A Moveable Feast

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A Mediterranean cruise begins in Monte Carlo. // Nila Do

A Moveable Feast
Welcome to a place where stately décor and luxurious amenities are merely accoutrements for gourmet dining and epicurean delights. Welcome to the ultimate foodie cruise. 

It’s never good in this business to have your BlackBerry go off between midnight and 5 a.m.” From his seat at the head of a circular lunch table at Jacques, with the sun beaming on his shoulders through the starboard side’s windows, Oceania Cruises President Kunal Kamlani just admitted what no well-established company wants to confess: Mistakes happen. And mistakes happen to them.

With his hands calmly folded into one another and resting on the white tableclothed table, Kamlani describes what it was like to wake up to a phone call at 2 a.m. in regard to, of all things, lobster. During a cruise, the lobster aboard the Marina had gone bad, he was told. The crustaceans started to smell, continued the voice on the other end. We can’t serve bad lobster aboard our upper-premium cruise ships, Kamlani concluded. And, “You can’t be on an Oceania cruise without lobster,” he flatly states.

So what did they do? “We spent a fortune getting fresh lobster mailed to the next port of call,” Kamlani says. Why? Because that’s the type of company Oceania Cruises is, he says.

Kamlani, a Miami native and Coral Gables resident who was born into a “cruising family” (he says his first cruise was as a baby lying in a bassinet on the ship), epitomizes the Oceania Cruises brand: affable, articulate and affluent. And as he sits inside Jacques on Riviera, crisp blue blazer, sans necktie and all, it’s apparent he’s as much the brand as the brand is he.

If the handling of Lobstergate is any indication of how food and service is the lifeblood of Oceania, then let’s examine the heart of the beast. Oceania’s four ships have become synonymous with fine dining – and Kamlani wasn’t joking when he said not serving lobster was not an option. As with its newest ship, Riviera, guests aboard the mid-sized vessel (capacity is 1,250) are overwhelmed with an onslaught of fine dining options – all served while moving along at sea. It’s a moveable feast, if you will.

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Frank Del Rio, Oceania’s co-founder, uses the word “cuisine” a lot. Except he doesn’t mean it like the rest of us. Nor does he pronounce it like we do. “Kew-zeen,” he enunciates. “The kew-zeen on Oceania is an experience you won’t get on any other ship,” Del Rio says. And he’s not wrong. Where most every cruise ship has a fine-dining restaurant with white tablecloth service and exceptionally conceptualized fare, the difference on Riviera is there are five of these fine-dining options. In fact, every restaurant on Riviera, fine dining or not, boasts an impressive menu meant to entice the erudite gourmand – and separate Oceania’s kew-zeen from other ships’.

Hailing from Miami, where Del Rio as the chairman and CEO of Prestige Cruise Holdings (the parent corporation of Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises) oversees the company, Del Rio is himself a foodie. His fleet of ships, including Riviera’s sister ship Marina (named Ship of the Year by Ocean & Cruise News), and Regatta and Nautica, have all been marketed to people like him – those who enjoy food to the highest degree and those who appreciate the culinary arts.

The baby of the family, Riviera is simply beautiful. It’s a paradise moving atop a massive hull, 16 decks of exquisite design and furnishings. To put it bluntly, this ain’t your grandkid’s cruise ship.

A sophisticated country-club ambiance is achieved through the rich wood décor, marble and granite flooring, and stylish art pieces (including an original Pablo Picasso painting located near Deck 6’s stern). Spacious staterooms are elegantly designed, with the penultimate rooms being the top suites, each designed by iconic interior designer Dakota Jackson and featuring rich Ralph Lauren Home furnishings.

Aboard Riviera, there are seemingly as many chefs as there are forks and knives. One hundred thirty-nine chefs of varying titles fill the six distinct galleys, each tasked to incorporate their components delicately on the plate.

Using Hemingway’s famous phrase and novel title in its literal sense, there is no better way to describe a trip aboard the cruising Riviera other than as a moveable feast. But sadly for Hemingway, he never got to experience a meal on Riviera, or else Paris’ 1920s scene might have an alternate title.

Perhaps the closest thing Oceania has to offer to Hemingway’s Paris is Jacques Pépin, famed French chef and culinary master for which Riviera’s restaurant Jacques is named. A signature restaurant on the ship, Jacques is the second of Pépin’s seagoing restaurants, with the first being onboard Marina.

As executive culinary director of Oceania, Pépin oversees each of the menus of the distinct restaurants onboard Riviera, which explains why the other four restaurants also appeal to a sophisticated palette. Red Ginger is the ship’s signature Asian fusion restaurant, with Chef Ricky Pang (who Oceania plucked from the illustrious Nobu London) heading up the kitchen’s execution. And if Polo Grill, the ship’s classic steakhouse, is for the more carnivorous, then Toscana is for those with a deep love of Tuscan flavors and memories. Also not to be missed is the Grand Dining Room, a stately restaurant with a menu that changes daily and even includes a special Canyon Ranch selection for the more health-conscious passenger.

A sixth restaurant could easily slide into the same esteem as the aforementioned five. Terrace Café, though a bit more informal than the five signature restaurants, still serves phenomenal buffet-style food with prime carving stations and flavorful accoutrements. The chefs and their foods are displayed right in front of you, like a craftsman creating his masterpiece in front of an audience. With a few friendly smiles and gentle chants of “Hello, madam” from the multitudes of chefs in front of their stations, Terrace Café is no ordinary open-seating restaurant. It’s no less still touched by Jacques Pépin’s fine hands and brings to life dishes from all parts of the world.

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As the newest ship in Oceania’s fleet, Riviera has much hype to live up to. Setting out on its christening cruise in May 2012, Riviera looks to get out of its sister ship’s shadow. Marina was birthed a year before and sits, along with Riviera, in an upper-premium cruise market, a demographic that isn’t quite luxury (which markets to a smaller than 1,250-capacity group) but is still above the premium line.

And as proud of the award-winning Marina that Del Rio is, he admits the brand-new Riviera has a special place in his heart.

“It’s as close to perfection that one could have, at least in our eyes,” the humble Del Rio says.

He says 727 changes – small dimples, if you will – were made from Marina to Riviera. Imagine that, 727 changes made on an already award-winning ship. And the result is truly something to behold.

Being a ship for foodies, it comes as no surprise Riviera offers its patrons a chance to immerse in the joy of cooking at the Bon Appétit  Culinary Center. A hands-on culinary studio at sea, the center gives master chef instruction in a professional kitchen atmosphere. There are 12 cooking stations, each with an induction stove (“Ugh, can you imagine if we had gas stoves on a moving ship?” jokes Chef Kathryn Kelly, a Harvard professor and executive chef who serves as the culinary enrichment director for Oceania Cruises).

At the end of November, Riviera will set sail out of Miami and sail around the Caribbean. It is a chance for the South Florida-based cruise company to show its stripes to the Eastern Hemisphere, to display how moveable her feast really is.

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This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of Gold Coast magazine.

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