Celebrity Constellation Dining
Celebrity Constellation's two-deck, 1,170-seat San Marco Dining Room features a curving double staircase that leads down to a trio of large flower bouquets. Balconies overhang on the port and starboard sides. Two rows of dark-wood columns with gold accents and capitols describe a corridor from the stairway to a dramatic two-deck stern window, which offers views of the ship's trailing wake. (One night, the large windows framed a brilliant sea-to-sky rainbow that materialized out of the Baltic mist.) Above it all, a jagged mosaic sunlight fixture provides a warm orange glow.
For dinner, passengers can opt for traditional set seating at 6 p.m. (early) or 8:30 p.m. (late), or pick "Celebrity Select Dining," which offers open seating between 6 and 9:30 p.m. Passengers choosing the open-seating option can pre-reserve space (online up to four days before sail date or while onboard) or walk in at any time during the allotted hours. Those walking in during peak dining times may have to wait for a table. The maitre d' said that just fewer than 400 diners had chosen open seating, roughly 30 of whom had changed from set to open once onboard -- perhaps as a result of first-night conversation that passed from polite to political. Officially, there are a limited number of open-seating spaces, which are booked pre-cruise, but staff will do its best to accommodate those wanting to switch once onboard.
Menus consist of appetizers, soups & salads, entrees and desserts, and dinner is served course-by-course over a leisurely two-hour-plus period. For a ship of this size, the food was consistently some of the best main dining room fare I've had at sea. Serving 2,000 diners a night is no easy task, but meals came out hot and well-presented, and mostly disappeared rapidly from plates. The signature meatballs, a recipe from Celebrity's VP of Culinary Operations, Jacques Van Staden, were just like mama's, and a tablemate who ordered the meatballs but was mistakenly given a beef dish instead eyed my plate covetously as I slowly devoured meatball after meatball. The Burgundy braised lamb shank with a caramelized pear and red cabbage slaw was another standout, and only a thoroughly cleaned bone remained. As in any big-ship main dining room, there were, of course, a few misses. The ribeye steak was equal parts gristle and edible beef. And the curry vegetable tagine, one of a couple vegetarian entrees I sampled, felt more like a side dish than a main meal -- its singular flavor left me craving a little variety.
Other options focused on blending of traditional cruise "luxury items," like frogs legs and ceviche, with a modern sensibility. The frog legs, for instance, were made Buffalo-style, deep fried with hot sauce. The ceviche, done with shrimp and bay scallops, was served island-style with fried plantains, cilantro and avocado.
For vegetarians, there are always meat-free options like vegetable and ricotta cheese stuffed "conch" shells and vegetable paella. Lower-calorie options, like the herb-crusted white fish or sugar-free cakes, are marked with a little heart. If nothing on the rotating menu suffices, "always available" choices, from soups to desserts, include escargot, lobster bisque, steak, chicken and creme brulee.
Celebrity deserves special commendation for its portion restraint (in the main dining room, at least). The reasonably sized appetizers and salads allow passengers to save room for dessert.
Passengers can bring their own wine onboard, but there's a $25 per bottle corking fee to drink it in the dining room.
The dining room is open-seating for breakfast and lunch. Classic breakfast items like Eggs Benedict, and made-to-order omelets are served for breakfast, but the menu also features a duo of more regional fish options, smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels or Scottish kippers. The lunch menu offers the typical soups (including a chilled soup), salads and entrees. Passengers can also order items like burgers and dogs "from the grill."
For a casual breakfast, lunch and dinner, head to the Seaside Cafe, Constellation's top-ship buffet venue. The oval space feels a bit like a running track with various food stations positioned along the loop -- pizza, pasta and stir-fry bars; Asian (sushi) and English cuisine (fish 'n' chips, shepherd's pie and the like); sandwiches; and a build-a-salad bar. It was my common practice to make a full circuit before settling on a plateful.
I may be repeating myself, but Constellation featured some of the best main buffet food I've had. A meal of mushy peas and just-fried chips doused with malt vinegar was especially memorable, and the Indian dishes, like mini samosas and chickpea stew, exceeded expectations. On the other hand, the sushi, now as much a part of cruise ship DNA as main dining room lobster tail, wasn't particularly good -- the raw items were way too fishy.
The adjacent Seaview Bar, inspired by the richly lacquered cherry wood and khaki canvas sails of a classic schooner, provides al fresco seating on the stern for about 120 passengers. On sunny days, you'll find many passengers enjoying a quiet bite as and following the ship's wake into the horizon.
From noon to 6 p.m., the Pool Side Grill offers a standard menu of burgers, bratwursts and grilled chicken, with a full of complement of sauteed, sliced and chopped toppings. Veggie and turkey burgers are also available upon request. I had a couple of really juicy grilled chicken sandwiches, with a tasty chicken marinade that featured an unexpected kick. Also popular there was the taco/nacho bar setup -- start with deep-fried taco shells or tortilla chips, and then ask the chef to add a combination of beef (greasy and granular, a la Taco Bell), chicken, nacho cheese sauce, guacamole, a few salsas, sour cream and vegetables. Salads, like chickpea and feta or potato, round out the options.
For the most upscale dining experience onboard, Ocean Liners is Constellation's alternative restaurant, emphasizing indulgent French food and white-glove service. The space is modeled after a restaurant on the classic ocean liner Ille de France. There's mahogany paneling throughout and walls and glass cases display ship paintings and memorabilia (restaurant menus, ship models). At $45 per person, it's one of the priciest for-fee eatery at sea. But for the price, you get unceasingly attentive service (the staff's collective psyche is clearly tied into making sure you have a perfect meal), tableside preparation if you order the crepe suzette or filet, and almost more rich French food than your body can handle. I went for broke and tried the goat cheese souffle; heirloom tomato, cantaloupe and mozzarella caprese; sweet breads; a filet with a cognac cream sauce; and a six-dessert sampler. The sauce accompanying the sweet breads -- made of veal stock, wine reduction, capers, grapefruit, celery greens -- was especially memorable, hitting all parts of the tongue. Ocean Liner's menu also features options like caviar (additional fee), foie gras, escargot ravioli and venison. There's also a multi-course meal that's paired with wines for $89 per person.
Constellation's second upscale alternative restaurant is The Tuscan Grille, a modern, Italian steak-and-wine venue, first seen on Celebrity Solstice. (It replaced Constellation's apparently revenue-draining top-ship flower shop.) The top-ship, circular space features wooden wine cabinets atop faux stone walls, and the restaurant is divided into two sections by a large leather banquette. The smaller side features two- and four-tops (and a view of the late-night Baltic sunset when I dined there); the larger side has bigger tables and showcases a prosciutto slicer (the Lamborghini of prosciutto slicers, said the maitre d'), a popular prop in cruise ship Italian restaurants (also found on Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean ships). The $35-per-head dinner is a multi-course affair. I had the antipasti plate with cheese, olives and marinated squash; fried calamari; crostini with bruschetta, tapenade and goat cheese; arugula salad with pine nuts and goat cheese; cajun ribeye steak with a pecorino mac 'n' cheese; and gelato in a waffle cone. While not quite as decadent as Ocean Liners, the Tuscan Grille creates the same memorable experience.
There are moments when the caloric intake becomes overkill. Do you really need a crispy onion topping on a salad that already features fat in the form of a heavy dressing, fried cheese and nuts? The pecorino mac 'n' cheese that accompanied the steak was so dense, I could feel the blend of cheeses flowing like lava to the bottom of my stomach.
After eating at both, I overheard something that seemed to sum up the experience. Man to woman on day eight of the 12 day cruise: "Now if you just don't eat anything for the next four days, you'll be back to 139 pounds."
For the health-conscious cruiser looking for some balance, Constellation has the AquaSpa Cafe, which is located within the glass-and-steel-covered solarium pool area. The venue is really just a buffet lunch counter, proffering light-fare foods and a few a la carte items (grilled pork, poached salmon). It was very popular with the bathrobed, post-gym or -spa treatment crowd, and everyone flocked there during sea days when the Baltic or North Sea wind was whipping over the open decks. Grab-and-go items on offer include sushi (vegetable rolls), grilled chicken, poached shrimp with avocado slices, whole-grain breads, a build-your-own-salad setup with a selection light vinaigrettes, a daily cold soup (melon with ginger) and a poached fruit bar. Finally, there was an extensive sorbet list, which ranged from the familiar (raspberry) to the bizarrely adventurous (boiled asparagus with shallots and thyme, which was, unfortunately, unavailable the few times I went to taste it). There is no cost to dine at the AquaSpa Cafe, which is typically open from 7:30 to 10 a.m. and from noon to 2:30 p.m.
Bistro on Five, the new casual venue borrowed from Solstice, offers a variety of sweet and savory crepes, paninis (grilled, pressed sandwiches) and desserts for a $5-per-person surcharge. Set apart by clouded glass panels, the softly lit Deck 5 space features comfortable couch seating along the portholes and its own musical mix (funky soul, nouveau country). Wanting to try a sweet and a savory crepe, I asked them to make me two slightly smaller-than-normal blends. One had bacon, sausage, tomatoes, scrambled eggs and onion and was served with a cup of fruit and some breakfast potatoes; the other was "The Italian," a blend of Nutella (a narcotic chocolate hazelnut spread that's popular in Europe), bananas, creme sauce and pistachio toppings. Other crepe options included Cajun chicken, flank steak, Indian-spiced veggies -- or you could build your own. The venue was never really crowded -- after all, it's open from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m., 20 hours a day -- but on sea days, during lunch, the prime real estate next to the large, circular windows fills up fast.
A pair of symbiotic casual venues -- Cafe al Bacio, starboard, and the Gelateria, port -- are located on Deck 5, midship. Coffee drink prices at Cafe al Bacio are on the (very) high side -- $4 for a tiny cappuccino is outrageous, but you can fill up on the assorted mini-cookies and -pastries as long as you purchase a drink. The sweets are made from scratch every three or four hours, and the lemon tart and mini-chocolate cake I swallowed whole passed the taste test. During lunch hours, there are savory options like mini-ham and -turkey sandwiches and salmon mousse tarts. Across the way at the Gelateria, gelato costs $3 for a single scoop and $4 for a double. (Sprinkles, pseudo-M&M's, etc. are included in the cost.) The gelato was good, especially the After Eight mint flavor, but it was the wafting scent of the fresh-made waffle cones that drew passengers to the counter. As my dinner tablemate noted, the Gelateria is the best-smelling place on the ship.
Room service is available 24 hours a day, an important consideration for night owls looking for munchies between 2 a.m., when Bistro on Five closes, and 5:30 or 6 a.m., when the first early riser breakfast options become available and the bistro reopens. You can order room service items, including a tomato, cheese and avocado quesadilla or a turkey club, using the in-cabin interactive TV. Should you wish to tip, you must do so in cash. (There are no receipts.)