Dinner is served in a single open seating in the Constellation Restaurant. This airy room fills a long, narrow space along the port, aft side of the lowest passenger deck (Deck 3). There are no tables for two, but a few for four, which, when the ship is not full, may remain half-filled. However, the company of fellow expedition cruisers is so convivial we found it a pleasure to dine with strangers, which we did on most nights.
Like many cruise lines catering to guests with sophisticated palates, Orion has called upon a culinary superstar to design the onboard cuisine. In this case, it's Australian uberchef and restaurateur, Serge Dansereau of Sydney's Bathers' Pavillion restaurant. Dansereau has taken charge of the lion's share of Orion's dinner menus, infusing them with his signature style. Dansereau carries the gospel of simplicity to the max -- meats, fish and fowl are accompanied by a single accompanying ingredient, and he avoids all overpowering flavorings in his sauces. (He even disavows using alcohol as a sauce ingredient.) Each night the basic dinner bill of fare is a four-course tasting menu comprised of an appetizer, fish course, meat course and dessert.
In a regular restaurant this format would be referred to as "prix fixe," but since there is no charge for onboard dining, perhaps "free picks" is more apropos. True to Dansereau's culinary philosophy, each of these courses is small in portion size, light in saucing and simple in preparation. His dessert courses are extremely light, and mostly fruit-based; chocolate appeared only once on one of his onboard menus. When we inquired about the lack of variety in this area, we were told that this was part of his philosophy; that the delicacy of his dishes should not be "overwhelmed by a heavy dessert."
The most striking aspect of Orion's cuisine was the quality of the seafood -- all of local Aussie provenance -- which ranked among the best we've experienced on any cruise ship, including items that often can't be frozen successfully, such as fresh crab, lobster and raw oysters on the half-shell.
However, we did find the rigid menu structure limiting, especially as there was only one selection for each menu course. There was a page of "alternate choices" designed and prepared by the ship's Chef de Cuisine, Lothar Greiner, but there was no direct correlation between the items listed there and the original menu course categories. For example, one night's alternate choices included a bowl of spaghetti al l'arrabiata, pumpkin soup, green salad, grilled rockling with greens, and sirloin steak. It is hard to decide where a bowl of spaghetti would fit into the structured four courses, and at the expense of what item. Does the pumpkin soup replace the appetizer course, or is it simply an option for those who don't particularly like fish? Is the alternate fish course equivalent in size to the small grazing fish course on the main menu? Nobody, neither crew nor passenger, could answer those questions. Though superlatively executed, the menus remained an enigma throughout the cruise.
No vegetarian dishes appeared on the menu, though on request, the maitre d' will print one up. Usually this is cobbled together from the fish and fowl courses with the fish or fowl eliminated altogether or substituted by a vegetable alternative (e.g., eggplant for fish in a red emperor fish porcini mushroom risotto). There is no low-sodium, low-carb or spa menu. However, due to the small size of the ship and high level of personal service, if notified at the time of booking, they will make every attempt to accommodate special dietary needs.
There are also outdoor deck barbecues and buffets. (On our seven-night Great Barrier Reef/Torres Strait sailing there were two: seafood barbecue and Mediterranean buffet). These appear to be independent of Dansereau's menu designs, as evidenced by the presence of multiple dessert selections -- including chocolate and pastries!
There typically are few if any sea days, but on port days with late calls, breakfast is also offered a la carte in the Constellation. For the most part, however, breakfast is served from the permanent buffet installation in the Delphinus Outdoor Cafe on Deck 4's fantail. There is a limited variety of cold and hot buffet items to choose from, various breads, English muffins and bagels toasted to order, as well as an omelet/scrambled/fried egg station. For early risers there is a continental breakfast/tea/coffee service in Deck 6's Galaxy Observation Lounge.
Each day, there are loosely themed buffet lunches served al fresco in the Delphinus, and the quality and variety were quite good. It is interesting to note that lunchtime was the venue for all the rich, filling, creamy desserts. This makes no sense at all for the noontime heat of tropical sailings, more sense for the semiannual Antarctic cruise, but, for American tastes, having a complete panoply of desserts for the midday meal and none for dinner seems a real head-scratcher.
During inclement weather the buffet lunches and/or breakfasts are moved inside to the Constellation. Diners may also walk their meals from the outdoor Delphinus inside to the adjoining Leda Lounge.
Continental breakfast may be ordered daily from room service; room service will also deliver dishes from the lunch or dinner menu du jour gratis during regular mealtimes.