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Cunard Line Queen Elizabeth Cruise Review

Elegant art deco detail meets British formalities on the high seas.

January 22, 2013
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For those of us not parked in suites, there were four main dining options nightly. Although Queen Elizabeth does not have a large variety of dining venues, the diversity of food on offer was impressive. The lovely main dining room, Britannia Restaurant, had a menu with an ambitiously French bent, and though the food—from frogs legs to venison to fish curry—didn’t always live up to expectations, the variety on offer was surprising, with good options for vegetarians. Although the buffet Lido Restaurant was just average, each evening one corner of the venue was converted into one of four different ethnic menus, where we enjoyed pleasing food at a modest surcharge.

Queen Elizabeth’s alternative dining option, The Verandah, was excellent—a refined showcase for French cuisine with polished service and quiet surrounds. Our lunch and dinner here were among the best we’ve experienced at sea, well worth the a la carte surcharge.

But all was not perfect. The Britannia Restaurant suffered from a cacophony of noise and hustle-bustle, with uneven service from an under-trained wait staff. And the Lido Grill, an outdoor extension of the Lido buffet, was understaffed at peak hours. While these problems would not be unusual on a lower priced cruise ship, with Cunard positioning itself as a luxury cruise experience the line should deliver a higher, more consistent level of service.

Those staying in Britannia Club cabins were invited to dine in the Britannia Club dining room, at their leisure between 6:30 and 9 p.m. The menus appeared to be identical to that of the Britannia Restaurant, but the 84-seat Club dining room—located immediately next to the main dining room on Deck 2—was a quieter, more subdued space, and guests appeared to receive more personalized service. The Club was also open for breakfast and lunch daily.

Britannia Restaurant

Queen Elizabeth’s main dining room is one classy-looking venue, a two-story affair that straddles decks 2 and 3 aft. Awash in polished woods, swooping curves and art deco angles, the restaurant should be a showcase for upscale cuisine in a soothing environment. Alas, that was not what we found. The food, somewhat ambitious and with a French accent, was okay, but it could have been better. But the real problem was the service and ambience.

The first night of our cruise, meal service was disorganized, our waiter inattentive to detail, and the noisy bustle of diners and wait staff settling into their routines was clamorous; buckets of cleaning products sat a few feet from our table. On our second night here, our waiter was less distracted, but the noise level was still loud, capped off by a collision at the kitchen entrance that sent plates and food flying (at least once per meal there was the sound of crashing plates from somewhere). At breakfast, which was slow to arrive, we were asked if we wanted toast and, since we’d ordered French toast, we passed. When our French toast was delivered, we were asked again—white or wheat? Inattention to details like these was a recurring issue.

There were two seatings nightly in the Britannia Restaurant, at 6 and 8:30 p.m., while next door open seating was provided in the Brittania Club, but only for those in that cabin category. A sign said there were no tables for two available in the main dining room, but we spotted several (no doubt in high demand). Breakfast and lunch were served daily.

Each evening our first course was hit-and-miss. A bowl of beef consommé with barley and vegetables was delivered lukewarm. A salad of spinach, citrus, pecans and red onion had spry greens (a strong point throughout), but was delivered undressed. When we asked for dressing only one option was brought over—the menu had offered a choice—and then ladled on in excess (a recurring problem). Roasted butternut squash topped with apple and pecan salad and micro greens was beautifully presented, but the dish was bland—it needed spark. But avocado soup with salmon was silky and rich—a satisfying cold starter. Classic escargots à la Bourguignonne were properly redolent with garlic and butter. Other items on the appetizer menu included crispy Thai vegetable spring roll, shrimp and salmon cakes, frogs’ legs Provençale, wild mushroom and goat cheese risotto, and cheddar cheese soup.

Entrées were a little more consistent, including a grilled sirloin, cooked right to order and served with hunky fried potatoes. On formal night a smallish broiled lobster tail was served with sesame-crusted fried shrimp and rich Newburg sauce, a tasty treat. There was a light Mediterranean vegetable tarte tatin, topped with a goat cheese bavarois—a nice find for vegetarians. But a fettucini with salmon was disappointing: Some of the pasta was dried out, as though the noodles had been sitting under a heat lamp. And chicken Kiev was distinctly unambitious, and we weren’t much impressed by the duck à l’orange. Other entrées included a free-range, mushroom-stuffed guinea fowl, braised venison, lamb shanks with root vegetables, and a baked salmon fillet and wild mushroom Wellington.

Each night there were at least two appetizers and two entrées suited for vegetarians, and “spa” selections were available nightly.

Desserts were generally decadent and fairly varied. We enjoyed the Bacardi Limon crème brûlée, a chocolate marquise, and a pavlova topped with fresh strawberries. And when our sweet tooth was sated the cheese plate was worth trying, with three selections that changed nightly, served with a few walnuts, dried apricots and a roll.

Breakfasts were solid, with a range of cold and hot items. This included juices, a fruit smoothie of the day, sliced melon, a mixed fruit salad and compote of stewed fruits; regular and low-fat yogurts were offered, along with assorted cold cuts and cheeses. Cereals included packaged options, Swiss muesli, hot oatmeal and Cream of Wheat; baked goods were tasty (Danish, croissants, banana bread) and there were pancakes (blueberry or banana available), waffles and French toast. Eggs could be prepared to order (with low cholesterol available), along with omelets to order, eggs benedict, grilled Scottish kippers and poached haddock, with side orders of bacon (English or “streaky”), chicken sausages, Cumberland sausage, mushrooms, baked beans and grilled tomatoes. One complaint: The first morning our coffee was both weak and lukewarm, but on request it was quickly replaced with a hotter, slightly stronger batch.

The mood at lunch was more relaxed and quiet, and service was much better (the room was less than half full). A salad of garden greens was pleasing, perky with horseradish and dill flavors. Cold cranberry soup was rich with yogurt, not too sweet (or sour). For entrées we tried the barramundi and found it to be tough and fishy-tasting; a dish of beef and wine ravioli was pretty boring. A broccoli quiche was just okay. Other entrées included gnocchi with confit of duck and shiitake mushrooms, a fish curry and vegetable moussaka. Dessert of crème caramel was fine, while mud pie—made with chocolate mousse—was only fair; a more bittersweet flavor and a silkier texture would have been welcome.

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Lido Restaurant & Lido Grill

The buffet restaurant took up most of the aft portion of Deck 9, and it was a busy spot, especially at breakfast. Fortunately we didn’t have too much trouble finding a table in the morning. Although the buffet offered a relatively good spread we found variety somewhat lacking from one day to the next—the four or five choices of prepared salads, for instance, did not change during our entire cruise.

Just outside the main seating area on the outdoor aft deck was the Lido Grill, open for lunch daily. But the two times we visited we found just one person staffing the grill, and a line for burgers. The cook was doing his best to keep up, but a second person should have been assigned, particularly since the vats of condiments (lettuce, tomato, onion, etc.) were often virtually empty. Another frustration, back inside: Almost daily, the stack of plates marked “cold plates” was filled with plates that were warm or hot—yep, just what we like to load our salad greens onto!

At breakfast we found a fairly predictable selection, with a few items added that catered to the English crowd. Cereals included Kellogg’s brand boxes and a few healthy choices, along with hot oatmeal. There was a good range of whole fruits—apples, pears, plums, peaches, oranges, kiwi, grapes and banana, along with sliced pineapple, grapefruit, melons, and strawberries. There were yogurts—flavored or plain—and we looked forward to fruit smoothies, freshly prepared each morning (a different flavor daily, such as watermelon, strawberry and banana). There was lox with bagels, onions, tomato, capers, plus various cold cuts and cheeses with crackers and walnuts. Various breads and pastries were available, along with small jars of Wilkin & Sons preserve—raspberry, strawberry, apricot, orange marmalade. Hot items included a pancake and waffle station (in addition to maple syrup there was chocolate and banana-butterscotch topping) and an omelet station. Sides included bacon, sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes, hash browns, baked beans—all the makings for a traditional English breakfast.

At lunch there was a modest salad bar including an unchanging array of five or six prepared salads, and we found a soup of the day—roasted shallot and butternut squash soup, cream of broccoli, stilton and spring onions, tomato soup. There was a pizza station, but the pies lacked spark and flavor. The carvery had a different selection daily, such as lemon and garlic chicken, prime rib and beef top round. Entrées included veal scaloppini with wild mushroom sauce, chicken schnitzel, vegetable moussaka, fillet of haddock, Somerset pork cider pot and a mixed vegetable quiche. Among the side dishes were steamed pesto new potatoes, cauliflower polonaise, steamed vegetables, creamed spinach with pine nuts, and pulao rice. The daily selection of desserts features puddings, cakes and cookies, and there was an ice cream station with vanilla and chocolate soft serve ice cream and cones.

At dinner each night there was a theme buffet. This included nights dedicated to Italian, Scandinavian, American, English Carvery and Oriental. On the final night of the cruise there was a beautifully presented spread of seafood that came out, including prawns, mussels, salmon, tuna, fresh mahi mahi and cod, offered with various sauces. Also of note each evening was that one corner of the seating area each night was transformed into a specialty restaurant with a modest cover charge.

The ship’s standard beer and wine list was available, along with cocktails from the Garden Lounge and Lido Bar, on either end of the restaurant. A station was set up for drinks on both sides of the buffet, with coffee, decaf, and about a dozen teas from Twinings available. Iced tea, cranberry juice cocktail and, in the morning, orange drink were available; we also noted Horlicks powder for malted milk.

Asado, Jasmine, Indian Bistro, Aztec

We were pleasantly surprised by this “alternative dining” venue. These days, it’s not unusual for cruises to devote a section of their buffet to a surcharge restaurant at night. But often these seem like little more than the buffet with window dressing, with minimal improvement on food or ambience. But Queen Elizabeth got it right, with not one but four alternating restaurants serving distinct meals for two or three nights in a row.

There’s Asado, with grilled meats and side dishes served South American style. Jasmine offered a pan-Asian menu, and Indian Bistro offered a panoply of curries. The fourth option, Aztec, with Mexican fare, wasn't provided on our cruise (but usually is on cruises longer than a week). Menus were short, but portions were huge, and with a modest cover charge of $10 we found all of them to be a good value, the setting relaxed and not crowded.

For Asado, an appetizer combo delivered a spicy beef empanada, coriander and coconut crab cake, and ceviche of lobster and halibut. For mains we were invited to order two items from either the rotisserie—pulled pork marinated in chili paste and Argentinean spices or chimichurri chicken marinated in olive oil and garlic—or the grill. The latter option included rump of lamb in oregano, garlic and ancho chilies, beef short rib marinated in beer and lemon, a chicken skewer, grilled chorizo sausage, or prawns marinated in Serrano chili and citrus zest. There wasn’t one of the four we tried that we didn’t like. With by side dishes (avocado and sweet potato fritters were fabulous), and dessert (chocolate banana cheesecake, caramel flan or a donut with lime-pineapple-coconut ice cream), we were stuffed when we left and still had food on our plates.

We returned the following night for Jasmine, and again, food was plentiful. The meal started with a pot of jasmine tea, with an hourglass-style timer. A tasting platter came with Korean barbecue pork spare ribs, shrimp toast, a chicken lollipop coated in sesame seeds, California style maki rolls, and wakame, pickled ginger and sour cucumber. There was a choice of two soups: Vietnamese phở, or Thai tom kha gai with crab, chicken and coconut milk—both were flavorful and spicy, but salt overwhelmed the tom kha gai. Dim sum was delivered—fried shumai and seafood Rangoon—and then off to our choice of one of three entrées: crispy duck with pancake, Mandarin-style crispy chili beef, and kropeck-crusted shrimp with sweet and sour sauce. Again, there wasn’t one we didn’t like, but the shrimp was most tantalizing. Dessert was another combo plate—a glass of mango lassi, coconut-caramel cheesecake, and a dish new to us called Wattalapam, a cinnamon and cashew caramel custard which seemed like a variation on Mexican flan.

On a roll, we signed up for Indian Bistro, and again it reached well beyond the typical cruise menu. We'd caution that spices weren’t particularly watered down for non-Indian palates. Starters to share included tandoori chicken, lasoon wali macchli (garlic fried sole in yogurt and ginger), onion bhajis (fritters), sheikh kebab (minced lamb skewers) and aloo chana chaat. The latter was the winner here—greens, potatoes and chick peas with tamarind, dates and pomegranate. The quantity of food that followed was truly overwhelming. Sides of dal, aloo gobi (potatoes and cauliflower) and makai saagwalla (corn and spinach), mains like Malabar fish and shrimp curry, lamb Jalfrezi and chicken tikka masala, with naan bread and basmati rice. Desserts were equally memorable: fried bread pudding with cardamom, pistachio, and saffron-spiked condensed milk; rice and coconut pudding served atop pineapple carpaccio; and a cappuccino crème brûlée.

There’s also Aztec, which wasn’t offered on our cruise, but we hope to try in the future. The Mexican menu featured starters of guacamole and chips, tamales, chile relleno and tacquitos, with entrées ranging from chicken with pecan-prune mole, a port and chorizo skewer, crepes with shrimp, and beef tenderloin.

Vegetarians should note that, at all four of the options, entrées were strictly meat, chicken or seafood based. But there were plenty of starters that were vegetarian, and we suspect a fairly diverse meat-free dinner could be composed on request.

In addition to the ship’s standard wine and cocktail list, there were themed drinks and wine to accompany each of the menus. And instead of an amuse-bouche a small cocktail sample was offered at the start of the meal. At Asado it was a mini caiprinha—cachaça, lime and passion fruit puree. With Jasmine, we enjoyed a sake taster.

Each venue was open for only two or three nights—the schedule was posted in the Lido Restaurant. While the space seated only a few dozen, it wasn't full on any night we ate here, though reservations are still advised.

The Verandah

Styled after the original Queen Elizabeth’s Verandah Grill, a favorite of the cruising elite in the 30s, this is the modern-day vessel’s top dining room. Seating only about 60, with a surcharge for dinner and (on sea days) lunch, the menu focuses on French cuisine. Not only was the food exceptional, but service was spot on—proper and deferential, but not stuffy or condescending. The room is plush and inviting, with lots of space between tables, allowing for quiet, intimate meals. The wine list is heady, but the sommelier was knowledgeable, and didn’t push us towards pricier wines (of which there were many).

This is truly Queen Elizabeth’s special occasion spot, but—relative to specialty dining on other ships—we found the charge fair. Instead of a set price for the entire meal, items are priced a la carte. At dinner, appetizers were $6-$7, entrées $17-$18, desserts $6-$7—so budget about $30 for dinner, not including drinks or tip. At lunch, appetizers were $5-$7, entrées $11-$12. Only quibble: We experienced a fair amount of engine vibration here at lunch.

For dinner there was a choice of cold and hot appetizers, every one of them mouth-watering. There was a lobster and shellfish salad, nuzzled against avocado and tomato jelly. For another, a lump of crab bathed in chilled asparagus and feta cream, lathered in crustacean foam. We loved the presentation of the homemade ravioli, plumped with fresh peas and parmigiano reggiano set against a pair of fried quail eggs encrusted with Guérande salt and floating in watercress jus—packed with flavor and not overly rich.

Hearty entrées included a rack of lamb for two, roasted in a salt crust dough and served with shallot potato cake and “stuffed” courgette. Beef fillet was accompanied by morels, baby vegetables and black truffle. The filet of sea bass was baked with a wild mushroom crust, topped with a dollop of onion-fennel marmalade, and floating on a ying-and-yang sea of sorrel sauce and chicken jus.

Perkiest dessert, in taste and presentation, was lemon tart, topped with peaks of braised meringue; the winged creature to its side was an almond wafer with a raspberry sorbet torso. We also liked the dark chocolate parfait filled with caramelized praline and topped with espresso semifreddo. Vanilla soufflé was infused with Edmond Briottet peach liqueur, and the cheese trolley was laden with fine options from England and France, followed close by a trolley with after-dinner drinks—aged rums and cognacs.

Again at lunch the appetizers sparkled, including a chilled green apple and cucumber soup with lobster salpicon and blackberry sorbet. Also lovely to look at (and eat) was the scallop mousse framed with chunks of langoustine and served atop of a green bean risotto. For mains, the supreme of guinea fowl was accompanied by a potato parcel, the fillet of beef was served with an orange-cognac sauce and parmesan bistro fries, and the roast rack of pork—Noir de Bigorre—perched atop puy lentils and Morteau sausage.

In addition to the standard cocktail selection, the Verandah had the most extensive wine list, a collection notable for its breadth of both Old World and newer wineries from more than 15 countries, with an emphasis on France. Despite some headier selections (Château Lafite-Rothschild First Growth—$895 for 1981, $1650 for 1999), the bulk of the list was below $100. The menu also feature the “Collection de Rothschild,” the ship’s selection from the Bordeaux and New World vineyards of the storied winemaking family, including Opus One from Napa, Caro in Argentina, plus Cunard-label wines produced by Rothschild and available by the glass. Five different wine flights—three glasses each and perfect to accompany a number of the dishes—were available for $25-$45.

The Verandah was open nightly, and on sea days for lunch. Reservations were essential, but we found plenty of openings available on the first day of our cruise.

The Golden Lion

Queen Elizabeth’s pub doesn’t quite feature the creaky, lived-in ambience of our favorite watering holes in England (that’s an American’s opinion), but it kept the British cruisers happy. International sporting events were played on the telly, while karaoke, a pianist for sing-along sessions, trivia contests, and board games were also available.

A short list of food items were available for lunch, with no surcharge added, such as fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, bangers and mash and cottage pie. While the food was nothing special, and we didn’t much care for the presentation of plastic packets of ketchup and malt vinegar on the side, it was sufficient for a change of pace.

In addition to the ship’s standard cocktail list, several draft ales were available, including Boddingtons, Guinness, Old Speckled Hen, Stella Artois and Becks; there was also Aspall cider on tap.

The Golden Lion was open from 10 a.m. till late in the evening.

In-Room Dining

There were two room service menus available. The first, for breakfast, was on a door hanger to be placed outside the night before; delivery times were in 15-minute blocks between 7 and 10 a.m. Selection included hot and cold cereals, toast, pastries and muffins served with various preserves, yogurt (plain or fruit), fresh fruit plates and a selection of juices. Hot options included eggs (scrambled, sunny side up, over easy) accompanied by bacon, sausage, baked beans, hash browns or grilled tomato. Coffee, tea, milk and hot chocolate were offered.

Our breakfast one morning was ordered for 8 to 8:15 a.m.; the knock came at 7:54, and food arrived on a large tray with plastic lids on each plate. There was ketchup for hash browns, and a slice of lemon (perhaps for the fruit plate?). Toast was wrapped in a linen napkin. Salt and pepper was in paper packets along with plastic packets of ketchup, mustard and mayo (we found this tacky—glass jars or ramekins would have been more appropriate). Linen napkins wrapped silverware.

Breakfast was pretty much as expected. Eggs over easy and sunny side up arrived as ordered. We also ordered toast, a single small slice came—we'd have liked more, if it weren't barely lukewarm. The fruit plate was a bit flavorless, and comparable to what was on the buffet. Juices were fine, the coffee was watery.

A second menu was available 24 hours. This included salad, cold and hot sandwiches, fajitas, a Mediterranean quesadilla, penne Bolognese, grilled sirloin steak, and various burgers, including turkey. Dessert options included warm apple pie with custard sauce, vanilla cheesecake with cherries, a frozen chocolate bombe and crème caramel. There was no surcharge for late-night orders.

When we called for lunch, we were on hold for 1 minute before placing our order; no estimated delivery time was provided, but the food arrived 27 minutes later. We asked for the Caprese salad, nicely presented with a mound of arugula and dressed with basil infused olive oil; the menu called it balsamic dressing, but we couldn’t taste much vinegar. The mozzarella was good—not the rubbery American kind—but the tomatoes were bland. A toasted York ham and English cheddar panini sounded better than it tasted; the sandwich was warm, but the fries cool; a limp spinach salad sat alongside. Chicken Thai curry (also available with shrimp) was great—a mound of jasmine rice surrounded with a flavorful green curry; the dish packed lots of heat (more than some might like) but hit the spot for us. For dessert we had the chocolate fudge cake and it was about as expected, satisfying if unexceptional.

In addition to the soft drinks and water in our minibar, the in-room beverage menu had a good selection of 1.5-ounce “nip” bottles, starting at $5.95 up to 7.95, with 1-liter bottles available for $55 to $75, accompanied by six sodas of our choice. The short list of beers included Budweiser, Corona, Heineken, Guinness Draught and Spitfire Real Ale ($5.50-$5.95) but only two wineries were represented on the room service list: Cunard Private Label, and Wente Vineyards—other labels were available on request. Champagnes and sparkling wines included prosecco from Valdobbiadenne ($7.25 for 150ml and $35 for a full bottle), Delamotte brut NV ($12.75 and $59.50) and Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label and rosé ($17.50-$19 and $82-$95).

As with the ship’s bars, a 15 percent service charge was added to drinks ordered through in-room dining.

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