The Crystal Dining Room serves as the backbone of the ship's restaurant operations. Elegantly wood-paneled and with a minimum of flash and fuss to take your attention away from the experience itself, the restaurant is open-seating at breakfast and lunch. (We appreciated, time and time again, the sensitivity of maitre d's in not forcing shared encounters.) At night, for most passengers, it's tradition all the way, with seatings at 6:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.
Crystal has always been known for the friendly formality of its dining rooms (passengers definitely do dress for dinner) and the well-curated offerings in its other venues, but along with the new design come a few other notable improvements. For several years, the traditional company has offered cruisers the option of "Perfect Choice" seating, which allows cruisers to reserve times and tables in the dining room pre-cruise. Think of it more like a restaurant reservation; you tell the maitre d' when you plan to dine that evening and with whom, and he'll have a table arranged for you.
Crystal has gotten creative in the kitchen, too; its new menu, based on molecular gastronomy, debuted on our sailing. (You can mix and match with its "Classic" menu items, so not everything you eat feels experimental.) We tried some real winners from the "Modern Cuisine" menu, such as oysters topped with cucumber foam and a nearly-fluorescent tomato tartar with beetroot and a quail egg. Then we balanced out the meal with classics like a perfectly executed black angus sirloin steak with bearnaise and a saucy fricassee di pollo al cacciatore (braised free-range chicken cacciatore with creamy mascarpone polenta).
The Lido Cafe buffet is as lavish as ever, with an endless array of options at every meal. Crispy-creamy French toast became our morning go-to, and made-to-order pastas, a terrific cheese selection, vast salad bar and different global-themed cuisines at each meal kept things interesting. The cafe's new design replaces long buffet counters with food islands; there are also more tables for two.
The newly revamped Trident Grill, also on the Lido, has been transformed with sofa-style seating and an open-style kitchen and cocktail bar. Sit out in the atrium, with its calming "living walls," and you'll understand the freshening up that the entire ship has undergone.
Our favorite dining, particularly with a child in tow, was at Tastes, on the Lido Deck. In the evening, the casual California vibe (after all, it is affiliated with Sapphire Restaurant in Laguna Beach) went global. You can -- and we did -- order as many tapas-sized dishes from the selection of about 15 for your table as you'd like, and they're all winners. Our favorites were a creamy Alsatian tarte with bacon-leek jam, Gruyere and bechamel; exotic saffron marinated lamb kebabs with dry mint-lemon yogurt; and an incredibly crispy and tender chimichurri steak with sweet potato fries that were crunchy with herbed sea salt. The only minor downside: The menu doesn't change, so if you become addicted to Tastes, you're limited to the same options each night.
Also on the Lido, Scoops ice cream bar serves up Ben and Jerry's ice cream, as well as frozen yogurt with tons of toppings, making it an afternoon must-visit.
The European-style coffee bar, The Bistro, midship on the sixth floor, sets up an incredible selection of tiny dessert bites, incredible cheeses and a chocolate fountain at 8 p.m. each night. From there, we could hear the sounds of the Galaxy Orchestra playing just below us on the fifth floor in the Crystal Cove. It's one of the best discoveries on the ship, serves perpetually from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. and is always good for a quiet getaway, even on sea days.
As far as getting the reservations you want in the specialty dining rooms, you may make one reservation prior to sailing, but there's also a rush on embarkation day to secure desirable reservations for special occasions. The first alternative dining experience at each venue is included in the cruise fare for each passenger, but Silk Road (and the Sushi Bar within it), as well as Prego, add a well-worth-it $30 supplement to each plate for additional visits.
Try both. Prego, the charming Italian restaurant in partnership with Piero Selvaggio's Valentino, serves perfectly executed Valentino classics like his classic Black Angus beef carpaccio and an al dente, hand-rolled cannelloni dish with spinach and ricotta. Prego may look a tiny bit kitschy with overly dramatic Italian cityscape paintings on the walls, but the atmosphere and northern Italian fare are hard to beat. Quiet and with a good mix of small and large tables, it seats only 70.
As Nobu Matsuhisa devotees, we were eager to see how the Nobu-trained chefs at Silk Road and the Sushi Bar stacked up. We weren't disappointed and ate at both the sushi bar and the tables. Classics like his yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno and tuna tataki with ponzu sauce were executed just like they are at his restaurants, and the chefs pulled out the stops with a crispy soft-shell crab roll, as well as shrimp they'd just picked up in port -- not on the menu -- that they grilled for us. Order from either menu at the bar or the tables, and don't miss the lobster spring roll on the Silk Road menu, filled with sizable lobster chunks and served with tangy Maui onion-tomato salsa.
For well-heeled passengers who want a night to remember, Crystal offers the Vintage Room. For $2,100 (and up, depending on the wine you select), you can reserve the room for yourself and 13 of your closest friends. So what do you get for a meal that costs as much as many cruises? The fee entitles you to a private dinner with a custom-designed menu (if you want) with an emphasis on fine wine education and pairing. Separately, occasional food and wine theme cruises will also feature Michelin- starred chefs, and for $1,000 per person, you can have dinners prepared by the chef in the Vintage Room.
As if all these options aren't enough, Crystal serves up one of the best afternoon teas at sea. Held in the serene and spacious Palm Court, tea is done properly, with live musicians playing softly in the background and white-gloved waiters offering a variety of teas and an extensive selection of sandwiches, scones and tasty treats. There are also popular themed afternoon teas, such as the famous Mozart Tea. Waiters dress in period costumes with velvets and brocades, a classical quartet plays some of the famous composer's pieces, and an especially large selection of Austrian desserts is on offer.
No matter which cabin type you book, you can dine in your stateroom off the main dining room menu for dinner, or choose from the extensive 24-hour room service menu. Those in the ship's many penthouses have the privilege of ordering off the popular Prego and Silk Road menus, too.