A controversial point about Crystal is that, until now, it's been the only luxury cruise line in the marketplace to feature assigned dining times and tablemates (at dinner only -- other meals in the main dining room are open-seating). This has now changed (as of July 2010), and open-seating dining at dinner (between 6:15 and 9:15 p.m.) has finally become an option as part of the line's new Perfect Choice Dining program. Those who prefer the more flexible dining option can, via Open Dining by Reservation, book in advance online. They can also opt to make arrangements once onboard.
At the same time, we are assured that Crystal's more traditional dinner scenario will on no account be scrapped, as too many passengers like it.
Beyond this, dining on Crystal Symphony -- at any meal -- is a superb experience in both quality of cuisine and attentiveness of service.
Menus for all three meals in the Restaurant are elaborate, offering light choices and vegetarian options. Breakfast is sumptuous. You can order the usual, including granola, fresh fruit, omelets and superb, perfectly cooked eggs Benedict. The unusual? Light, fluffy omelets topped with smoked salmon and caviar; chocolate chip pancakes; and lamb chops are among the choices that will make breakfast a special event.
At lunch, the menu offers a good range of choices -- appetizers, salads, a pasta dish, sandwiches and hot entrees. Choices are mirrored, to some extent, in the ship's buffet venue.
Even on a 17-night cruise, dinner in the Restaurant never got dull. Menus varied comfortably. One night was French-themed, another featured Austrian dishes, and a third was dedicated to an Italian guest chef onboard. Menus are divided into appetizers, soups and salads, pasta special, a salad entree and main dishes. Occasionally, there were region-specific dishes, but more often, there was no clear local angle.
Desserts were comprehensive, and choices balanced indulgence with healthy sweets. (I became a serious fan of frozen yogurt on this cruise!)
For more casual dining, Crystal Symphony's Lido is the vessel's Deck 11 buffet venue, subject to a complete overhaul during the 2009 refit. What was a traditional buffet arrangement is now an elegant space with individual travertine islands that allow the food to be displayed more elegantly and reduce queuing. New, spruced-up chairs in colors inspired by the shoreline of the Hamptons -- lime, olive, grey, yellow -- and more space provided by a new layout have given the Lido a summery, light feel. There are also tables on the aft deck for outdoor dining. At breakfast, staples include fresh fruit, oatmeal, cold cuts and cheeses, made-to-order waffles, several styles of pancakes and an omelet station. There's also a breakfast bar with dishes that are aimed at Asian passengers (miso soup, fried rice). Absolutely don't miss the unlimited, fresh-squeezed orange juice.
Breakfast is served from 7:30 to 9 a.m. There's a more limited Continental offering for early risers, beginning at 6 a.m.
Lunches in the Lido (from noon to 1:30 p.m.) generally feature the same dishes offered in the Crystal Restaurant but also include additions, such as sides of beef and roast chicken.
On one recent cruise, a sea day between two ports in India featured an awesome Indian buffet in the Lido, but for the most part, this eatery is theme-free.
Crystal offers plenty of casual options during the day. One of my favorite places for a late-morning bagel was The Bistro. (It also serves morning pastries, afternoon pastries and antipasto.) I loved its coffee bar, which featured complimentary cappuccinos and the like; there's a terrific list of by-the-glass wines, too.
We also enjoyed the outdoor Trident Bar & Grill, which served up custom-cooked burgers, wraps, hot dogs and grilled chicken, as well as a delicious Chinese chicken salad. The Neptune Pool, which used to be in this space, is no longer; now the area is a sprawling teak-decked space with clusters of chic, white rattan furniture around granite tables, shaded by oversized green sun umbrellas. It feels like eating in a conservatory when the magrodome roof is closed on cooler days and like a garden party when it's open in the sunshine.
Afternoon tea is a pleasant ritual on Crystal, and a formal interpretation takes place in the ship's Palm Court. Don't miss these events, which include the Chocolate Tea and -- my favorite -- the Mozart Tea. The latter spread included croissant and crustless white bread sandwiches and, more importantly, decadent desserts like Black Forest cake, Vienna sacher cake and linzer torte. The hot chocolate "Amadeus" (rum, whipped cream and shaved chocolate), a specialty drink at the Mozart Tea, is absurdly delicious.
Crystal Symphony excels in other dining areas, too. The ship's two alternative restaurants -- Silk Road (with a sushi bar, serving Asian fusion cuisine from a menu designed by celebrity chef Nobu) and Prego, specializing in Northern Italian -- were sublime.
Silk Road is supervised by Nobu Matsuhisa, one of the world's most highly regarded celebrity chefs; the first Silk Road was introduced on Crystal Serenity. First of note is the restaurant's stand-alone sushi bar, offering both traditional and nouvelle varieties that are created as you watch. Passengers are pretty much limited to sushi choices here (a great stop for appetizers one night on our way to the Crystal Restaurant), but there are a handful of regular menu options offered, too, in case passengers want to make a night of it. Sushi choices range from salmon tartar with caviar to white fish "new style" and also includes traditional favorites like California rolls. Anyone can dine at the sushi bar on a first-come, first-served basis.
In the restaurant, decorated in sleek sea colors and highlighted by dark woods, passengers are offered two menus (one for sushi and the other for Nobu-style appetizers, entrees and desserts), and they can mix and match from both. Starters included creamy king crab, seafood ceviche and lobster spring rolls. There are also soups and salads. Entrees include Nobu-style lobster with truffle sauce and signature black cod with miso. The grilled Wagyu beef ribeye steak is also marvelous.
Desserts there, as they were everywhere onboard, were outstanding; the chocolate souffle cake with sesame ice cream and the sweet ginger creme brulee were deceptively light.
Silk Road is the most popular restaurant onboard, so make reservations early.
There's a suggested gratuity of $7 that applies to diners in the restaurant, as well as to those who eat at the sushi bar.
Prego, the ship's Italian restaurant, has been a Crystal stalwart since Symphony's launch; it's overseen by Piero Selvaggio, proprietor of Valentino's in Santa Monica and Las Vegas. The restaurant has had a complete makeover in the latest refit and has transformed its rather gaudy, pseudo-Venetian look into something stylish and luxurious. The reception area is deep wine-red, and the actual dining area, in stone and beige with chocolate suede walls, has a more relaxing look. The menu is pretty predictable. Signature dishes include king crabmeat salad, mushroom soup served in a bread cup, lasagna alla Casalinga and butternut ravioli. These are all precursors to the main courses. Mains include osso buco, lamb rack and striped bass.
The service charge to dine there is, as at Silk Road, a suggested $7 per person. At both venues, service was so exceptional that we tipped more.
The menus at Silk Road and Prego stay the same throughout the cruise, but are sufficiently varied to offer enough selection if you make multiple visits (though the ship may place a limit on your number of visits, depending on demand).
One area in which Crystal in general -- and Crystal Symphony, in particular -- excels is its poolside buffets. Always held on sea days, these are culinary events that emphasize regions like Asia and the Mediterranean or simply celebrate the very vast array of cuisines in the U.S. The highlight is an elegant and incredibly expansive sea day brunch, held in the atrium (typically on one of the last days of each cruise). This year, I noticed there was an entire station displaying sushi. The best tables are in the Crystal Cove bar (beautifully set with linen and silver); it's a great spot for people-watching, as the whole ship turns out!
Room service is available around the clock and includes a variety of soups, salads, sandwiches and desserts, along with hot, made-to-order items that range from a sirloin strip steak to burgers.
One note about wine lists onboard: Each restaurant has its own wine list, and selections vary. Crystal's by-the-glass offerings were of a much higher quality than is usually found on cruise ships. The line also deserves kudos for fair mark-ups on wines by the glass and by the bottle.
(Editor's note: Beginning March 19, 2012, all beverages -- including wine -- and specialty dining gratuities will be included in Crystal Symphony's cruise fares.)