By 2017, Avalon's culinary partnership with Karl and Leo Wrenkh, Austrian chefs noted for their commitment to sustainable and healthy dining, will be in full force. But even now, vegetarian and vegan dishes are a highlight of traveling on Passion. We've never seen such attention to dietary restrictions on a river cruise, with every dish being marked with icons and a convenient guide to allergens in the back of all menus. The line believes that its initiative, called Avalon Fresh, will appeal to baby boomers as well as younger passengers, and after sampling a range of tasty vegetarian options on Passion, we agree.
That doesn't mean you can't indulge. Cookies, muffins and doughnuts (including gluten-free items) are available all day in the ship's aft lounge, there's a daily teatime with yummy cakes and pastries, and caloric puff pastries are passed around during the Captain's Welcome and Farewell Happy Hour. The ship's available anytime menu includes familiar standards such as beef tenderloin, grilled chicken, Caesar salad and broiled salmon. But with modern offerings such as saffron-pumpkin quinoa, an innovative "schnitzel" made from celery root and a green pea soup that tasted like the veggies were just picked, even a die-hard carnivore may decide to go light.
Main Dining Room (Sapphire Deck): The main dining room is airy and light, with windows on each side and a dividing wall to cut down on noise; the effect is modern and contemporary, not stuffy. Tables are arranged in groups of four, six or eight, and meals are open seating. Breakfast and lunch are served as buffets (with hot items available made to order) and dinner is a full four-course meal with waiter service.
Full breakfast runs from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. There's an omelet station, as well as muesli and fruit; hot items such as mushrooms, eggs and breakfast meats; bagels, cream cheese and smoked salmon; and sliced meats and cheeses. Sparkling wine and fruit juices are available. The health fans in our group loved the daily "superfoods" -- chia seed and nuts you could put on your cereal.
Lunch usually begins at noon and runs until 2 p.m. There's a full buffet, and also several "always available" options such as a roast beef sandwich, grilled chicken with fries and Caesar salad. The buffet items change daily, but there's always a full salad bar, several hot entrees such as saffron-pumpkin quinoa or a carving station with roast pork, a fish dish and a soup.
Dinner is a four-course meal, plated with waiter service; times can vary, depending on the evening's activities. A typical meal includes vegetarian and non-vegetarian choices at all courses; gluten-free and other allergens are noted on the menus. Portions are reasonably sized, and you can order a full meal without feeling overwhelmed or bloated.
Appetizers might include vitello tonnato (chilled sliced veal in a creamy dressing) or grilled balsamic asparagus. Soups may be a chicken consomme or creamy sweet corn. Entrees always include a choice of meat, fish or vegetarian; items could be roasted Barbary duck breast with savory cabbage and Duchess potatoes; pan-fried fillet of perch in a Riesling sauce with Romancesco broccoli and couscous or vegetable goulash with couscous. Always available options at dinner include Caesar salad, beef tenderloin steak, grilled chicken breast and broiled filet of Norwegian salmon. There's also a delightful array of butters and tapenades for the fresh bread and rolls (go for the cheesy ones!)
For dessert, a cheese plate is always available, as is ice cream and fruit. There's also a cake of some sort every night.
Wines are served at dinner, and pours are plentiful. On our Danube cruise, we had a choice of local Gruner Veltliner and an Italian Sauvignon, a French rose and a Spanish Syrah. Beers, soda, coffee, tea and nonalcoholic wines are also available.
Twice a cruise, there's a special five-course Captain's Welcome Dinner and Farewell Dinner. These meals usually have slightly fancier ingredients, as well as an amuse-bouche and intermezzo course; on our cruise, this was lobster over risotto. There's also a full complement of vegetarian items available too, and you can mix and match from both menus. Passengers tend to dress up slightly more for these meals, and there's a cocktail happy hour with snacks and complimentary drinks in the lounge before you dine.
Panorama Bistro (Royal Deck): If you'd like to eat a light lunch, served buffet style, you can do so at the Panorama Bistro, a part of the main lounge that's been carved out for meals. The menu for the light lunch isn't that much different from what's at the buffet, but it's a nice choice if you're in a rush or want a change of scenery. A typical menu might include sauerkraut soup; rigatoni pasta with tomato sauce, anchovies, capers and Parmesan cheese; veal ragout with onion and bell peppers; a roast beef sandwich with french fries; a choice of salads such as potato salad or beet and cabbage salad; a green salad bar with condiments and dressings; and dessert such as blueberry sheet cake.
The Bistro also hosts afternoon tea, available most days at 4 p.m. The setup includes a choice of sandwiches, cookies and cakes.
Two or three times per cruise, the chef serves a special 15-course tasting dinner inspired by the region, with accompanying wines, in the Panorama Lounge. Every passenger is able to sign up at least once. While that might sound like a lot of food, the portions are small (just one or two bites), and you can also pass on what you don't want. On our cruise, the menu included four starters (smoked trout fillet on brown bread, a tiny Wienerschnitzel with potato salad, a Waldorf salad and a basil tofu praline on spelt salad); a soup (Hungarian goulash); two entrees (beef roulade filled with gherkins, bacon, onion and mustard, and fillet of pike perch in savory cabbage); a vegetable (artichoke and vegetable ragout); a cheese plate, and three desserts (coconut cream Halou, apricot ragout with ice cream and a chocolate cake). Vegetarian plates can also be substituted, with passengers able to order as many as they want. The wine pours were generous and paired appropriately with the courses.
Club Lounge (Royal Deck): For early risers, muffins, doughnuts and other pastries are available in the glass-enclosed aft lounge, starting at 6 a.m. (passengers who are gluten-free can ask the chef for options). There's also a coffee maker that produces specialty drinks, and an array of teas, available all day long.
During the day, the doughnuts and muffins switch over to cookies and pastries, if you need a snack.
Sky Bistro (Sky Deck); On the ship's top sun deck, the Sky Bistro serves lunch when weather permits, at least once and if weather is great, two or three times per sailing. Items here are grill specialties such as bratwurst, burgers, grilled chicken and more.
Room Service: Avalon does have room service for breakfast -- Continental, only --, but it comes with an additional charge of 2 euros.