The food served on Carnival Dream is not uniformly excellent, but, for those willing to sample the dozens of meal options, it's nearly impossible to get through the day without discovering some culinary treat.
The two formal dining rooms -- the Scarlet, with a capacity of 1,122, and the smaller Crimson, capacity 744 -- remain the focal point of ship dining. Both feature a rich, red decor with stunning Murano glass chandeliers. Made-to-order breakfasts are served from 8 a.m. until 10 a.m. at the two-level Scarlet, which, with its three walls of windows and its aft ship location, is the nicer of the two dining rooms. The Scarlet also has seated lunch during sea days from noon until 1:30 p.m. Early dinner seating at 6 p.m. and late dining at 8:15 p.m. are offered at both dining rooms. Dream is also the first Carnival ship to offer dedicated space on the upper level of Crimson for Your Time Dining, with seating for about 500 passengers allowed to eat anytime between 5:45 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.; we waited a couple of evenings for a few minutes for an available table but were usually seated right away. While it's convenient to eat whenever you want, the dedicated space looks out over a busy hallway and feels much more casual than the usual cruise dining experience.
Food in the formal dining areas is generally satisfying, if not gourmet, and the servers, while busy, are attentive and friendly. Belgian waffles served at breakfast were hot and fluffy. Low-calorie, low-cholesterol Spa Carnival choices, such as fresh grilled red snapper and Madagascar mango cake, were surprisingly tasty. It's also relatively easy to order off the regular menu and not consume a ton of calories. The warm chocolate melting cake, one of Carnival's specialties, came out underdone one night and delicious the next (order in advance to make sure it's cooked properly). The chefs seem to have taken to heart passenger complaints about overcooked beef -- my steak, ordered medium, had to be returned to the grill.
But feeling like suburbanites who like Outback Steakhouse and Bonefish Grill just fine, but yearn for something a bit more special on occasion, we turned to Chef's Art Steakhouse (open 6 p.m. until 9:30 p.m. for dinner), which charges $35 per person. The steakhouse did not disappoint: Dimmer lighting, finer appointments and a quieter, more comfortable ambiance help take the sharp edges off Carnival's frenetic pace. The food is definitely a cut above. Rib-eye steak is juicy and tender. Appetizers include beef carpaccio and tuna tartare. Even the side dishes, such as Yukon gold mash with wasabi horseradish, had us scraping the plate. Save room for the chocolate sampler dessert; it changes daily but can include such delights as chocolate tiramisu and maple-walnut ice cream with warm chocolate cake. One complaint: Order the lobster and filet mignon, and it's included in the $35 price, but order the lobster with a rib-eye, and you'll pay another $25.
If you like (possible) laughter with your food, check out the Punchliner Comedy Brunch, which takes place in the main dining room on sea days. The Brunch features a menu of mid-morning classics like french toast, loaded mac n' cheese and, of course, eggs. The menu also features a few items inspired by Carnival's "Curator of Comedy," George Lopez -- think breakfast burritos and huevos y carne, a Mexican-style steak-and-eggs dish -- and a Bloody Mary bar. Brunch is fee-free, the Bloody Marys are extra.
If you're a real foodie who's also curious about how the galley manages to feed so many people, check out the Chef's Table. For $75 a person, you meet the head chef, tour the galley and dine on a multi-course meal with wine at a private table where you can watch the chefs at work.
Casual dining options are usually a hit, but sometimes miss. Basic fare and specialty buffets are offered at the Gathering, which covers a large portion of Deck 10 (the Lido Deck) and where some sort of food is served from 5:30 a.m. until 1 a.m. Tastier selections are found at the specialty buffets; too bad their short hours (generally noon until 2:30 p.m.) often mean long lines. Hits include the Mongolian Wok, where passengers pile their bowls with noodles and a selection of veggies and then the chef woks it up with either shrimp, chicken or beef and a choice of sauces; Tandoor, for tasty Indian food such as meat samosas and garlic naan; and the 24-hour Pizza Bar, which serves up the usual pies with cheese and pepperoni, plus ones with delectable wild mushrooms and goat cheese.
Carnival's popular RedFrog Pub, which debuted on Magic in 2011 and was added to Dream in fall 2012, features light bites in addition to its signature libations. Savory for-a-fee options include conch, sirloin and grouper sliders; fried green beans; and grilled chicken roti. A bowl of "pigeon peas," salty, spicy, deep-fried peas, are an included staple at every table.
The Taste Bar, also added fall 2012, offers a nightly rotating menu of light bites culled from the fleet's various signature dining venues. Given its promenade location, the venue is a perfect amuse bouche on the evening march to the dining room.
Another hit is the Pasta Bar, a separate upstairs space at the back of the Gathering with a buffet and table-service combo: Check off the type of pasta, either linguini, penne or farfalla, and the sauce, from pomodoro to alfredo, and any of 12 toppings, including Italian sausage and arugula, drop it off with the chef, and it's delivered to your table. Tip: The Pasta Bar, because it's somewhat hidden, is a less-populated place to head for lunch during embarkation.
Misses include the Grill, where the hamburgers are typically lukewarm, and the Burrito Bar, where the ingredients congealed into a bland mass of calories.
Other choices include the New York-style Deli, open daily 11 a.m. until 11 p.m., and Taste of Nations buffet stations that change daily and focus on specific ethnic foods, such as Mexican, Italian, Caribbean and Cajun. Down on Deck 5, the Wasabi Sushi Bar, open most nights from 5 p.m. until 8:15 p.m., serves better-than-average free samplings of sushi. And the staff-favorite Plaza Cafe, open 7 a.m. until midnight, has reasonably priced lattes, cappuccinos and espressos, along with pastries and milkshakes. (We were surprised when we didn't see a few off-duty crewmembers hanging out here.)
Special food offerings, more commonly set up during sea days, are excellent. Save your hamburger fix for the Lanai BarBQ, an open-air barbecue serving piping hot ribs, burgers and hot dogs. A salad bar set up inside to complement the barbecue looked far more appealing than the usual on the Lido Deck. The Chocolate Extravaganza, offered at lunch one day at The Gathering, has 10 types of cakes, a chocolate fountain with fresh fruit for dipping, and ice cream with a variety of sauces. Gala midnight buffets are a distant memory, but Dream does put on a Mexican Buffet from 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. once during each sailing. And if you're into dessert served in a quiet venue, don't forget afternoon Tea Time, served a couple of times a week in the Crimson dining room.
Around-the-clock room service is free, but limited. Caesar salads, sandwiches -- which range from PB&J to rare roasted New York strip steak and brie in a baguette -- and simple desserts, such as cheesecake, are about it. Continental breakfast (nothing hot) can be ordered for a specific delivery time by placing a tag on your door before 5 a.m.; the bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon is a good bet.