seared peppercorn crust. It was served with a table side addition of bordelaise sauce which I skipped. I sampled a bit from Janet’s plate after hearing Chef’s description of how she made it…a veal demi-glace, extracted bone marrow, and a combination of a Bordeaux wine with a port wine reduction…and I could tell not all of the alcohol had cooked off so I skipped it. It was delicious, and a lesser cut of beef would have done well to have been covered with that sauce. This USDA Prime filet was practically fork tender and so uncharacteristically (for filet) flavorful that I didn’t miss it.

The filet was served with a trio of garnishes that seemed to have been added in a self-indulgent fit of whimsy, and in case that’s being too subtle I mean that not in a good way. There were two small piles of truffled potato puree on either side of the filet, a handful of lightly battered and fried onion rings on top, and a few potato chips strewn about the plate. I guess I see where Chef was going with the meat and potatoes aspect of it, but I was so laser focused on the filet, I let the rest of the stuff on the plate stay on the plate. I did taste just enough of the potato puree to confirm that it had real truffles, which for all my culinary snobbery I’m ashamed to admit I don’t like.

As it was, I barely had enough room in my stomach for more than about 3 oz of the filet which was a shame because it was so good. As with the fish course, the filet came with one or two seemingly random sprigs of asparagus tossed on the plate, and though the asparagus was a better fit with the filet than the fish, I was eager to save room for dessert.

Fortunately, Eduardo waited a respectable amount of time after the meat course was cleared to give our tummies a chance to empty a bit in preparation for the final course, a chocolate bomb. And what wine do you pair with such decadent dessert? None. Instead of wine, a member of the bar staff wheeled in a cart and demonstrated the proper way to make the perfect liquid accompaniment to a chocolate bomb…an espresso martini. He then proceeded to make one for every diner, a virgin version for me which I appreciated, and then dessert was served.

Our chocolate bombs sat in a nest of Rice Krispies and red raspberries served in a shallow bowl. Visually it was stark with the red of the raspberries contrasting sharply against the dark tone and smooth spherical shape of the chocolate bomb. As the guests sipped their espresso martinis, a server went around to each and poured a stream of hot caramel sauce over the chocolate bomb, causing it to melt into the scoop of salted caramel ice cream and peanut butter ganache that filled the center of the bomb. It made for spoonful after spoonful of sweet chocolate caramel decadence. The peanut butter from the ganache gave it structure so it wasn’t like pouring syrup into your mouth straight from the bottle, but it wasn’t far from that. The Rice Krispies added a nice snap crackle and pop to a dessert that literally melted in your mouth. The raspberries were bright note in the midst of a gastronomical orgy of chocolate, caramel and peanut butter. It was the perfect ending to a wonderful dinner service.

The dinner was over all too fast, even though it was a full three-hour service. I didn’t look at my watch once during the meal, and was surprised at how late it was when we took the last few spoonfuls of dessert, and sips of the espresso martinis.

Even though I left my culinary snobbery outside the dining room at Chef’s Table, the $100 per person up charge compels me to share a few value-based observations.

I’ve already commented where the courses were less than they could have been…less than they should have been. I’ve done that as gently as I can while noting I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. And Chef’s Table is an experience, an exclusive experience that demands parity between the food and the wines. This was my third time at Chef’s Table in the past four or five years, and though I’ve enjoyed each one, I’ve also noted the wine portion of the evening is full of lost opportunities. The meal came with four wine pairings and with the exception of the Mondavi, each wine had a retail cost under $20 per bottle with the Kendall Jackson Chardonnay coming in the lowest at a miserly $11 per bottle. That’s retail! You don’t need to go crazy with the price point for wines, but the pairings should have been more thoughtfully selected.

I had an illuminating discussion with one of Royal Caribbean’s certified sommeliers after a prior Chef’s Table experience…and by the way, you have to cruise on one of their newer ships with a dedicated wine bar to get service from an actual som. After I told him I was impressed with the food but disappointed by the wine pairings, he shared with me that that the wine pairings are made by the Chef’s staff based on recommendations from the corporate food and beverage office. The wine stewards aren’t usually consulted, even though some are trained and and a few are certified sommeliers as he was. I don’t know if that is still the case…our most recent Chef’s Table would suggest it is, and that is truly a lost opportunity to make an already delightful experience even better.

I should note the Chef’s Table menu is the same across the Royal Caribbean fleet. If you’ve enjoyed the Chef’s Table experience before and want to try it again, it is worth asking to see the menu card before you commit to the up charge. Each Executive Chef puts their own touch on the plating, and they have the freedom to add signature touches to garnishes so the dishes may look different, but the core of the meal and the wine pairings are the same. No doubt that is a result of Royal Caribbean’s centralized supply chain, and some effort to deliver a consistent level of quality, which I absolutely don’t fault them for.

If you enjoy an elevated dining experience, and don’t mind forking over the up charge, Chef’s Table is worth the experience. For me, it was something to be tried and enjoyed for what it was. Not a Michelin star experience, but overall a well conceived and properly executed (mostly) collection of dishes. All culinary snobbery aside, my taste buds thoroughly enjoyed it.

(Originally posted on 27 May 2022)

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