River cruising in Europe enters new gastronomic heights with imaginative menus and exciting shore excursions
As dusk hits, passengers start filtering into the opulent Crystal Dining Restaurant on board the Scenic Jasper. It’s the start of dinner service and already the space is buzzing. Waiters glide through the room ensuring everything is perfect, and guests select tables next to the expansive windows to take advantage of the moving Danube River vista.
In the kitchen it’s a different kind of thrum. Executive Chef Exequiel Cruzat, who originally hails from the Philippines, is a calm and respected leader. He works meticulously with Sous Chef Nendi Andriansyah and the kitchen team to prepare various tidbits for tonight’s dinner. He carefully slices colourful roasted vegetables into diamond shapes (“to be served alongside our beef ala Scenic,” he explains), avocado is smashed into what will become avocado tartar (“it goes with the glass noodle salad”), and sea bass is brushed with house-made dressing and placed into the oven. “We use local produce where possible and always aim to offer our customers plenty of choices when it comes to dining on board Scenic Jasper,” says Exequiel. “They’re cruising with us to be spoiled!”
In the dining room, glasses are filled with wines from the region the ship sails through, and customers peruse menus. Dinner in the Crystal Dining Restaurant is à la carte and changes daily, while breakfast and lunch are lavish buffets that encompass a diverse range of foods to suit all tastes.
Scenic Jasper is also home to the intimate 10-seater Table La Rive located in its own private alcove in the Crystal Dining Restaurant, Italian fine diner Portobellos Restaurant, and the casually elegant River Café. “The idea is that guests not only have changing daily menus to cherry-pick, they can also sample various cuisines and dine in different atmospheres,” explains Assistant Restaurant Manager Ica Tudor.
THE CRUISE FOOD REVOLUTION
River cruise cuisine has come a long way in the last few years – a strategic move employed by cruise companies to cater to a diversifying audience who want to see Europe beyond the usual sights. In the last few years, menus been revamped, new restaurants have been opened, culinary shore excursions have been introduced, and even food-themed cruises are becoming commonplace. The passengers of today are braver when it comes to tastes and are willing – and wanting – to immerse themselves in local culture, which is intertwined with local food.
Cruise companies are connecting customers with regional cuisine in many ways. When docking in Budapest, guests on the Scenic Jewels of Europe river cruise partake in a regional food evening. This entails schnitzels, goulash and pörkölt (meat stew), to name a few dishes, with typed-out explanations about the food, the history of the dish and details on how it’s prepared. “It’s not just about consuming local food,” says Ica. “Our guests want to learn about the areas we cruise through – and teaching through taste has got to be one of the most enjoyable ways to learn!”
Many other cruise liners dish up fresh, regional fare too. Uniworld use local suppliers who deliver direct to the galley kitchens of their ships; Avalon Waterways’ multi-course dinners are a showcase of local dishes such as sauerbraten (a pot roast) with potato dumplings and red cabbage in Germany or sugary apricot desserts in Austria. Viking River Cruises are well-known for their ‘Taste of …’ events, where patrons are presented with an appetising feast showcasing dishes from the region (pretzels, leberwurst and lager Kölsch are some of the inclusions at ‘A Taste of Germany’).
THE X FACTOR
Today, a river cruise liner will usually house numerous restaurants that span various cuisine styles and gastronomic experiences. Specialty fine diners and swanky restaurants headed by distinguished chefs lure guests with their exclusive culinary offerings.
In 2012, Scenic introduced Table La Rive degustation dinners on board its Space-Ship vessels. With just 10 seats per night, it’s an intimate experience guests rate very highly. APT has launched the Chef’s Table on its Royal Experience cruises – a six-course meal with matching wines limited to 24 people per night. And APT’s fleet of Aria and Concerto river cruise ships is part of La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs – the world’s oldest international gastronomic association dedicated to preserving and promoting dining excellence.
APT Executive Chef Primus Perchtold, who has 25 years experience of cooking on cruise ships and has won three gold medals at the European Championship of Culinary Art, led the campaign to have the European cruise ships inducted into La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs. He explains that it essentially comes down to consistently delivering food of the highest quality and served to the highest standards. “I pride myself in constantly staying on top of new trends and ensuring customers are served the best of the best,” he explains. “And I work with friends who own fine dining restaurants and we meet and exchange our knowledge – it never gets tedious.”
The epicurean movement is also seeing further development across the shore excursion ether as passengers seek to discover destinations by tasting their way through them. Travellers can explore colourful food markets while shopping with the chef when cruising with Scenic, or sample house-made Belgian chocolates when visiting a chocolatier in Brussels with Uniworld, or learn how to make fondant au chocolate when cruising with Viking River Cruises in France, or sample local wines in Dürnstein with Tauck.
River cruise companies are tapping into a market that wants to see the world – and to understand that world by doing as the locals do. And if there’s one thing the populations around the globe have in common, it’s the gratification that comes with eating good food.