We adventured on the largest ship in the NCL fleet in November (2011) as we sailed from Miami to St. Maarten, St. Thomas, and Nassau with a dear friend (and first time cruiser). We have enjoyed the freestyle cruising style of NCL and this proved to be a great choice again.
The ports are not the main attraction of this vacation, in my mind, it’s really the opportunity to enjoy the ship and entertainment options it provides. This ship is second to none in entertainment. From feature acts Legends in Concert and Blue Man Group to the comedy of The Second City and improv music at Howl at the Moon – - there is rarely a dull moment. For amazing blues and jazz, the Fat Cats Jazz & Blues Club takes me back to Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
Now, on to the food, the ‘main course’ of the post. First, overall the dining was improved over our 2 previous NCL cruises, especially in the main dining rooms. The specialty restaurants are generally very good, as one might expect, but we returned for 4 nights of dinner in the main dining rooms and enjoyed them thoroughly.
- Cagney’s: This clubby steakhouse provides solid steaks (not prime, but a high-end choice to be sure), perfectly prepared and some solid salads and sides to go with it. I’m a big surf-n-turf fan and for $8 more, I had a lobster tail with my steak. Our waiter strongly recommended the truffle fries and they were good, but considering that we already had mushrooms and creamed spinach already, we basically picked at them. For as good as the main course was, I think the best part was the apple crumb cobbler with vanilla ice cream. The apples tasted fresh, the crumb topping was uber-crunchy and spiked with a bit of cinnamon and the ice cream was a perfect compliment.
- La Cucina: We had the beginnings of a fun and enjoyable meal in this cozy, very italian feeling restaurant in the front of the ship on deck 14. We went on our first night which was a rough night at sea and didn’t make it past the appetizers as it was really uncomfortable to not see the horizon in a dark room. The server was wonderful and sent our unfinished meals which didn’t yet arrive to our rooms for whenever we wanted to eat them. Sadly, I wasn’t hungry the rest of the night.
- Moderno Churrascaria: This Brazillian steakhouse inspired restaurant is on the other side of Cagney’s just above the Manhattan room. The theme is cool and offers a similar style of dining that you might find in a Brazillian Steakhouse here, but that’s where the similarities end. The salad bar was pretty and provided a fair amount of variety, but nothing was really special on it. Then, the meats started to arrive. The Picanha (top-sirloin) and Filet were the two top steaks in my mind due to overall flavor and tenderness. The sausages, ribs, lamb, and garlic steak were fair – - not bad, don’t get me wrong, but not representative of the quality this ship has to offer. We had better food at the lunch buffet in the garden cafe at lunch. For dessert, they were able to accommodate our request for the apple crumb cobbler from Cagney’s and we enjoyed that (maybe more) again.
- At both of the main dining rooms: Manhattan Room and Taste, we were very satisfied. The Manhattan Room is more formal and features a big band that plays through dinner – loved that! Taste is more casual, with a sleek note to it and we had a wonderful server there who couldn’t have been any better. Food in both is the same, so it’s the setting that you’re going for. In my mind they are really firing on all cylinders in both of these venues, from the braised lamb shank which doesn’t even require a knife to the pork loin which comes out perfect and juicy, they have mastered the art of large format prep. However, what really takes the “cake” is the dessert. I can’t stop raving about how impressed I am at the souffle that comes out of these kitchens. The precision, and often timing required to consistently turn out a souffle in a fine dining establishment is known, but in a giant production like this, it’s really incredible. On the last night, I enjoyed their coconut souffle which was moist, light, airy, and had the palatable weave of coconut throughout, but not at all overpowering. If you go, find out which night they are serving the souffle and make sure you have it (any of the restaurant managers can ask the chef for you).
- The garden cafe or the buffet as most know it is not to be missed. This isn’t due to the opportunity to completely gorge yourself in the gluttony of widely available, all-you-can-eat food, but really, due to the quality. If you enjoy Indian food, don’t miss whatever they are serving in the Indian specialty section of the garden cafe as it’s well spiced and accurately prepared. Another good find, especially at lunch or for a pre-dinner snack is their pizza which is on a slightly sweet homemade crust and has just the right proportion of cheese and sauce. The second to last day, they had a flank steak with chimichurri that was as good as any I’ve had in a steakhouse (and it was lunch), as it was tender and had that garlicy / parsley flavor.
There’s no shortage of eating on the EPIC, but in my estimation, the quality is truly impressive and the best I’ve seen from NCL to date.