Oceania Cruises Riviera Cruise Review
Oceania’s Riviera is the newest upscale cruise ship in the market. It’s a splurge—does it deliver the goods?
Oceania’s Executive Culinary Director is noted chef and cookbook author Jacques Pépin, and with seven different meal options for dinner alone, Riviera has upped the ante for fine dining on cruise ships. Of course, Monsieur Pépin is not actually working in the galley but, for the most part, we found the dining aboard Riviera to be among the best we’ve experienced at sea—it’s certainly a deserved calling card for the line. The Grand Dining Room, Riviera’s main restaurant, provided above-average meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. What surprised us was the Terrace Café, the buffet venue, where we had a succession of tasty meals.
There are four specialty restaurants on Riviera, open for dinner only, though we found the dining a little more uneven here. Still, with menus ranging from French to Asian, Italian to steakhouse, the variety was pleasing, and there’s no add-on fee for dining at these venues (as is common on mainstream cruise lines). The ne plus ultra was La Reserve, a small dining room used several nights each cruise for intimate wine-pairing meals with a surcharge.
Oceania claims its guests have the “freedom to dine whenever, wherever and with whomever you wish,” but we found tables for two in short supply for the four specialty restaurants, especially at Jacques. Guests in non-suite cabins were allowed to make one reservation for each of the specialty dining venues using Oceania’s clunky online booking system (four reservations total). Yet despite going online weeks ahead of our cruise we were unable to secure a two-top for any of these meals, except very early or late in the evening. Before the cruise we were told by a reservation agent to request changes soon after boarding; we did, but non-shared tables were still not available for two of these meals.
Guests staying in Owner’s, Vista and Oceania suites were allowed to make more than four restaurant reservations ahead of their cruise; these guests were also allowed to order course-by-course in-room dining through their butler from the Grand Dining Room menu or from any of the specialty restaurants, during regular operating hours.
Grand Dining Room
With its bright crystal chandelier floating above, Riviera’s main dining room is, indeed, a grand spot, looking like a luminous space from a regal European hotel. Fine china, Riedel stemware and formal service complete the setting. The room slopes down gently from Deck 6 on terraces leading aft, and there are a number of tables for two lining the windows. For those who decry the dim lighting in many restaurants, request to be seated toward the center of the room and you’ll be basked in the chandelier’s glow. The room seats 566, nearly half the ship’s capacity, and we never waited more than 3 or 4 minutes for a table, even at prime time.
The dinner menu changed nightly, featuring seven different entrées that were notable for their variety (an additional three entrées—steak frites, poached salmon and rotisserie chicken—were available every night). Each evening, one appetizer, a soup and an entrée would be highlighted as part of Canyon Ranch’s Healthy Living menu, focused on healthy fats, whole grains and lean proteins; there were always several vegetarian appetizers and one entrée. And four courses were highlighted each night as the menu dégustation, with recommended wine pairings for each course.
Among the appetizers, we enjoyed the cheese soufflé sitting amid a chive velouté, the scallops served in shell with lemon, capers and seaweed, and a hearty terrine of tomato and eggplant. Looking like shrimp tails engulfed in a bird’s nest, the crispy Albanian kadaif-wrapped tiger prawns were delightful nuggets—a few more, please. There was a faro salad with grilled zucchini that seemed promising, but the dressing overwhelmed the dish—it was almost like a cold risotto. Salads could have used a little more imagination, but we enjoyed the lettuces with paper-thin beets and celery rémoulade, and the spinach salad with pine nuts, shaved parmesan and a bacon dressing. The basket of diverse, hearty breads on our table was hard to resist.
For entrées we loved the Florida lobster, served with a cognac sauce (different lobster entrées were served on several nights). We tried the vegetarian option one evening—potato and vegetable curry over rice; it was pretty ordinary. But the shrimp and zucchini risotto was a melt-in-the-mouth dish, as was the simple rotisserie chicken, smothered in jus de rôti. Desserts were modest in size, but rewarding, from the Cointreau-marinated strawberries in a brandy-snap basket to the chocolate “volcano” with passion fruit lava. There was a nightly ice cream, a sorbet, and a lighter dessert, along with cookies and petits fours. We adored the cheese plate option, which changed nightly and was served with various chutneys, olives and pressed cakes.
If the breakfast menu was fairly conventional, it was beautifully served and the venue was lightly visited. We found juices (the orange was fresh squeezed), stewed fruits, cold cereals and Bircher muesli, hot oatmeal, eggs and omelets, pancakes and waffles, along with typical sides. Among the more unusual offerings were steamed Finnish haddock or broiled kippers, buckwheat pancakes, and breakfast steaks or lamb chops.
We were delighted to find the Grand Dining Room open for lunch daily, even on port days—what’s more, the menu changed daily. We found the salad Niçoise to be perfectly rendered (with a choice of tuna, salmon or halibut), and the hanger steak stroganoff with a paprika cream sauce was rich and satisfying. Other lunch items steered to burgers, sandwiches, and salads, with a number of lighter and vegetarian options available.
Located on Deck 12 aft, the Terrace Café offers one of the best buffet spreads we’ve experienced on any cruise ship. While the space suffered slightly from limited seating during breakfast and lunch peak hours, we enjoyed all of our meals here, many of them on the outer deck where two dozen tables offered fine views and fresh air. A number of items were prepared à la minute—on the spot—and no, we’re not just talking about the omelet station. Servers were stationed throughout the buffet, and almost all food items were placed on our plate for us (helpful in minimizing the spread of food-borne illness).
The breakfast selection featured everything we expected, and a little more—from cold cuts and cheese to a fruit station with delectable options like papaya, raspberries and blackberries. We loved the array of pastries, and there was a station for fried eggs and omelets, and bacon, sausage, potatoes and other sides were nearby. One complaint: We found the brewed coffee not as good here as other restaurants on the ship (cappuccinos and the like could be had from the automated coffee station).
For lunch, the hot buffet station included such fare as grilled king clip fillet with vegetable aioli, veal scaloppini saltimbocca, and the grill had various meats cooked to order. In addition to a salad bar there was a variety of prepared salads that changed daily—Tuscan lentil salad, Caesar with grilled chicken, marinated tomato and fennel with prawns, Thai beef salad, etc. There was a carving station, a sushi spread, and a pasta bar with sauces that changed daily. Every couple days a lunch theme emerged—Mexican, Oriental, Seafood and Italian were featured on our cruise. We didn’t try all of these, but the south-of-the-border spread was probably our only disappointing lunch here.
Unexpectedly, it was at dinner where Terrace Grill really showed its strength, and a few of the dishes mirrored the offerings at the main dining room. We didn’t dine here in the evening till late in the cruise—some of the fare we missed included coq au vin, Palermo-style grilled swordfish, risotto with fava beans and morel mushrooms, a tajine of winter vegetables over couscous, a classic paella. There was a carving station nightly, which included beef Wellington one night, veal rack loin another. The night we dined at Terrace Grill we dived into Malaysian fish curry—prepared to order—king crab legs, coconut-miso sea bass wrapped in banana leaf, a sliver of prime rib, and sampled some of the competently prepared sushi. We didn’t have room for dessert, but the array was impressive.
While many guests enjoyed Jacques, we were somewhat disappointed by our meal here, especially considering this is the one venue that Oceania’s Executive Culinary Director Jacques Pépin chose to put his name on. The restaurant is designed to be an elegant French bistro, and the menu certainly looked appealing, with such traditional offerings as terrine of foie gras, escargots in garlic butter, sautéed frog legs, bouillabaisse, and Iberian rack of pork.
For our starter we tried the baked French onion soup, which was capped with a crusty ceiling of Gruyère. We also sampled the pumpkin soup, which was impressively presented in a terrine made from a real pumpkin. But the soup that was spooned into our bowl was tepid. We asked our waiter to replace it, and a hot portion arrived seven or eight minutes later. For entrée we ordered the Dover sole, which was deboned at the table—the classic preparation with lemon and caper butter was enhanced with croutons that sopped up the juice. Dessert was an apple tarte, served Tatin-style. A cheese trolley was wheeled over and the selection of AOC French offerings was mouth-watering.
We liked the effort for tableside presentations, and the salmon-colored room is attractive, filled with pickled wood furnishings and a glass and brass show rotisserie. But despite a few windows, the view is obscured by curtains and, with only six two-top tables, we were unable to secure a reservation here for anything but a shared table. Maybe wit hit Jacques on an off night and perhaps we would have enjoyed it more with a table to ourselves, but we felt this meal should have been stronger, more nuanced.
Unique to Riviera and Marina, Red Ginger is one of the ship’s most popular specialty restaurants, an Asian fusion venue with a strong emphasis on a jazzy contemporary décor, and equally jazzy food. While our dinner was good, satisfying in the main, it was not quite the rapturous experience we’d been lead to expect. For instance, every diner receives a small bowl of traditional edamame to start, but this is kind of like receiving a basket of French bread. How more interesting it would have been to be served edamame presented with a dynamic new angle.
But we’re in the minority on this—a number of passengers we spoke to described Red Ginger as their favorite meal. And there’s no denying that the room itself—black, with red and gold accents—was quite handsome, each table graced with a flower-burst of flame ginger. The acoustics weren’t great, it’s a noisier room than the other specialty restaurants—we’d request one of the tables along the walls.
For appetizer we had caramelized tiger prawns—succulent shrimps in a very sweet chili sauce. Another starter, crispy ginger calamari, was better, smartly seasoned and cooked. We found the tom kha gai too creamy, and not spicy enough—it tasted flat (and despite a red chili pepper on the menu used to indicate hot items). Spicy duck and watermelon salad could have been edgier, and we would have preferred seeded watermelon. The Thai beef salad, however, was lovely, studded with eggplant, shallots and basil.
Our entrées were more satisfying. The miso-glazed sea bass was excellent, the tender fish beautifully presented in what appeared to be a ginger leaf. Lobster pad Thai was a fine twist on a well-traveled road, with generous hunks of lobster flesh bursting from the silky noodles. Various sides were available—brown or jasmine rice, stir-fried udon noodles, broccoli and shitake mushrooms, and a meager portion of asparagus. For desserts, the cake was fine, if a bit filling after our feast; the trio of fruit sherbets was an excellent alternative, especially the coconut, which found just the right balance of cream and coconut flakes.
Our most disappointing meal on Riviera was undoubtedly Polo Grill, and that sentiment was shared by all four of us at our table, as well as other passengers we spoke with. A steakhouse on a cruise ship shouldn’t require reinventing the wheel, but we find it amazing how often cruise lines deliver a subpar steakhouse experience (and usually with an up-charge—not the case on Riviera). The room is fine, located on Deck 14 aft, tricked out with masculine dark wood paneling, contemporary art and padded leather chairs—it certainly looks the part.
Our appetizer was the shrimp cocktail, which won us over with massive shrimp served in a martini glass, hovering around a small puddle of cocktail sauce. When more cocktail sauce was offered we said yes and an avalanche was spooned on. The salad we ordered was described as “honey smoked bacon, lettuce, tomato and aged cheddar cheese,” but it was decidedly ordinary: a few leaves of Romaine with tomatoes to the side topped with a grate of undistinguished cheddar and bacon crumbles. Dressing for this deconstructed dish was provided in ramekin—it was quite zesty and overwhelmed whatever flavor was to be found.
The menu promised USDA prime, but for a main we ordered the Colorado rack of lamb, a quartet of plump, if petite chops. The dish was okay, but the lamb could have been better seasoned. Off-the-shelf mint jelly was spooned on the side; we would have preferred a savory mint sauce. A side dish of potatoes au gratin was good, a smallish portion suited for one. We also sampled the prime rib—available in a 16-ounce queen’s cut or a 32-ounce, bone-in king’s cut—we found it mediocre. The dessert selection aimed higher, and key lime pie emerged as the standout for our table. For sheer gumption, the chocolate mousse “burger” on an almond bun with apricot jelly was a delight to see. The first bite was a surreal taste sensation, but thereafter it seemed ordinary.
Our service here was attentive, but the courses came out in ponderous fashion, making our meal at Polo Grill a near-three hour experience.
Located just opposite Polo Grill on Deck 14, Toscana is Riviera’s Italian restaurant. Although we didn’t experience anything groundbreaking here, we found our meals here satisfying. Many tables are next to or near the venue’s floor-to-ceiling windows, so it’s a good place to be parked for a scenic sunset sail-away. The long and diverse menu encourages a second visit. The selection of olive oils and vinegars alone is surprisingly inviting, sampled with bread and a roasted bulb of garlic.
For starters we enjoyed the decadent sformatino, a timbale of parmesan, served with black truffle sauce and spiked with fried artichoke leaves. Breaded, fried calamari came with spicy marinara and aioli sauces. Carpaccio of beef tenderloin with shaved parmesan and arugula was presented in classic style, as was the Caesar salad, prepared tableside. Sautéed jumbo shrimp was wrapped in prosciutto, while spinach salad was graced by Sardinian goat cheese and Kalamata olives. Not a loser in the bunch.
For mains, we liked the filet mignon topped with sautéed garlic spinach and Gorgonzola cheese, flanked by grilled polenta tiles. And the pasta trio was perfect for those of us who couldn’t decide on a pasta dish: There was risotto with lobster, tortellini with ricotta and spinach, and fettuccini lathered in way too much cream—we lapped it up.
The wine tasting room just outside the Terrace Café on Deck 12 is the setting for a gourmet meal held on several nights of each cruise. It’s not a restaurant per se, more like a wine cellar that borrows the adjacent kitchen of Terrace Café for an occasional feast. Floor-to-ceiling windows line one side of the room, allowing passengers to drool over the event. Affiliated with Wine Spectator magazine, La Reserve has three different menus, each offering seven courses matched with seven wines. Two of the menus are priced $95 per person, plus 18-percent gratuity; the Connoisseur Menu (starring Kobe beef sous vide and Brittany blue lobster) is $165 plus gratuity. With a maximum of 24 guests each evening we’d strongly recommend booking before boarding (at least two of the nights filled weeks ahead of embarkation).
We chose the Discovery Menu for our evening at La Reserve, a night which began with the ship’s Executive Chef coming out to introduce his team, including sommelier, two waiters and a crew of three assistants. We were provided a glass of Bouvet brut for toasting, a French bubbly from the Loire, then seated at the long, walnut table for the amuse bouche of sea urchin panna cotta topped with caviar—a surprising spoonful of sea and dairy. The evening’s first course was a lobster and mascarpone pancake with carrot emulsion and rock chive cress, a dish that provided the crustacean the elegant stage it deserved. This was paired with Champagne Pommery brut rosé. A cream of porcini soup was sparked by three nuggets of duck foie gras interspersed with three wonderfully oily croutons—a Cervaro Castello della Sala chardonnay from Umbria was the rich and balanced accompaniment.
Our third course was pumpkin ravioli with a sprinkle of crushed amaretto biscotti. The dish was sweet, and we expected a viognier would be too much for the pairing, but the Novelty Hill viognier from Washington was surprisingly complex, a fine marriage of equals with the ravioli. Bay scallops topped with Jamón Ibérico pata negra was petite but scrumptious—the scallops, we were assured, were fresh, loaded onto the ship during embarkation. Our fifth course was the 72-hour braised short rib, cooked sous vide and enticingly pink. It was ravishing in taste and texture, and nicely paired with Silver Trident’s Twenty Seven Fathoms, a cabernet sauvignon from Napa that quickly emerged as the table’s favorite (interestingly, the winery is owned by one of Oceania co-founders).
There was a cheese course, a slab of AOC Brie de Meaux, fragrant and perfectly ripe atop a toast with raisin-onion compote and quince jelly. Another cabernet sauvignon—Hess Collection Allomi Vineyard—was a voluptuous fruit bomb to contrast with the cheese, seducing us down the aisle to dessert. This was a mille-feuille comprised of a hundred sheets of paper-thin dough, interspersed with raspberry and vanilla cream—it was sweetly fragile and flavorful. Alas, the late harvest chenin blanc from Château la Varière accompanying this final course was the only one we found to be a letdown, a 2001 vintage that was metallic and discordant.
The overall meal consumed 3 hours, and wines were poured a healthy half-glass at a time (requests for refills were not refused). While we would not consider Riviera’s cuisine to be Michelin-star quality, La Reserve came close. It was a memorable meal and the wine selection was smartly chosen.
Located on the pool deck, just outside the Terrace Café, the Waves Grill was open for al fresco breakfasts and lunch till 4 p.m. daily. The morning selection was a streamlined version of what was offered at Terrace Café, and also served buffet style. This included an array of fresh fruits, cold cuts, yogurt and muesli. There was an egg station where omelets and fried eggs were cooked to order; next to it was a counter with scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon and potatoes.
The lunch menu stuck primarily to hot sandwiches and Black Angus burgers. Star offering was the surf and turf sandwich—a couple grilled Florida lobster medallions and slices of filet mignon served on toasted ciabatta. It was quite tasty. The burgers were available in various formats—the Texan (grilled onions, bacon and BBQ sauce), the Romano (provolone, roasted peppers, pesto on ciabatta), the Maguro (soy and ginger marinated ahi tuna seared rare), etc. Hot dogs, Cajun chicken paillard, grilled mahi mahi and veggie burgers were also on offer.
Waves also served as the ship’s ice cream stand, and cups or cones were available with various toppings, along with milkshakes, malts and fruit smoothies.
This is Riviera’s private, eight-seat dining room, located between Polo Grill and Toscana. The decadent room, cast in bold red and white tones, can be reserved for the evening for $250. Guests may order off the menu of either Polo Grill or Toscana while relaxing on throne chairs upholstered in supple, white baby crocodile leather.
With so many good dining options available on Riviera it seemed anathema to order in, but room service was available 24 hours. Duty called. The breakfast menu was limited to continental—a little surprising on an upmarket ship. We could order with a tag hung outside the room by 11 p.m. the night before; ordering by phone was also possible. The breakfast selection covered just about anything cold we would want—juices, fruit, yogurt, packaged cereal, along with toast, pastries, muffins and hot coffee.
We filled out our room tag and asked for breakfast to be delivered at 7:45 a.m. Nine minutes prior we received a call to the room to alert us that delivery was on the way, and 2 minutes later came the knock on the door. The table in our cabin was barely adequate to contain a meal for two (even a continental breakfast); the table on the veranda was even smaller.
Our English muffin arrived warm warm, and pitchers of milk brought were hot for coffee and cold for our cereal. But the pot of coffee was not on par with what we were served in the Grand Dining Room. And the fruit plate was unimpressive—simply diced fruit, more like fruit cup. All in all it was fairly mediocre. We also noted that room service breakfast was not available on disembarkation morning (the one time when we’d otherwise consider it).
The 24-hour menu was a little more diverse. There was a selection of salads, including a chef’s pantry salad (with ham, roast beef, turkey, shrimp and cheese), an antipasto selection with cold cuts, and shrimp cocktail on bruschetta. Chicken consommé and French onion soup were offered. Sandwiches included grilled ham and cheese, turkey, roast beef and a club sandwich. Entrées included grilled strip steak, broiled chicken breast, salmon supreme—all served with steamed vegetables—spaghetti all Bolognese or hamburger. During the evening, guests residing in suites could order off the standard restaurant menus through their butler.
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