In our opinion, Uniworld has some of the best cuisine of any cruise line -- river or ocean. After experiencing the cuisine of several other ships in the fleet, we are pleased to report that Joie de Vivre does not let the line down. Each meal is a triumph, from the taste, freshness, diversity and portion sizes, to the friendly service of the wait staff. This small ship has an impressive six dining options: the main restaurant, a French-style bistro, supper club, the lounge, a private table in the show kitchen and room service.
On the downside, luxury travelers who wouldn't be seen dead in a buffet may balk at self-serving breakfast and lunch every day; however, the food is so good and there's never a queue. There are ways around it, such as ordering eggs from your waiter without moving from your chair at breakfast, or eating lunch in the bistro. If we were to find fault with the dinner service, it was that the chicken was overcooked one night and sometimes the tables took a while to be cleared.
Restaurant Le Pigalle (Deck 3): Brace yourself for the feasts ahead in Joie de Vivre's buffet extraordinaire for breakfast and lunch and a la carte dinner served by waiters and a sommelier. Evoking a 20th-century Parisian restaurant, this venue exudes simple elegance with white tablecloths, vintage lights, fresh flowers, pineapple motifs on the walls and cream leather chairs with a handle in the back to help pull them out. Tables are set for two, four, six or eight people.
Breakfast (7 to 9 a.m.) offers a selection of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, baked beans, grilled vegetables, breads, pastries, cold meats, cheese, smoked salmon, yogurt, fruit, French toast, smoothies, freshly squeezed orange juice and pitchers of other juices. A chef is on hand to whip up omelettes, fried eggs or poached eggs on request.
The lunch buffet is superb, providing a wide variety of hot entrees, which are never repeated over a week's cruise. Sides include vegetables, cold meats, salads, soups, an astonishing array of local cheeses and sometimes a cold seafood section. Don't miss the lamb chops, fish pie, duck confit and cottage pie. Afterward, check out the ice cream bar, the sensational cheese and the counter of desserts as good as any French patisserie.
Dinner varies according to the latest shore excursion but generally starts around 7:30 p.m. The menu has six courses: amuse-bouche, le premier plat (a choice of two appetizers plus vegetarian option), soup, entree (two choices plus vegetarian), cheese platter and dessert. The overall flavor is French but you don't have to eat escargots, frogs legs and foie gras all day; there is plentiful chicken, pork, beef, veal, venison, duck, fish, shrimp, scallops, oysters and vegetables.
Vegetarians are treated equally with a menu as long as the carnivore selection. Each day brings new options including a lovely eggplant mille-feuille, baked Camembert, corn and leek cake with ratatouille, crepes, salads, soups, curry, lasagna and lentil cottage pie. You can mix and match from both sides of the menu, and a "healthy options" menu is also available. Any dietary request or food allergy can be catered for, and the crew will personally attend to each person, talking them through the menu or walking them around the buffet to point out what not to eat.
Reservations are not required and passengers can choose where to sit. To seat a group at the same table, get down there when the doors open. Most people wander in 10 or 20 minutes later, and everyone gets a water view, so there's no need to make a mad dash downstairs for the best seats.
As always, drinks are included throughout meals, from the Champagne chilling on the juice counter in the morning through to the fine French wines offered at lunch and dinner. Waiters are well trained to keep the glasses topped up.
Le Bistrot (Deck 4): An authentic tribute to a Parisian cafe, Le Bistrot is meant to be an alternative option to Le Pigalle but it's so cute and casual, you'll want to eat here often. The French scene is set with red and white checked tablecloths, burgundy leather banquettes, engraved cutlery and Art Deco posters and lamps. If it's a nice day, ask them to open the windows.
Traditional dishes include onion soup, steak, Dover sole, lemon chicken, a ham and cheese baguette, apple tart, and assorted pate and terrines with olives and pickled onions. The standout entree is a duck confit, Toulouse sausage and haricot bean cassoulet, which also appears at the lunch buffet and on Claude's menu to make sure nobody misses it.
This small space with 10 tables for two is located at the bow of the ship and connects to Salon Toulouse. Le Bistrot is open from midday and closes when dinner service begins in the main restaurant, although they are tinkering with the times to see what passengers want.
Salon Toulouse (Deck 4): Tea time, accompanied by light piano music, runs for an hour from 4 p.m. Take a seat and waiters will serve tea, coffee, Champagne and tiered trays of sandwiches, cakes and macarons. From around 5 p.m, nibbles are served with drinks before dinner. These light snacks range from pretzels, peanuts, chips and a housemade guacamole to more substantial canapes for special occasions. Passengers can order meals from Le Bistrot menu to be served in the lounge. There's also a caviar tasting one evening, granting the chance to sample a spoonful of two varieties that sell for US$4,000 per kilogram – included in the fare.
Claude's (Deck 4): From 6 p.m., the supper club serves shared plates and hors d'oeuvres. With dim lighting, a starry ceiling, tables for two and a maximum capacity of 26 people, this intimate venue specializes in cocktails and live music from 9:30 p.m. If you prefer to dine quietly, arrive before the band starts. On our cruise, they also trialed a dinner at Claude's. Although the menu is likely to be changed from the cheese and white meat focus that we had, the view of the sunset and the ship's wake will be the same. For this reason, it was one of our favorite nights, despite being a bit bumpy and windy with the windows open.
Room Service: Available 24 hours a day, the menu changes slightly depending on the time. Options are fairly limited but sufficient for a simple snack or a quiet night in. An exception is the after-midnight choices, which are too light and healthy for people who may be seeking something to soak up alcohol before bed -- surely the core market from midnight to 5 a.m. (not that Cruise Critic would ever crave a greasy burger after a night of dancing in France but even a croque monsieur would have gone down more easily than a tuna salad!) The all-day menu consists of a ham and cheese baguette, charcuterie plate, onion soup, salad Nicoise, Toulouse sausage in a bun, cheese plate, fruit plate, chocolate mousse and cheesecake. A breakfast of croissants and other pastries can also be delivered to your room.
La Cave des Vins (Deck 2); 95 euros: Tucked "down below" on a deck that few people discover is a private dining room and show kitchen. La Cave des Vins hosts the only meal with a surcharge (95 euros) which comprises seven courses of "farm-to-table" cuisine paired with wines and a French cooking class with the chef. To justify the fee, Uniworld CEO Ellen Bettridge described it to us as an "onboard shore excursion;" the company website calls it an "exclusive epicurean event" As we didn't get to try it, we can only say the setting is suitably classy and would appeal to couples celebrating a birthday or anniversary. It is one shared table, limited to 10 guests, so it also has the potential to become the perfect hideaway for a decadent dinner party. Reservations are required.