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September 10th, 2008

Just published

This piece on the epicurean pleasures of a Crystal Cruise (with master chef André Soltner) for Virtusoso Life magazine.


Celebrity chefs and winemakers are bringing their expertise to cruise lines’ show kitchens and tasting rooms.

Cookbook author Jeff Koehler sets sail with chef André Soltner for a taste of the Mediterranean.

Hiroshi Nakaguchi cut a breakneck pace through La Boqueria market. The 50-something executive chef of the Crystal Serenity’s two specialty Asian restaurants slalomed through the morning crowds with Bode Miller-like agility, his eyes swimming over iced displays of the sea’s bounty. Nakaguchi abruptly stopped and pressed a finger into the side of an exquisite specimen of a rare and very expensive local bream. Pleased by the firmness – and unfazed by the stall owner barking, “NO TOUCHING!” – Nakaguchi placed his order: “I want two.”

Packet in hand, he set off again at race pace, searching for the market’s best langoustines, baby octopuses, oyster mushrooms, and fresh ginger. Nakaguchi passionately combs the stalls for local specialties whenever his ship calls near a great market; this time the scene played out in Barcelona, halfway through Crystal Cruises’ sailing from Southampton, England, to Civitavecchia, Italy, just outside Rome. His mission accomplished, the chef relaxed, slowed his pace, and brought up the other thing on his mind: “Coffee?”

“Follow me,” I said. This was my city – I’ve lived here for a dozen years – and my market. He might have just given me a master class in selecting seafood, but I knew where to find the best tallats.

As we sipped our espressos diluted with a touch of hot milk, Nakaguchi explained that La Boqueria is one of the top markets in the Mediterranean to buy seafood for sushi. He not only supplements his stocks here, but he always picks up something special, such as the bream.

That night, as the ship continued its journey, I dressed in formal wear and headed for The Sushi Bar. The chef set down successive plates of the newly purchased bream prepared three ways: wafer-thin slices with extra-virgin olive oil, a few drops of fresh lemon juice, and some of Maldon sea salt; more robustly cut sashimi with a dollop of wasabi; and classic nigiri sushi piggybacking rice and brushed with soy sauce.

Floating outposts of the renowned chef and restaurateur Nobu Matsuhisa, The Sushi Bar and the more expansive Silk Road fuse classically styled Japanese dishes with Peruvian flavors and contemporary twists. Not surprisingly, from this straightforward start the dinner grew more interesting by the plate, beginning with one of Nobu’s trademark new-style preparations: The sushi chef split a live langoustine in half lengthwise, chopped the meat with spices, laid it back in the shell, and sprinkled hot oils and sesame seeds over it. Each meltingly soft bite exploded with a symphony of perfectly
balanced flavors.

Halfway through the trip, I stepped out of my 403-square-foot penthouse with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, which the butler had thoughtfully put on ice for me, and took stock of things. Sipping champagne on the private veranda, with the afternoon sun shining down and the ship slipping beneath Lisbon’s magnificent suspension bridge, I felt that I was well on my way.

Just after breakfast the next morning we eased into the Mediterranean, the 1,400-foot-high limestone monolith of Gibraltar rising to port side, Morocco’s Atlas Mountains crumbling into the sea to starboard. After spending the afternoon in the tiny English outpost of Gibraltar, I took refuge on the top deck beside the pool and, with a summery Pimm’s cocktail and the ship steaming north, watched the Rock gradually fade in the twilight until dinnertime.

Relaxation came easy aboard the 1,080-passenger Crystal Serenity, with treatments at the feng shui-designed spa, Broadway acts in the Galaxy Lounge, and the Hollywood Theater’s first-run movies, along with a well-stocked library to help guests while away their time in the sun. Crew members appeared discreetly to fill requests – when not passing some of the five pounds of caviar the ship burned through each day or delivering what appeared to be enough foie gras to feed the entire French national soccer team.

Crystal prides itself on cuisine, from artistic presentations to the fact that all dishes are made from scratch. Among the range of dining options, the Serenity offers three standout specialty restaurants: Nobu’s two Asian offerings and Prego, which features regional Italian cuisine, signature dishes from Los Angeles’ renowned Valentino restaurant, and an exclusive wine selection to make Italian oenophiles swoon. (This is in addition to the ship’s extensive main wine list: 350 labels, including such greats as Château Margaux and the epitome of cult wines, Napa Valley Screaming Eagle cabernet sauvignon.)

All food- and wine-themed sailings feature guest chef demonstrations and a gala dinner. The honored chef on this cruise was André Soltner, the former chef-owner of Lutèce, Manhattan’s legendary French restaurant that held the New York Times’ top rating from 1971 until Soltner sold it in 1994. Soltner was one of America’s original celebrity chefs – the Kennedys, Richard Nixon, John Lennon, and Katharine Hepburn are just a few of those who frequented his tables – and after 34 years behind the stoves of Lutèce (famously missing only five nights), he now spends much of his retirement as master chef and dean of classic studies at the French Culinary Institute in New York City.

Soltner presented the first of his cooking demonstrations during the day between Gibraltar and Barcelona. While preparing saumon en croûte (salmon fillet in puff pastry) with a delicate mousseline of pike and a choron sauce (béarnaise sauce tinted pink with tomatoes), he repeatedly sought to assuage fears of puff pastry. “If you have any problems at home,” he said, “give me a call.”

“What’s your number?” a woman called out.

Pens audibly scribbled when he reeled it off, whisking and chopping, all the while offering well-timed one-liners and insider tips such as the table he prefers in a restaurant: “I like to sit next to the kitchen. If there’s a problem, I can tell the chef.”

That night Soltner prepared a dinner comprising a sophisticated parade of dishes from Lutèce. After the first three courses – sweet, flaky-crusted Alsatian onion tart; creamy celery, mushroom, and beet salad; and rich Provençal fish soup – I peeked into the galley: not to complain, but to catch the action. Executive chef Franz Weiss was calling out orders as a dozen line cooks worked in what the ship’s food and beverage manager called the “organized chaos” of serving hundreds of refined palates at once. In the middle, a calm Soltner presided. “I’ve been here since morning,” he said, nibbling on a piece of sole. “My work is done. Now they execute it.”

Soltner’s dinner sparked a craving for French food, and after our day in Barcelona we anchored at Villefranche on the Riviera. I tendered ashore and headed to Nice for an appetite-building morning at Musée Chagall – home to the largest existing collection of Chagall works, including his epic Biblical Message series – and then Musée Matisse, where still lifes, reclining odalisques, and paper cutouts spread the master’s sensuality of color throughout the seventeenth-century Genoese villa overlooking the city.

After browsing the seaside open-air food market down in Vieux Nice, I began looking for somewhere to eat. I ambled among basket-laden shoppers up through the narrow streets, away from the Corniche and glamour, to find Restaurant du Gesu, a charming place with paper napkins, easy-drinking rosé, and locals lunching on generous portions of Genoese-influenced spécialités Niçoises. Over pissaladière (onion tart with anchovy) and wine-braised beef daube with polenta, I realized that not one person around me had entered without kissing the cheeks or shaking the hand of the chef. I enviously thought of one of Soltner’s dictums: “The best restaurants are the ones where you are a little known.”

If Nice was lunch, then Cannes (17 miles west) was dessert – or at least coffee. The 61st Cannes Film Festival was in full swing, and the day’s activities included catching an out-of-competition screening of Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, starring Scarlett Johansson, Penélope Cruz, and Javier Bardem. I grabbed a seat on a café terrace in front of the Palais des Festivals, ordered un café noir, and savored the energetic blend of industry professionalism and arty glamour that swirled headily around me.

We spent the last full day of the cruise at sea. Chef Soltner gave another cooking demonstration – two different potato galettes, one stuffed with mushrooms, the other topped with smoked salmon and cucumbers – and head sommelier Ben Van de Meutter led part two of his wine tastings (reds). To put off packing, I followed passengers up to deck 12’s Palm Court for the afternoon Mozart Tea, a dazzling array of traditional German and Austrian cakes served by waiters in period dress and accompanied by a trio playing, of course, Mozart.

For dinner I returned to the Silk Road – where I was a little known by now – for a dizzying two-hour procession of Nobu classics. My notebook lists 11 different courses, each of which achieved new levels of divine. The largest asterisks sit beside an entry for glazed black cod marinated in miso for three days. “You’ve only had a good meal if you remember it a year or two later,” Soltner told me one afternoon over coffee.

These meals I’ll remember, but I’ll recall plenty of other moments as well. Nobu’s cod and Soltner’s onion tart will linger beside that champagne exit from Lisbon and slipping past the Rock of Gibraltar on a rippled morning sea – sublime, and indulgent indeed.

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All text and images are ©Jeff Koehler 2007-2009 and cannot be used without his written permission.