I’ve never given food on a cruise ship any credit. Zero. Mostly because it’s an afterthought. If you avoid the dozens of up-sells throughout the duration, you can have a bed, unlimited food, and transportation to multiple tropical locales for easily under $500. At that price, they could serve me dog food and I wouldn’t have grounds to complain about much.
So when Carnival approached us with an opportunity to check out the food on one of their newest decked-out ships (they get mad if you call it a boat), we weren’t too sure what we would even talk about.
While wary as to whether a trip on a Carnival Cruise would be worthy fodder for Foodbeast, a cruise with stops in Honduras and Belize helped relieve some of this uncertainty.
Two years ago I sailed with Carnival on a local booze-cruise departing from Los Angeles.
“The food on that prior trip reminded me of a typical buffet. Consistently mediocre. Ample. Value.”
And that’s not a jab. I didn’t book the cruise for its food offering. I booked it because it was an easy way to bring people together, mostly due to its low cost.
The fact that the Carnival PR Team was booking a “foodie cruise” press trip seemed to represent a new direction. But the cruise line business model is drastically different than the restaurant model, even when comparing it to a large restaurant chain.
Food capacity on board isn’t vertical like a fast food or restaurant operation where you have to be able to serve the same items in small transactions across hundreds or thousands of locations. The scalability is horizontal: feeding nearly 4,000 people from a single vessel (albeit in multiple restaurants), practically 24/7.
Any scalable type of food infrastructure stifles growth and creativity, the essential ingredients to impressing our millennial generation. This is because the food and recipes ultimately have to be re-created thousands of times in different restaurants on different ships. Translation: hiring multiple rising culinary stars, hip to the novel progression of food, like a new restaurant would do, doesn’t solve cruise lines’ quality problem. The change has to be at the organization’s core, then trickle down to the vessels of operation. The scalability obstacle is what made me skeptical.
But we called their bluff and coordinated the trip.
One cross-country flight and randomly bomb pizza at Kelsey’s in Port Canaveral, FL, later (the last place we would think of for good pizza), we boarded the ship just in time to walk into a place called JiJi Asian Kitchen.
“At the time, all we knew is that we were heading the ship’s ‘Asian Restaurant.'”
I didn’t really think anything of it since it only makes sense to have Asian options on a ship, similar to having a Burger option or an Italian option. Then I read the menu…
Slow Braised Pork Belly (pictured above).
Nanjing Style Duck (pictured below).
Jade Shrimp Har Gow.
Bo Kho, Vietnamese Slow Braised Wagyu Beef Short Rib.
The map on the menu bragged of pan-Asian cuisine from nine different regions including Mongolia, four regions of China, Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia. The menu impressed me as much as I could be without seeing, smelling and tasting actual food.
Then, seemingly out of left field: the food shattered our expectations above and beyond what we thought possible from a kitchen sitting atop a body of water.
“Just look at the pictures. The menu came fucking through. We were so impressed that we laughed about it.”
I got this same feeling two other times during this trip. First, at the premium Italian Restaurant Cucina Del Capitano. Definitely go ahead and order the Spaghetti Carbonara (pictured below) because it won’t be your only entree. We would recommend Nonna’s Meatballs, Fried Risotto Balls, Pollo Parmigiana and Grilled Shrimp/Gambretti Alla Pizzaiola (also pictured below).
This quality comes with a bit of an asterisk for patrons. The meals just described from JiJi and Cucina are not complimentary with your Carnival Cruise purchase. But for a $15 upgrade per session, you get to order whatever you want. We encourage you to order the entire menu. Also JiJi is only available on the Carnival Sunshine. Cucina del Capitano is available on three ships, the Carnival Sunshine, Magic and Breeze.
The third time ours jaws dropped came from a tour of the galley before our dining experience in the main dining room.
The galley, connected sections of the ship where a majority of the food preparation takes place, is stunningly huge. Imagine a kitchen that has to serve 3,500 guests ordering 5,000 appetizers, 4,200 entrees and 2,800 desserts every night. You bet it’s huge and efficient.
Then in the main dining room, just imagine a wondrous land where upon sitting down to a white tablecloth dinner, instead of ordering a single entree, you get to order three. This place, while hungry, can represent the utopia of sustenance. Yet only minutes later, whilst full, represent everything you hate about the world. I know you know what I’m talking about.
It’s an experience related to eating eight slices of pizza. It takes an intense craving to even think about consuming eight slices of pizza as a good idea. But when that craving comes, usually from the lack of nutrition throughout an entire day, it consumes your mind, body and soul. It is in this way absolutely consuming. So, by the time you’re looking at an entire pizza all to yourself, there’s nothing that will stop you from eating it all. And then, 10 minutes later, you vow to never eat pizza again. #Murica
But when you consider that any patron can order whatever the fuck they want off of the dinner menu, yet still expect a near-fine-dining experience…the fact that Carnival and our specific server Andrew could pull it off is downright amazing.
Then, this is what breakfast looks like:
Pictured above are the Fried Chicken and Bacon Mac N’ Cheese, Fruit Loop Crusted French Toast and the Huevos Rancheros.
Other notable stops along the way included Guy Fieri’s Burger Joint, Fahrenheit 555 Steakhouse, Bonsai Sushi and the adventurous Chef’s Table. Outside of the Burger Bar, all the aforementioned restaurants come with various add-on fees, but definitely add quality and diversity to the trip.
For those specifically looking for a one-of-a-kind eating experience, the Chef’s Table brings Carnival Executive Chefs straight to the patron with a custom menu developed for that evening. Only 14 spots are available per evening for a $75 price tag. Our tasting included seven courses with talented iterations of Crab, Duck, Seasonal Tomato Bisque, Sea Bass, Wagyu Beef and multiple desserts.
Blue Cheese Rolls – The Chef’s Table
Beet Blanket in Spiced Grape Tea – The Chef’s Table
Two Tomato Bisque – The Chef’s Table
Beef Carpaccio On A Literal Stick – The Chef’s Table
Raspberry Mojito Cake – The Chef’s Table
This Wagyu Doe – The Chef’s Table
Himalayan Basmati Fried Rice – JiJi Asian Kitchen
Jiozi Shrimp Dumpling – JiJi Asian Kitchen
The Ringer BBQ Burger – Guy’s Burger Joint
Arancini Fried Risotto Balls – Cucina del Capitano
This Garlic Bread Doe – Cucina del Capitano
Nonna’s Linguine – Cucina del Capitano
This Rib-Eye Doe – Fahrenheit 555 Steakhouse
Ahi Tuna Tartare – Fahrenheit 555 Steakhouse