Food dictates where I travel. I book restaurant reservations before I buy plane tickets. I choose hotels based on their proximity to where I will eat.
I also like cruise ships. But I’ve learned over the years that my passion for food and my love for cruising are not always compatible. I’ve found myself on cruises where I’ve had to lower my expectations at the dinner table, at least while the ship was at sea.
All of this was on my mind earlier this year when I started planning a trip to Southeast Asia. Two years had passed since my last trip to Singapore and Thailand, and even longer than that since I had seen Vietnam. Some of my greatest food memories come from that part of the world. Singapore’s dining scene rivals New York’s and Tokyo’s, and I knew of at least four new restaurants there I wanted to try. I craved real Thai food and warm sand between my toes. I longed to explore the street food of Ho Chi Minh City with the friend of a friend who lives there. The more I thought about the possibilities, the hungrier I got.
I checked various cruise itineraries and noticed that the Crystal Symphony was scheduled to sail the South China Sea and Gulf of Thailand at precisely the narrow window of my desired travel dates. I immediately plotted my meals.
In Singapore, I dined at the reincarnated Tippling Club. It was flawless. The southern-style Thai food in Koh Samui shook my soul. It was even better, richer and so much spicier than I had remembered or expected. My guide in Ho Chi Minh City showed me things and places I never would have have found on my own. I can’t remember a vacation when I’ve eaten so well, every single meal for three weeks.
But the funny thing is this: For all the great food I devoured along the way, the memories I will cherish most might be the days and nights I dined onboard Crystal Symphony.
I had taken a Crystal Cruise years ago and enjoyed good food, but I was genuinely stunned and delighted by the Symphony’s cuisine this time around. As it turns out, it had recently revamped the menus in the Crystal Dining Room. The evolution was remarkable.
Alongside the classic selections that I remembered – prime rib, steaks, soufflés and whatnot – the menu now includes an additional menu of “modern selections” that change every day.
For 14 days and nights, the kitchen never repeated a dish. I enjoyed a beautiful mosaic of swordfish and tuna carpaccio topped with orange-chili sorbet, ginger confit and purple basil.
Everyone at the table gasped and applauded when our waiters placed silver domes in front of us, then lifted them to reveal bowls of wagyu beef tartare, sending plumes of horseradish-scented smoke into the air beneath our noses. And these were just regular nights in the dining room.
Formal nights ushered in even more elaborate flourishes like Petrossian caviar served in eggshells filled with chive custard; fried squares of snapper balanced atop bright yellow ravioli, the fish’s honeycomb-like skin perfectly charred and garnished with soft, golden pearls that tasted like saffron.
Broiled Chilean sea bass arrived with a garnish of lemon snow, the sort of kitchen magic that involves liquid nitrogen and safety goggles, the sort of thing I would expect at some of the world’s top restaurants but not in the main dining room of a cruise ship. But I did a little digging and discovered that Crystal’s culinary team worked with Kyle Connaughton, the former head chef of the research and development lab at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in England, which helped pioneer molecular gastronomy. The cuisine onboard the ship isn’t nearly as precious as Fat Duck, but the famous chef’s influence is clear and impressive.
Our final destination was Hong Kong, where the ship would dock for two nights. Eager to explore, I made a reservation at a trendy new restaurant in Kowloon for the night of our arrival. We were scheduled to disembark the following day.
As soon as we docked, I called the restaurant to cancel. I had one last night on the ship, and I wanted to make it count. Cruise cuisine isn’t what it used to be.
The Symphony circumnavigates the globe and docks at least once a year in Long Beach. This year the Symphony stops at the Port of Los Angeles on May 25 en route to Latin America, with onward itineraries to New York, London and beyond. Fares start at about $1,700 and include all meals, alcoholic beverages and gratuities. The Vintage Room wine dinners cost extra, starting around $200 per person, depending on the wines being poured. 888-722-0021 or crystalcruises.com
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. I also invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.