The food on Emerald Radiance is superb, and manages to balance the predominatly British appetite (porridge and beans in the morning, or a lamb Wellington at lunch) with plenty of Portuguese specialties.
What we also enjoyed was not only the variety of the offerings, but the diversity of dinner. Your first night onboard is served as a buffet to kindly accommodate jet-lagged travelers or cruisers more than happy to have a casual first evening. This is followed the very next night by a more formal set menu for the welcome meal, only to be eclipsed the next evening by our absolute favorite meal onboard, which is the traditional Portuguese barbecue -- held on the top deck of the ship. Cold salads galore and a hot grill with chicken, ribs, sausages and even the very traditional grilled sardines, are enjoyed with pitchers of sangria (we were docked on the border of Spain that evening), live music and the incredible setting of the Douro. Ice cream sundaes ended the meal.
Another night found Radiance passengers dining at a traditional Portuguese wine estate, and the ambiance was so enchanting, it felt like a wedding reception. All in all, a "typical" menu is only offered two of the seven nights onboard your ship, meaning you'll never get bored of the dinner routine. Dinner is typically served around 7 p.m.
Breakfast and lunch are a little more predictable in terms of format: a full breakfast is served in the restaurant daily from 7:30 to 9 a.m., while a light breakfast is set out in the lounge in front of the Terrace starting at 6:30 and ending at 10. A full lunch is available in the restaurant at 12:30 or 12:45 until 2, while a light lunch is set out at the same time, but only for an hour. Both meals are served buffet-style.
Our only complaint about dining is far from the food -- rather, getting to it. Because the ship is small, layout can get tricky. Both in the restaurant and around the bar in the lounge, it is almost impossible to pass by anyone with ease. This means if someone is ordering a drink at the bar, or getting food at one of the stations in the restaurant, you really have to squeeze by. If someone is also trying to pass from the other direction, forget about it.
Reflections Restaurant (Deck 2): There is one dining venue onboard Emerald Radiance and that is the Reflections Restaurant. The dining room is simple and sophisticated with tan or brown rounded leather chairs and tables for two, four and six, as well as a few round tables. Booths line the back wall of the restaurant, with mirrors or windows all around. Tables are not assigned.
The layout of breakfast and lunch is buffet-style with designated counters. Every morning you will find two trays of eggs and an omelet chef at the counter facing the entrance, along with a morning special like dense, sweet waffles or pancakes. Along the right-hand side is a variety of breakfast sides like bacon, sausage and beans, and a bread station with a toaster oven. Along the back wall are yogurts, daily smoothies, trays of tempting Portuguese pastries (natas and croissants are always available) and a selection of juices. And along the left are lox with all the accoutrements, and an impressive selection of fresh fruit. Waiters come around with carafes of coffee, and also take tea orders.
At lunch, the front counter is taken up by daily specials like a chunky vegetable stew, and usually a roast that the chef will slice for you fresh, as well as a fried fish and a regional specialty like pork and beef stew with chickpeas. Sides and bread are still along the right counter -- sides might include fresh vegetables or mashes potatoes. These is also a choice of two soups daily, which always had inventive toppings like rustic bacon chips or garlic toasties. The salad bar is along the left counter and was frequently crowded as it provided a substantial amount of vegetables and toppings like sesame or sunflower seeds, as well as cold mixed salads. There was always a savory mousse, like a sardine cocktail, that no one ever seemed brave enough to try. The entire back counter is dominated by cheeses, jams, plates of desserts and a choice of two ice creams or sorbets, rotated daily. There were always two or three regional cheeses, and we couldn't say no to any of them. Wine and beer is also served at lunch, as well as soft drinks.
Despite one main dining room, meals never feel tired or repetitive. This has to do with both the variety of the dinner experiences, as well as the dishes. Everything is homemade onboard -- even the ice cream -- except the bread. Despite Portugal's strong emphasis on meat and seafood dishes, the vegetarian options were fresh and inventive (and not just different takes on pasta). The Portuguese actually invented tempura, and one evening's surprise was an avocado tempura entree with vegetable rice and soy foam. On one of the two standard dining days, menu items included traditional deep-fried cod cakes, a strawberry cocktail with port wine or a salad with olives, avocado, radish and greens for an appetizer; a choice of two traditional soups; and a choice of four entrees including spaghetti, salmon, rack of lamb and a duo baked potato main dish. Dessert offerings include one pastry du jour, like a Spanish almond tart, a fresh fruit plate, a sorbet or ice cream, and a cheese plate. Also on these standard days you can find Emerald's Classics, which are always-available items such as Caesar salad, salmon, grilled chicken breast and sirloin steak.
On the gala evenings, dishes have a heavy focus on regional specialties and chef recommendations. Expect a choice of appetizer such as scallops with asparagus, raspberry and salsa fresca; a soup like a mushroom cappuccino with nutmeg; a choice of three entrees from grilled octopus and slow-roasted veal to a zucchini spring roll with goat cheese filling. Dessert might be a rich chocolate cake with hazelnut truffle and mandarin ice cream.
A Portuguese red and white wine is included at every meal, and details of those pairings are indicated on the menu. The restaurant manager also describes the wine at the daily port talks right before dinner, or during the meal, as he or she circles around.
The Terrace (Deck 3): The Terrace is an outdoor space with a few tables and chairs and a handful of cushioned chairs with footrests for lounging. Just inside of the Terrace along the front of the bar, is where light breakfast and lunch are served. At breakfast, expect small smoothies, a selection of pastries, yogurt, a plate of meat and cheese, and a tray of scrambled eggs, but not as much fruit as you would find upstairs in the restaurant. For lunch, there will be a tray of sandwiches, two types of salads, a soup, a pasta, an entree like hake tempura and for dessert you might find a lemon cake and a chocolate mousse.
Teatime is every day from 4 to 4:30, and while the tea offerings remain the same, the cakes, scones, sandwiches or pastries offered change daily. We tried a local honey cake the day we made teatime.