Monday, April 25, 2011

Crystal Symphony - Goldring Travel's Pacific Exploration of Crystal Cruise's Luxury Experience - Part VIII

Two incredible dining experiences are the highlights of this article...and that is after our incredible dinner at Silk Road on the Crystal Symphony.  But first some observations after spending a few days on the ship.

My time on the Crystal Symphony has, so far, been a very relaxing and enjoyable experience. There are definitely differences as compared to Seabourn, but as I will discuss later, so many similarities to Silversea and Regent Seven Seas, that if you like a certain style, Crystal really should be at the top of your list of options.

One thing to consider is that the concept of the ship being too big is simply a fallacy. The Crystal Symphony has a quiet elegance and more than enough informality to make it a very comfortable ship with plenty of space for even those demanding privacy and/or intimacy.

On the one sea day I awoke in the morning and slipped out to use my sea day to check out the ship in more detail. Crystal had show cabins available, so I took advantage of the opportunity to take photographs of every category other than the Crystal Penthouse to have as a good reference. I attended a bit of two enrichment lectures and both were excellent. I hit the casino and went directly to the slot machine that had, just the night before, given a Connoisseur Club friend fits the night before…and made a decent winning. I saw the Card Room was quite active with bridge players (and I knew better than to disrupt that group!), the Computer Lab was being utilized for a course on Photoshop and the midship Bistro was really a hub of activity for guests and staff. I also saw a yoga class being held in a lounge.

This confirmed that while the Crystal Symphony may be larger than the other luxury but it truly has an incredibly diversity of possible activities; noting that I have not mentioned everything that Crystal offered that day, but what I saw walking around in just one morning!

Lunch on our sea day was to be an All American Buffet. It was pretty ordinary for me. One of the few disappointments I encountered. If there is one area of the ship that I would change it would be the Lido. It just seems like there is such a classy ship…and then that. The Trident Grill is a great space and seriously underutilized...other than for late breakfasts and afternoon naps.

Another thing that has struck me is that while Crystal Cruises is not all inclusive (though it will be as of March 2012…eleven months from now) it not only is a non-issue for me, it opened up my mind to different wine selections. You never, and I mean never, show your card. You are discretely given a folio with your charge. As in any hotel, country club or fine restaurant, you just sign. And since you are not in the “I do not like the wine selection this evening” mode, you look at the wine list and truly consider your wine selection as part of your dining experience. I hate to say it, but this cruise – because of the way Crystal does it – has made me feel a bit cheap when I drink wines that other cruise lines, including Seabourn, offer that aren’t exactly what I would have chosen for a particular meal.

Now Dining Experience No. 2:  The Vintage Room Dinner. This is true dining and social experience held in a private room with 10-12 guests, the head sommelier, a wait staff of three, some excellent wines and small, but delicious, dishes. What I expected was a paired tasting menu with appropriate wines and explanations provided. That I did receive, but what I also received were refills on the wines as if I was attending a dinner party rather than a wine tasting. The sommelier orchestrated the evening flawlessly providing just enough information and humor to make the evening and conversation flow (except for two snobbish women at the far end of the table…their problem!).

Our cuisine consisted of Lobster and Asparagus Salad, Dover Sole, Porcini Mushroom Risotto, Rack of Veal, Blue Cheese Tart and Crème Fraiche Souffle. But without question, the cuisine was secondary to the wines and the evening is all about wine…maybe a bit too much wine! A very readable explanation of each wine was provided, but not studied. I have since read the information and it is more about the winery and background information, but with tasting notes; a very nice presentation. We shared a Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve, a fantastic Dagueneau Pur Sang, Shafer Chardonney, a favorite of mine: Antinori Tignanello, Lail Cabernet and then a Trockenbeernauslese and, finally, a very nice Moscato. (You can do the pairings if you like.)

And just to show you how convivial the evening was, I teased the sommelier about loving the Tignanello, so after we were done he opened another bottle! With a fine glass of wine to end the evening I headed off to the Connoisseur Club for a cigar...joined by my daughter for a nice chat.  A great evening and a better end to it!

The next day found us in San Francisco. After finally visiting Alcatraz (well worth it…and be sure to book ahead…noting that doing this through the cruise line would be totally unnecessary) and taking walk over to Fisherman’s Wharf to see the sea lions (again) it was time for a highly anticipated Chinese culinary treat.

Dining Experience No. 3: Lunch at Jai Yun.  Jai Yun looks like a typical, décor challenged, Chinese restaurant in any Chinatown. But Jai Yun is special…very special. You cannot walk in and have lunch or dinner. It is a Reservations Only restaurant because the chef/owner goes to the markets each morning to purchase the freshest and finest items available on that day. Neither the charming chef nor his assistant speak much English, but they are warm and friendly…once you let them know that you have a reservation.

We had our choice of tables because – get this – we were the only ones in the restaurant (save one person who came in looking for lunch, but he didn’t have a reservation).  We pick a table and the feast begins…but do not think of gluttony. Think of expertly prepared small plates with just enough for the four of us…lots of them.

Shortly after we sat down eight different white dishes appeared with a variety of flavors from seemingly unnaturally green vegetables, to delicately pickled white cabbage with chilies, to slightly smoky mushrooms, to… And then, after a short break, one dish at a time ranging from a perfectly fried straw mushroom dish to a delicate sweet and spicy fish, to a fantastic abalone preparation, to a rich clear tofu and on and on and on, until it ended in a braised beef shank that was incredible. We lost count, but figure we had at least 20 different dishes; each one memorable and playing off the one before, while setting you up for the next one to come.

But I guess we paid the chef the best of compliments: He saw I was showing my children how to suck the marrow out of the shank bones and he motioned that we must be hungry…so he cooked us two more dishes. The last one I still taste: Miniature eggplants, partially peeled, fried and then blessed with a sweet sauce with hot chili peppers.

If this genius (and incredibly kind man) was to move his mastery of Chinese cuisine into some fancy restaurant with elegant dishes and waiters flying around with expensive wines offered with each course, he could easily charge triple what we paid…but then the focus on the food and the care put into it would be lost. Jai Yun is perfect just as it is.

Now, after a needed walk back to the ship, and a more needed soak in the hot tub (finding that the circulation is just fine without the noisy blower on and it is more relaxing) it was time for…uh, dinner. But the cuisine is so good we had to at least sample. So I made meal out of three appetizers and was more than content.

Tomorrow is our last day: Santa Barbara, California.