Don't Dish on Carnival's Food

I call them "food snobs." These consumers assume any cuisine served onboard Carnival Cruise Lines or another contemporary brand is bland, of mediocre quality and characterized by '70s style and presentation.

In reality, if anything is stuck in the disco era, it's that assessment. Unfortunately, it's not uncommon. Chatting with a friend a few days ago, I gushed that I'd had a fantastic time on a seven-night Carnival Freedom Caribbean voyage and that the dining experiences were fabulous.  "Well, you won't catch me on that line for the dining," he noted in very pointed fashion.

Alas, I assessed that my sweet friend, an executive with a Fortune 500 firm, was either a food snob or an uneducated consumer. Those who claim Carnival delivers a mediocre food experience usually haven't vacationed on the line, as is the case with my friend. Or, alternatively, they haven't done so since Kathy Lee Gifford danced and sang  "Ain't We Got Fun"  to promote Carnival on 1980s TV.

Not surprisingly, CLIA's 2006 Market Profile study showed that only 43% of the non-cruising population rated "fine dining" as one of the advantages of cruising, compared with 69% of cruisers. Fortunately, many agents know the score and try to educate their clients about the high quality of dining on all lines from luxury to contemporary.

"I like the food on Carnival, in fact I was onboard several months ago on the Carnival Legend and had lunch,"  says Sabine Harris, owner, Cruise Planners of Tampa, FL. "It was the best. So I always tell folks to 'try' it at least once before they put their noses up."

Peter Leypold, Carnival's executive chef in Miami, says Carnival increases its culinary spending year after year. "We try to improve the food product constantly and I believe we have been largely successful doing it,"  says Leypold. "We try to have something for everybody."

Carnival's Supper Club is cited by news media and many agents as one of the best alternative dining experiences at sea. The club carries a $30 per person charge, which I believe is worth every penny. Onboard Carnival Freedom, I 'oohed' and 'aahed' over the lobster bisque with vintage cognac; the escargot tasting trio; the baby leaf spinach salad and fresh mushrooms; and the sauteed medley of fresh mushrooms.

The Supper Club specializes in high-quality, USDA Prime steaks, chops and seafood, all served with impeccable service, presentation and flavorful sauces (three peppercorn, wild mushroom or b'arnaise). Fellow diners in my group opted for the savory surf 'n turf, broiled center-cut veal chop, whole Dover sole meuniere and the grilled prime rib chop with herbed burgundy wine reduction and roasted garlic. My choice was the 13-ounce broiled lobster tail. Split into two halves and stacked, it was creatively presented in what my fellow diners affectionately termed the "tower of lobster."

Elsewhere on the ship, a Taste of the Nations section of the Lido Buffet serves up Greek, Caribbean, Italian, Mexican and other international cuisine, showcasing a different region each day. The Meiji Sushi Bar is open evenings for complimentary sushi rolls; it was packed throughout our cruise and frequented by North American, European and Japanese travelers.

Tucked away on an upper deck is a Fish & Chips restaurant that fries fish, calamari and oysters. Pool goers will discover the usual grilled picnic fare but a separate outdoor lunchtime station on Carnival Freedom featured spicy Tandoori fish, chicken and a host of eclectic Indian fare. Yes, the ship has the first Tandoori oven at sea.

Your clients also might chow down at the Deli for freshly, made-to-order sandwiches of pastrami, roast beef and more. And, Carnival's freshly prepared and baked pizza is available 24 hours a day on every ship. With each of 22 Carnival ships serving an estimated 500 pizza pies a day that equates to 11,000 pizzas a day. Gourmet pizza options include Pizza du Cheve with roasted garlic, wild mushrooms and goat cheese.

One of my favorite dining experiences while on Carnival Freedom was the customized Mongolian grill station within the Lido Buffet. You simply choose your noodles and veggies, hand the bowl to the chef, pick out your meat such as salmon, chicken, beef or pork, and the orchestration begins. The chef dumps your selections into a steaming, sizzling wok, cooks the meat in another wok and adds the sauce you want: black bean mild, Thai barbecue medium, or Szechuan hot. I asked for it "extra hot,"  leaving the Asian chef grinning as he shoveled more chilis into the concoction.

Nightly dining in the main restaurant is at two seatings (early and late); there are also two times within each of those seatings for a bit more guest flexibility. While I personally prefer open seating, the line says the guest's individual relationship with his or her wait staff at the assigned table is a high satisfaction factor cited in onboard surveys.

"Ownership plays into it, as the waiter goes out of his or her way to make his or her group of guests happy,"  says Leypold. He says with open seating on other lines the wait staff may believe  "you're not my guests anymore you're just guests."

On our cruise, the dining room delivered consistently superb food with highly attentive and entertaining wait staff. Menu-wise, clients may always order such fare as broiled salmon or a New York strip steak, but daily entrees were creative and enticing for so-called  foodies  who want to sample eclectic dishes. Our choices included prime rib and savory steak cuts as well as a whole roasted quail filled with an herb stuffing and Marsala wine sauce; pasta carbonara; baked herb polenta, a vegetarian dish with a ragout of domestic and wild mushrooms; grilled filet of fresh Victorian perch; rack of New Zealand spring lamb with Dijonnaise; and roasted center-cut pork loin marinated in Jerk island spices and herbs, served with black bean stew and caramelized plantain. Your clients can also order S.P.A. light fare.

Desserts are ordered from a separate menu. Beyond the creme brulee, cherries jubilee, and death-by-chocolate type choices, Carnival offers a selection of cheeses (the flavorful Gouda and creamy Gorgonzola were yummy), fresh fruit, sherbets/ice creams and low-calorie desserts.

On all Carnival ships, signature dishes by French master chef Georges Blanc add gourmet cache to menus in the main dining room and the Supper Club. One Blanc entree on our cruise was  "Supreme of Hudson Valley Duck" with an onion and tomato tart, apple crisps, sweet turnip puree and snow peas. Blanc, who operates an internationally recognized Paris restaurant, also identifies select fine wines for cruisers. The sommelier will assist with food-wine pairing recommendations. We discovered many excellent bottles available at $27-$30.

While Blanc is extremely well-known in Europe, Leypold says it remains more of a challenge to educate consumers within North America about him. Guests may simply not know of him. But  "from our side [internally], Georges Blanc is important," says Leypold. "Every month we have a planning class with him and some of our people travel to his restaurant in Paris [for training]."  That's enhanced the overall dining product that Carnival fields.

Customer feedback from shipboard surveys and comments to crew are taken seriously, says Leypold. "We know what guests eat, what they liked, and how many people didn't like something. We replace something if it's not working with the guests."

But given the dining complexity and variance of experiences per ship (even on the same line), agents say it's critical they educate customers before sailing. "I also tell them that when they are filling out their Fun Ship document information on the line's Web site to take a look around and see what's new," says Harris. "I also always recommend that they read their Carnival Capers for what's going on during their cruise."

Dining at sea is oceans apart from what it was in the past. Certainly, not every line appeals to every guest. Qualifying clients is vital and agents know their clients best. I'm not suggesting every client is right for Carnival.

That said, Scott Knudson, Carnival's regional vice president of sales for the Southeast, Bradenton, FL. urges agents to do more than simply consider "segment" when assessing dining quality. First, Carnival Corp. is the umbrella group for purchases of all food for its brands- so if Seabourn and Carnival both want USDA Prime, they're generally getting the same quality beef. Second, Carnival's 40-to-50-something guests are precisely the ones hitting the hot and trendy new restaurants in their own communities at home, and that's the demographic the line is courting; thus, Carnival's cuisine may be more cutting edge than you might think.

So, the next time someone dishes on Carnival's food to me, I'll going to be tempted to just tell them to take a Fun Ship cruise. Many, I believe, would return with an enlightened view of the cuisine. Food snobs be gone!

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