Carnival added many of the line's popular Fun Ship 2.0 additions in terms of eateries -- Guy's Burger Joint, the BlueIguana Cantina, Cucina del Capitano (though no Tandoor, sadly) -- made a few tweaks to existing venues and added the brand-new and outstanding specialty restaurant, Ji Ji.
There are two Main Dining Rooms: the double-deck Sunrise at the aft, and Sunset, midship. The former offers fixed-seating dining at 6 and 8:15 nightly; the latter is open dining from 5:45 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. These spaces are muted in terms of decor and wall-hangings. In fact, we thought both MDR's could do with a bit more color (never thought we'd say that about a Carnival ship!).
Both restaurants feature salads, appetizers and chilled soups, with entrees consisting of pasta, meat, fish and vegetarian options. The food is excellent and inventive -- the linguine main with spicy sausage and mushrooms was light and delicious, with a slight heat.
Choices that are lower in fat, cholesterol and sodium are denoted with little hearts (pan-seared fish, lighter sauces). The "Didja Ever" option (as in "Did you ever think you'd try food like this?"), which changes nightly, is aimed at first-timer culinary experience (ahi tuna, cured salmon and candied tomato). Desserts include ice cream, pies, a cheese plate and Carnival's famous chocolate melting cake. For the fussy eaters, always-available options include flat-iron steak, fried chicken and a vegetarian Indian plate.
Sit-down breakfast (6 a.m. to 8 a.m., depending upon arrival into port) and lunch (noon-2 p.m.) is served in Sunrise. The menu items -- omelets, cereals and breads for breakfast, and sandwiches, burgers and salads for lunch -- are not much different than the buffet offerings, but they're served in a more formal setting.
The fee-free Punchliner Comedy Brunch, a sea day exclusive, features five-minute teasers from that evening's comedians every hour on the hour from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. There's also a special menu inspired by Carnival's "Curator of Comedy," George Lopez, and a Bloody Mary bar ($7.75 to $8.75). Dishes include huevos y carne, a Mexican-style steak-and-eggs dish, and a breakfast burrito. Drinks include a wide selection of brunch beverages.
The Lido Marketplace buffet (6:30 a.m. to midnight) on Deck 9 has been extensively revamped. There's plenty of seating, but it's still way too small for the size of the ship. There's an attempt to split up the crowds with themed food areas (pizza area, comfort food and an excellent made-to-order deli, for example), but it gets congested, particularly at breakfast on port days. However, those in the know can escape the crowds by slipping into the Havana Bar via two side entrances. There's plenty of seating available in the main bar area and in the two specialty restaurants either side. Plus, at breakfast, there's an omelet station and, at lunch, Mongolian Wok, where you can get delicious, made-to-order noodles with your choice of seafood or meat. There are also two "beer stations," which weren't well used on our cruise but do allow you to PYOB (another Carnival acronym meaning -- you guessed it -- Pour Your Own Beer). The two beers available are the line's own brew ThirstyFrog Red at $4 per pint and Bud Light at $3.95 per pint. You simply swipe your card and pull the lever. The Sail & Swipe Cards will not dispense to anyone younger than 21. Pizza and ice cream are available 24 hours; the Deli is open till 11 p.m. and there are late-night buffets every night.
More casual dining options and seating spill out forward onto the ship's main pool area. At the adjacent midship Beach Pool area, Guy's Burger Joint serves heart-attack-inducing burgers with the option of mayo and oil-soaked onions or mushrooms. (To give you an idea of its popularity, the line serves on average 1,200 burgers per day on each ship.) There's also plenty of shaded seating there.
The main pool deck also has the BlueIguana Cantina, which offers wrapped-to-order burritos and topped-to-order tacos for breakfast and lunch. You get a choice of fillings like chicken, cheese, beans and pico de gallo, rolled into a house-made tortilla, and limitless amounts of more than 20 salsas and hot sauces. Unfortunately, the salt content is off the charts.
Salads, sandwiches, wraps and other light fare are available on sea days at Serenity, and Sea Dogs, a hot dog-shaped cart within the SportSquare outdoor recreation area, offers complimentary all-beef franks and traditional toppings.
The Havana Bar is a welcome, elegant, sophisticated and seemingly never-crowded addition at the aft of the ship. The whole space is called the Havana Bar, but it actually comprises three areas: the Havana Bar itself, right in the center of the room, and the two specialty restaurants either side (which are curtained off, rather than separate rooms). In the mornings, you can get omelets and eggs cooked how you like; at lunch, chefs will whip up fresh, wok-cooked noodles with your choice of meat. Or you can have a free sit-down lunch at Cucina del Capitano for choose-what-you-like pasta, sauces and toppings (serve yourself).
The space itself is large, with lots of different types of seating, some against the aft windows. Free Cuban-style food -- like empanadas, Cuban sandwiches and sweet dessert -- is available throughout the day.
Family-friendly Cucina del Capitano is a kind of homage to Carnival's heritage, with lots of black-and-white pictures of former Italian captains adorning the walls. It's done out like a traditional Italian trattoria, with wine bottles and checkered table cloths. The food is as you would expect: huge portions of pasta covered in heavy creams with sides and appetizers, arugula salad, minestrone soup. It's served family-style if more than one person at a table orders a dish. Surcharges are $15 per adult and $5 per child.
On the opposite side is Ji Ji, an outstanding addition to the ship and wildly underpriced at $15 per head, considering the quality of the food. The food is Pan-Asian. Starters include chicken spring rolls, slow-braised pork belly or jade shrimp har gow, and Ji Ji doesn't scrimp on portions. The main dishes are out of this world. The Bo Kho (slow-braised wagyu beef short rib) and Chairman Mao's master stock pig were standouts. If you can even think about dessert after that, you deserve some sort of medal, but there is a small selection that includes light creme brulee and ice cream. The obligatory fortune cookie is handed out at the end, as you stagger off to a show. Throw in exceptional service, and you'd be hard-pressed to beat this as a dining experience -- whether on sea or land.
On Deck 4, midship, is Fahrenheit 555, the line's rebranded steakhouse, serving classic soups and starters (baked onion soup, tuna tartare), salads (Caesar, spinach) and prime-aged beef, chops and seafood (ribeye, lamb, lobster), which the server wheels out on a cart for a pre-meal examination and explanation. You can also opt for the surf and turf option. It's $35 for a starter, salad, entree and dessert. Reservations are recommended, especially if you want to eat at prime time (6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.). There is also an outstanding for-fee wine list. If you book on the first day, you'll get a free bottle of wine with your meal.
Bonsai Sushi (scheduled to open in September 2013) will be located opposite Fahrenheit 555. It will have a la carte pricing, ranging from $1 to $15 per item.
The Taste Bar (5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.) offers a nightly free menu taken from the ship's various dining venues in a bid to get you to make a reservation at one of the specialty restaurants. Given its prominent location at one corner of Ocean Plaza, the venue is an ideal spot to sample a tapa or two on your way to the dining room.
Between Ocean Plaza and the casino is Java Blue and the Shake Spot (which are actually one and the same). Excellent coffees start at $2.95 and shakes at $3.95. Shake Spot features nine kinds of milkshakes, which can be turned into adult versions when spiked with bourbon, rum and various liqueurs for a $7.75 fee. There is also a small selection of for-fee cakes, gelato and cookies, which range from $1.50 to $3.
Sunshine features the $75-per-person Chef's Table, where passengers meet the head chef, wander the galley and enjoy a multicourse feast, paired with wine and a bit of culinary Q&A. Reservations are required -- and this event can fill up quickly. It takes place in Fahrenheit 555.
Room service is available 24 hours. The menu includes Continental breakfast items, as well as hot and cold items like BLT's, roast beef sandwiches, salads and cookies. It says to allow up to 45 minutes for a delivery, but it's often much quicker. It's customary to tip a couple dollars per order.