Dine and brine in new-wave style
The notion of ship buffets with elaborate ice and butter carvings and pyramids of iridescent crab extender is fast being tossed overboard by leading cruise lines in favour of speciality restaurants and smaller spaces with table service.
Leading the charge in the local market is P&O Australia, which has redefined on-board dining by junking smorgasbord spreads in favour of a daylong dining template known as The Pantry. It’s similar to a food court, with stands where passengers line up to be served and then take their laden trays to dine at assorted seating, from tall benches and bars to sofas, stools and clusters of tables. In tandem with this casual approach, the food is healthier and lighter, too. Ahoy there, nutritious salads and just-made Asian stir-fries, deli charcuterie and cheese boards.
Leading Sydney-based chef and restaurateur Luke Mangan, who runs 21 outlets in four countries, has been part of this new culinary wave since he launched his Salt Grill concept aboard Pacific Dawn and Pacific Jewel almost a decade ago.
Mangan agrees it was initially a bit of a risk to pair a gourmet restaurant with a mass-market product but the experiment has been a success and sister ships Pacific Aria and Pacific Eden also carry popular Salt Grills, with adjoining lounge bars that could have been airlifted from five-star city hotels. This brasserie-style concept, with a high-end designer fitout, features Mangan’s signature dishes such as crab omelet with miso mustard broth and licorice parfait with lime syrup. There’s a surcharge of $39 for lunch and $49 a head for a three-course dinner and side dishes.
Salt Grill is being taken to the next level aboard Pacific Explorer, which joins the fleet this month, with an exclusive Chef’s Table option offering of a Taste of Salt seven-course degustation dinner menu ($99). Mangan is also launching a casual, semi-alfresco diner named Luke’s overlooking the pool on Pacific Explorer. He calls the a la carte concept “cre- ative, fast and casual” and tells me there will be wines by the glass and burgers with fillings such as barramundi, soy-spiced chicken wings and a distinctly Australian dessert of a wagon wheel ice cream sandwich. Blackboard specials could include the likes of buckets of prawns and oysters. Fans of Mangan’s Sydney-based Chicken Confidential gourmet burger project can expect to find his Gangnam-style Korean-inspired chicken and kimchi-filled buns on offer. The food can be taken away, in Mangan-branded packaging, of course, to eat elsewhere on the ship or in passenger cabins, which is another stretch beyond typical shipboard dining. The newly transformed 1998-passenger Pacific Explorer, formerly badged as Dawn Princess, features an Adventure Park with all manner of daredevil options, a grassed area for barefoot bowling and other lawn games, zip lining, rock climbing and myriad entertainment venues, including a supper club with cabaret. The 400 Gradi Neapolitan-style pizzeria will be overseen by award-winning Melbourne chef Johnny Di Francesco while the Archie Rose Distilling Company offers mixing classes in The Bonded Store.
Add these to the Mangan line-up, plus the cool beverage and music scene and shipboard life 2017-style sounds rather like a day (and night) out in the hipster suburbs of Australian capitals. Cruising has indeed come a long way since formal dining halls the size of aircraft hangars, preprepared prawn cocktails and sparklers stabbed into custardy puddings. Bon appetit.
An artist’s rendering of Salt Grill aboard Pacific Explorer; chef Luke Mangan; and a Salt Grill crab omelet