Michelin may give a maximum of three stars to restaurants, but in our book, Mariner rates almost a perfect five. Meals invariably came out piping hot, deliciously prepared and beautifully presented. Mariner's cuisine shows deeply planted French roots, though only the alternative restaurant, Signatures, claims the Cordon Bleu pedigree. Emphasis is on finely tuned, delicate flavoring and larger numbers of small-portion courses.
Compass Rose, the main dining room, is an airy, comfortable space, stretching the full width of the ship and offering plenty of space between tables. Service there, with the exception of turnaround days, when waiters and weary travelers in equal measure tend to run short on patience, is superlative. Seating is open, as are the doors, typically from 7 until 9 p.m. Passengers may choose from three options: dine alone, dine with tablemates of their choosing or sit with strangers.
All three meals are served in Compass Rose, and all are ordered from a menu. Although Compass Rose offers specialties like Swedish pancakes and lamb chops, breakfast there is not very different from La Veranda's breakfast on Deck 11. But lunches, like dinners, have a wide range of choices that reflect multiple nationalities. A single lunch, for example, included dishes from Mexico, Norway, Argentina, Italy, France, Greece, Denmark and Germany. Selections from the main menu are flagged for a fixed "Light & Healthy" menu, and there are always vegetarian, salad, sandwich and pasta choices.
Dinner is where Compass Rose truly shines. Each night features both red and white selections from the ship's extensive wine list, poured gratis, though passengers may purchase bottles of other vintages, as well. Main dinner selections include an appetizer, soup, a salad, pasta and a main course. Generally, there are two or three choices for each (except for the single pasta dish), which are followed by cheeses, after-dinner drinks and desserts. Most intriguing, however, is the nightly, six-course degustation (tasting) menu. In addition to the categories on the main menu, this special menu includes dessert and palate-cleansing sherbet courses. Few, if any, choices are repeated between the two menus, but, of course, mixing and matching is allowed.
In addition, dinner features four specialty menus: "Low Carb, Light & Healthy," "Vegetarian" (lacto- and ovo-appropriate), "No Added Salt" and "Simplicity" (pasta with tomato sauce, plain steak, chicken breast or salmon). One minor complaint is the surprising lack of quality coffee onboard. A children's menu -- which includes the typical burgers, pizza and hot dogs -- is available during the Alaska season.
La Veranda, the breakfast and lunch buffet eatery, is a large, pleasant space that occupies nearly the entire aft half of the Pool Deck. There is room for outdoor seating for about 50 under a canopy on the fantail -- another nice retro aspect, reminding us of days aboard the classic ocean liners, where eating breakfast and drinking coffee outside with an open view of sea or port was the norm. There is additional outdoor seating forward of La Veranda, near the pool, and plenty of comfortable seating inside on both port and starboard sides of the ship. There are complimentary buffet lines in the aft area of the room and a separate counter for self-serve pizza on the portside, as well as a pair of omelet stations.
Adjacent to La Veranda's forward, outdoor-eating area are two grill areas, which (at sunrise) serve a crack-of-dawn "Fitness First" breakfast -- a combination of fruit, pastries and do-it-yourself juices (juice makers with platters of fruits and vegetables). Beyond that, there are two stations where eggs are cooked to order. The cold-cut selection is extensive, ranging from various cheeses and meats to gravlax (salmon).
During both breakfast and lunch, the ambience is gracious and elegant, featuring white linen and sterling tableware. It's barely necessary to even pick up your plate since there's always a server standing by to help you to your table. Even the omelet chef hand-carries your eggs to the table. Just remember your table number before going to make your order.
At night, La Veranda dons the mantle of Mediterranean Bistro (or the Alaskan Grill Lodge, Mariner's casual, alternative restaurant on Alaska sailings). Each night in this no-reservations-required dining area, a different Mediterranean cuisine (or a selection of Alaskan seafood and grilled meats) is featured. The appetizer course is a fairly unchanging tapas (Spanish hors d'oeuvres) bar, followed by varying regional dishes, which are ordered from the menu.
There are two other alternative dining venues aboard Mariner. The 100-seat Signatures has the distinction of being one of two Cordon Bleu restaurants at sea. (The other is, of course, Regent Seven Seas' Seven Seas Voyager.) This is, perhaps, the only restaurant afloat that always requires gentlemen to wear jackets. The menu has basically stayed the same for years. For my meal, I started with scallops in herb oil, spring onions and mashed potatoes. For my second appetizer, I ordered foie gras terrine with prune marmalade. (The famous mushroom soup here is delicious, too.) For the main course, I tried the very tender beef tournedos Rossini. You may be surprised that there was any room left for dessert, but a "why not" attitude prevailed, and I'm glad it did. The Tahitian creme brulee was, perhaps, the best dessert I had onboard.
Equally popular is the intimate, 70-seat Prime 7 steakhouse. The menu features steaks and seafood. (Try the ahi tuna tartar or jumbo lump crab cake starters.) I actually chose a meal consisting of starters, including foie gras with rhubarb, which was nice; the entrees are pretty huge. All beef products served are U.S.D.A.-approved, and the menu includes Prime New York Strip, Prime Porterhouse (carved tableside, by the way), Prime Fillet Mignon (6- or 10-ounce) and surf-and-turf. There's also lobster, New Zealand lamb chops, pork, veal and a half chicken (cooked and served on an iron skillet). Sides include baked potatoes, creamed spinach, truffle fries and Lyonaise potatoes. Regent Seven Seas' famous, 14-layer cake is on the dessert menu, but how can anyone possibly still have room?
Not unexpectedly, Signatures and Prime 7 top everyone's dining wish list, so it makes a great deal of sense to book reservations early in the cruise. Reservations can be made directly with each specialty restaurant when open, through the Compass Rose's maitre d' or through the butler in upper-category suites. There is no additional charge for these alternative dining restaurants, but dining may be limited to one reservation per week to allow all passengers to experience them.
During breakfast and lunch times, there is also another alternative. Coffee Connection serves pastries, fruit and cold cuts, as well as cottage cheese from 6:30 until 10 a.m. and again offers snacks from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m.
There is a separate menu for 24-hour room service, which offers everything from sandwiches and pizza to burgers and pasta. During dinner hours, guests may also order room service from the Compass Rose dinner menu. Menus for all dining venues are broadcast daily on in-suite televisions.