Freedom in the Med…The Chef’s Table

Our last full day on the boat. Never a day I look forward to.  This is the day you have to pack and put debark luggage tags on your bags, set them out in the hall, and hope you remembered to save at least one outfit to wear in the morning (don’t laugh…I’ve worn jammies on the ride home for just this reason!!).

However, there is one thing on our schedule tonight to look forward to, Chef’s Table.  This is a seven course (don’t worry, they’re small) tasting menu paired with 6 wines and a dessert cocktail.  If you know me at all you know this is right up my alley!  In fact, I reserve this dinner every cruise even though the menu hasn’t changes since my first one back in 2012.  But for this one, not just the menu had changed.

My first Chef’s Table experience was also on the Freedom way back in 2012.  Mom and I decided to try it.  It was held at a long table up in the WindJammer, the buffet restaurant.  They have since moved it to the Main Dining Room…in a pretty cool spot!

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Yep, that round table right in the middle, with the spiral staircases on either side.  (Pro Tip: Those staircases are tricky after 6 wines and a dessert cocktail…be safe!)  The setting is gorgeous and you feel like a superstar eating up there.

Another change is the menu.  It had long been rumored that the menu was going to change and when I sailed last summer on the Rhapsody, the Maître D’ confirmed that there would be a change, but not when so I did not know going in if we would be having the old menu (which I love) or the new menu (which at this point, I hadn’t even seen).  As it turned out, we had the new menu:

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And some fancy new place settings:

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That’s two napkins folded to look like a tuxedo!  Snazzy, right??

The first thing I noticed about the menu was the choice of entrée.   On the old menu, there was only one choice…short rib.  If you did not eat meat, the chef would make something for you on the fly (I am sure it was good but just to be clear, I eat meat, and I love short rib) but this was the first time I had seen an actual choice between beef, fish and vegetarian.   After the soup course (I think, maybe salad) the waiter came around and asked for your choice.

But first up?  Scallop Carpaccio:

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Basically just thinly sliced scallops with the dressing, a yuzu vinaigrette.

After that, the soup course.  This is first served with the bowl empty so that you can see the ingredients and then the server pours the soup into each bowl at the table.

Part of the fun of the Chef’s Table is the unique and interactive presentation.  At the start of each course the chef says a few words about what goes into making each dish and why it is served the way it is.  Then the Sommelier talks about what goes into the wine pairings for each course.  The wine is the one thing that always changes, while the chef must stick to the approved menu, the Sommelier has some freedom to choose the wines based on what he has on hand at the time.  The wines for this Chef’s Table overall  I would describe as adequate.  No show stoppers, but nothing too terrible either.

Moving on to the salad course:

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Now everyone loves lobster, and I am no different, but this was probably my least favorite course.  While the lobster itself was fine, the pineapple/vanilla dressing was a bit sweet for me.  YMMV

Now onto the entrèes.   Twelve people can sit at that table for dinner, and at our meal there were eleven Filets and one Tagliatelle.  No one ordered the fish…ergo I have no pictures of the fish (you better believe I would have taken a picture of someone else’s food if there had been that option!).  But I do have pictures of the filet:

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and the Truffle Tagliatelle:

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As both dishes were ordered by people in my party, I was able to try both…and both were amazing!

If you have not yet had enough food, never fear!  The absolute richest dish is yet to come.  That’s right!  Dessert!

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Valrhona Chocolate mousse with dulce de leche gelato and salted caramel cookie crumbles.  Believe me when I tell you that it actually pained me to leave this, but since I still had to fit in an airplane seat I had to content myself with just tasting each component.

In addition, coffee is offered, the Executive Chef, Maître D’, Sommelier and servers all come out to thank you and say goodbye and then we all precariously walked down the spiral staircase and out of the dining room.

I really enjoyed the new menu.  And I REALLY love the new location.  I will continue to reserve Chef’s Table on my Royal Caribbean cruises…even if they don’t change the menu for another six years!

 

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Conquest in the Caribbean…6 (and last!)

After our two new cool ports, we have a sea day on our way back to Ft. Lauderdale.  We have already discussed that I really like sea days, both for relaxing and because they always have kinda corny, but usually fun activities for people to take part in if they choose.  My activity du jour is the famed Mixology class with the AMAZING bartenders at the Alchemy Bar.

This class was run by Kat, our bartender from Belarus.  I originally had not signed up for the class because I’ve been a bartender, do I really need a mixology class?  As it turns out…maybe.

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Arriving at class, I am greeted by these three little, tiny martini glasses…DON’T BE FOOLED!!! Kat (shown here looking deceptively innocent) will fill those glasses up at least 17 times before you leave.

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First up is the Mint Martini…there was quite a bit of technical information given about gin and I am positive that Kat thoroughly discusses the intricacies of muddling and straining and all that important stuff.  But the biggest lie I tell myself is “I don’t need to write that down, I’ll remember that!” And then 17 martinis (small ones…don’t judge) later I need one of those stickers with my name on it so I don’t forget that!

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That was followed by the Cucumber Sunrise…As you can see, my straining skills need work! But I had already finished a full glass (the pint glass in the back, not the little martini ones) of the gin mint thing and was partway through the pint of the cucumber vodka one so my real goal was to not fall off the barstool.

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Oh!  I know what will help!! Caffeine!  So Kat graciously provided us with espresso bean infused vodka…hmmm…maybe I didn’t think this all the way through.

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Alright…real talk between friends?  I have no idea what this one was.  The only reason I know I was still there are the pictures!  But I am going to hazard a guess and say that I liked this one…I usually like pink drinks!

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And finally, the green one I don’t remember!  At some point we learned about infusing the cocktail with bubbles instead of adding a carbonated mixer…that was cool.  And  I must have survived all the way to the end because I came home with this:

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So I am clearly competent to mix you a drink…or drink what you mix…or something!  All said and done it was really a fun class, great instructor in Kat, great group of other participants, and believe it or not, I did learn new stuff too!

After this class, however, I had to go back to the cabin a take a nap before dinner!  Our last dinner on board was in the Main Dining Room and then it was time to leave.

Overall, I really enjoyed this cruise.  There were things that Carnival does better than Royal Caribbean and things that Royal does better.  At the end of the day, I have added a new cruise line to my sailing options!  In fact, I already have two more cruises booked on Carnival.  But next up is my favorite Royal Caribbean ship, Freedom of the Seas in the Mediterranean!!!!

Conquest in the Caribbean…4

Ah, Sea Days.  For some people, it is the best part of the cruise; some people would be happy to have none.  I like them just fine.  Sailing along in the middle of the ocean with nothing to do but relax, have some cocktails, soak up the sun.  If you love them or if you don’t, it still beats a day at work!

First up, Sea Day Brunch.  Among Carnival regulars, there are some pretty famous staples on this menu: the Funnest French Toast for one, and of course the Bloody Mary Bar!  However, I chose the Steak & Eggs…I mean, Bearnaise!  My general rule is if something comes with Bearnaise, I order it.  This rule has never let me down, and it didn’t today either!  The filet was perfectly cooked, the eggs were okay and the Bearnaise was awesome!!!  I really don’t even remember what everyone else had, mine was that good.  Thusly fortified, we were ready to begin the serious business of relaxing.

Even though it was January, we were in the Caribbean so the sun seekers were out in full force.  Chairs around the pool were at a premium…BUT!! Chairs around the bar were plentiful and it was nice and quiet in the adults only aft pool.  Extra bonus: my bartender from the Steakhouse last night works days at the aft pool bar…Yay! Javorka!!

Mom eventually found me although she popped in and out in between trivia, but for the bulk of the day, I sat and read my Kindle and really just relaxed.  As a single mom, that doesn’t happen often!

Eventually, I headed back to my cabin to get ready for dinner.  I had a very important mission this evening…discover the Alchemy Bar.

The Alchemy Bar is a specialized bar on some Carnival ships.  No beer, no wine, no frozen drinks.  But the bartenders are the best in the business and their specialty is matching a cocktail to your taste.  They are VERY good at their jobs!  It was here I met my other favorite bartender (its not weird that my favorite people are all bartenders, is it?).  Kat from Belarus.

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She won my heart when she made me this amazing Espresso Martini.  Yep, those are chocolate covered espresso beans on top!! It was love at first sip!  Needless to say, I spent a good deal of time here and in fact took the mixologist class which I will talk about later because tonight is CHEF’S TABLE!

I have loved Chef’s Table on every other ship that I’ve tried it on , so I was really excited to try it on the Conquest!  First up was a kitchen tour.  Since this a working kitchen during dinner service, the tour was quite interesting…and busy!  We finished by having champagne and small bites before making our way to the private dining room set up for us.

Once we got to our table, everyone had an assigned seat with a personalized menu.

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See those bread things at the top?  Those are blue cheese popovers…Those are amazing and if you ever get to a Carnival Chef’s Table, you should immediately sneeze on them or something so you get the whole tray!

We then worked our way down the menu.  At each course, the Chef would talk a bit about what we were eating.  The servers kept the wine glasses full, although there were only two choices, a white or a red.  On previous cruises, the Chef’s Table is also a wine tasting so there is a different wine with each course, but not on Carnival.  That’s okay, the food was pretty darn interesting on its own.

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Crab Stack
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Duck Textures
Crazy molecular gastronomy going on here!
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First time trying sweetbreads.
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As if there’s room for dessert!!

Needless to say, we barely rolled back to our cabin.  Overall, while I would have liked to have a wine pairing with each course, the food was amazing and I will certainly be doing the Chef’s Table dinner on Carnival again!

So next…I promise we did go places…really cool places I’d never been before!  I’ll tell you about them next!

 

Conquest in the Caribbean…2

So now is is boarding day (if you need to catch up click here)!!  Having never cruised Carnival before I was not familiar with their boarding process, but really how different could it be…show your ID, hand over your credit card, get your card, easy enough.  And it was.  With the possible exception of me having no “status” with Carnival so I stood in line with all the other newbie (to Carnival) cruisers.  Still, the line moved fairly quickly and soon I was looking for my mother, who had already checked in, instead of waiting for me!  That turned out to be a lucky move as she was assigned Group 1 boarding and I had been assigned Group 4.  I guess that is a timing thing as she had never been on Carnival before either.  At any rate, we still had quite a bit of waiting to do as boarding was delayed for some unknown reason, but eventually we were called to begin boarding.

Our itinerary for this trip includes two islands I have never been to before so I was super excited for those.  Here is how the week would go:

Sunday – Board
Monday – Nassau
Tuesday – At Sea
Wednesday – Amber Cove, Dominican Republic
Thursday – Grand Turk
Friday – At Sea
Saturday – Get off…go home.

I had also made reservations for the Steakhouse and Chefs Table, both of which I love on Royal so I was interested to see the differences. But first?? A drink!!

I had purchased the drink package (like I always do!) and since Carnival rules are different, so had mom, even though she usually barely breaks even on that.  So up to the pool bar to grab a drink.  And there we came to a screeching halt. You see, mom’s card worked fine, but mine declined.  What? How can you decline a prepurchased drink package?  Well…down to Customer Service…fortunately with a drink because the bartender took pity on my, although I did promise to come back and show him I had gotten it fixed.

The line at Customer Service went fairly quickly and soon Katie from Ireland had gotten us (me) all fixed up!  Back up to the pool deck we headed to take a look around.

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Water Slides!!!  I do love me some water slides…but I hadn’t quite had enough to drink yet!   So back down to the Red Frog Bar to show my now working card to the bartender and while I was there, refresh my drink!

Mom and I wandered around looking at things for a while, and then went to check out our cabin.  We were in an Oceanview cabin on Deck 1.  Remember that by the time I added mom, the only Oceanview’s were “guarantee.”  That means that Carnival assigns you a cabin based on what’s left…and we were the last cabin aft.  As far back as you can go on Deck 1.  The size and decor of the cabin were a pleasant surprise, but we did have a bit of an unpleasant surprise on port days.

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See? Nice enough cabin.  There is also a full size sofa, three closets and a “cruise-ship standard” bathroom.  For mom and I, there was plenty of room.  In fact it is bigger than the same type of stateroom on Royal’s ships!

After unpacking, it was time for Muster Drill…the mandatory safety drill required by the Coast Guard for all cruise ship passengers.  This, I think Royal does a bit better as they scan your room key to make sure everyone is accounted for.  This cruise, they just did a head count, and if the count didn’t match, we waited.  Now, its not too hot in January in Ft. Lauderdale, but I can only imagine how unpleasant this is in August!  Eventually everyone got counted, and the safety drill commenced.

When we were released from Muster, it was nearly time to get dressed for dinner.  We would be dining at the Steakhouse restaurant and taking advantage of Carnival’s first night special.  If you choose to dine in a specialty restaurant on either the first night or formal night, you get a free bottle of wine with dinner or 50% off any wine on the list.

More on that (and our Chef’s Table experience) next!!

 

Cruising Venice, The Greek Isles, and the Eastern Mediterranean

After missing one entire day in Venice, and with only my carry-on luggage available, I was still super excited for our Walking Tour of Venice scheduled for today.  This was a free walking tour and since OD and I had had such a great experience on our Free London Walking Tours, I was really looking forward to this one!

I used Venice Free Walking Tour.  It was a super easy sign up process, immediate email confirmation, and plenty of tour times to choose from.  One thing to remember…you will not tour St. Mark’s Square area at all.  These tours are designed to show you the non-touristy parts of Venice, which is why I take them.  I can find the big tourist attractions on my own.  I want to find cool places that aren’t totally packed, and we did as well as got some great pizza and learned about so much history along the way.

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Our tour guide was Giada (pronounced just like the Food Network star) and she has lived her whole life in Venice.  Our tour group was fairly diverse, young couples, old couples, families…a pretty good mix.  I would say that the youngest was maybe 9 years old and I wouldn’t even venture a guess at the oldest.  I will say this: Venice is not the city to visit if you have mobility issues.  The cobblestone “streets,” bridges, stairs, etc. do not make for easy walking.  The fact that there are no cars allowed on the island makes it seem like it might be pedestrian friendly…and it is, it is just not mobility friendly.  But if you are able to take a walking tour of Venice, you absolutely should!

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We learned quite a lot about the history and legends of Venice: Marco Polo, Casanova, the Lions, the origin of Carnival and the masks and many other cool tidbits!

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We visited a cute little bookstore that had this staircase made out of books!

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We found “interesting” restaurants and shops.

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We learned that you can tell the age of the buildings by the shape of the windows.

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We learned about the Gondolas and the meaning of the ferro (it represents the six neighborhoods in Venice and is in the shape of the Doge’s hat).  How long it takes to build a gondola (about three months), and how many gondoliers there are (424 men, 1 woman).

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And we learned that Venice has its own “Leaning Tower.” in fact there are several of them around the island.  I guess that is one of the dangers of building on such little islands.

In addition, Giada gave us some tips on choosing restaurants in Venice and, in one life changing moment, introduced me to a Venice staple:  Aperol Spritz.  Look it up, really.  Or, swing by my place around 5pm…I’m sure I will be pouring one (or two…alright three!).

After the tour, I wasted several hours going back and forth to the airport to see if our baggage had arrived (no!) and we then set out to find some dinner and Gelato.

We ended up at Ristorante Terrazza Del Casin Dei Nobili.  This restaurant is right along the Bay of Venice and has an amazing view.  I ordered Sea Bass and my first ever Aperol Spritz and both were amazing!  All in all, a great day…maybe luggage tomorrow??

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