(3:10 p.m. EDT) -- With the arrival of the 436-passenger American Queen imminent, details are emerging about one of the key components of the ship's renaissance: its serious focus on dining.
The Mississippi-bound ship, being refurbished by the Great American Steamboat Company for $6 million, is set to launch in April. The vessel, the world's largest paddlewheel steamboat, was built for the now-defunct Delta Queen Steamboat Company and was retired in 2008 when then-operator Majestic America Line also went out of business.
Now the ship, which will be joined on the Big Muddy in August by Queen of the Mississippi (a newly constructed paddle-wheeler), is ready to make its big reappearance, and by many accounts its cuisine will be a major draw.
Cruise Critic recently traveled to Mississippi to visit with Southern chef Regina Charboneau, who was tapped by Great American Steamboat to serve as the line's chef de cuisine. We spent two days with Charboneau at Twin Oaks Plantation, her 19th-century home and bed-and-breakfast in Natchez (a port of call for American Queen) for a sneak peek -- and sampling -- of the menus she's developing. Here are a few tasty tidbits about the onboard dining experience that we learned:
Regional ingredients and themed menus. As much as possible, the line will be sourcing local ingredients -- like farm-raised poultry, sustainable seafood, pecans and produce -- from the ports on American Queen's route. A jazz brunch, offered once per cruise, will showcase baked goods, salads, roasted meats (Andouille-stuffed pork loin? Yes, please) and savory dishes like grits in a smoked tomato cream sauce, one of the decadent entrees we sampled. You also won't want to miss Charboneau's special captain's dinner. The Mark Twain-themed meal features a menu of delicacies believed to be the Missouri-raised author and food lover's favorites, including a "mock" turtle soup (don't worry, it's beef).
Multiple dining venues: This may not be a glitzy, mega cruise ship, but in keeping with the trend of choice when it comes to dining, there are several eateries onboard -- all with their own personalities and culinary offerings. A buffet breakfast and luncheon will be served every day in the Grand Saloon, while the J.M. White Dining Room will handle traditional sit-down lunches and dinners. The River Grill will serve up casual fare from gourmet hot dogs to grilled catfish po' boys (al fresco, as weather permits). Finally, the Front Porch of America is open around the clock -- grab a beignet with your morning coffee, homemade cookies in the afternoon or a midnight snack.
There will also be special suppers and cocktail-hour canapes in bars and lounges throughout the ship on every sailing.
Upscale Southern cuisine: In light of trends toward healthier eating, particularly on cruise ships, we had to ask: Will all of the offerings onboard be rich, buttery and fattening? Charboneau says no way, and assures us that "Southern food can be light and elegant." Case in point: During our menu preview, we enjoyed delicately seasoned asparagus and squash cooked in a cast-iron skillet, crisp hearts of romaine with handmade Greek Goddess dressing and pan-roasted quail. Charboneau is also adding upscale twists to traditional favorites. One example is a take on fried catfish: a lighter cornmeal-crusted version served with jalapeno tartar sauce. But don't worry, you won't be left wanting for comfort foods, like muffaletta sandwiches, corn and shrimp fritters, and -- of course -- flaky, buttery biscuits. They'll be onboard, too.
Want to try your hand at making Chef Charboneau's famous biscuits? She walked us through the recipe step by step in her kitchen at Twin Oaks. Follow along in our slideshow, and you'll never open a can of Pillsbury again.
Click here to start the lesson: Biscuit Making 101.
--By Melissa Paloti, Director of Product Development, Cruise Critic