Dining on Columbus was a really pleasant surprise, given the relatively low cost of cruising on this ship. The buffet fare was pretty much what I'd expected -- British comfort food, adequate but nothing special -- but the quality in the main dining room, The Waterfront, was impressive. The two speciality restaurants, The Grill and Fusion, were outstanding, although their price points may deter some passengers who have chosen CMV in the first place because of its bargain fares.
Partnerships with quality suppliers really make a difference, from the award-winning ice cream to the organic meats from Devon in The Grill, and a selection of Whittard teas are available in Hemingway's, the coffee shop.
Service in all the venues was good and I was particularly pleased that my no-red-meat dietary requirement was swiftly acknowledged and handled with no fuss.
The Waterfront (Deck 7): This is the main dining room, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The room is located aft, with windows on three sides (so pleasantly flooded with light), and has new carpeting and seating in a purple and cream colour scheme. For a main dining room The Waterfront has a surprisingly intimate feel, with many of the tables separated by wood-effect dividers topped with miniature artificial hedges, to create small booths. There are tables for two, four, six and eight, and dinner is assigned seating, with first sitting at 6 p.m. and second at 8.30 p.m.
Breakfast is the same menu as is offered in the Plantation Bistro, with cereals, yoghurts, fruit and cold cuts -- plus waiter-served hot dishes, from omelettes to bacon, sausages, mushrooms and hash browns.
Lunch is waiter-served and is altogether a more relaxing experience than queuing at the buffet. There are always two soups, two starters and three mains -- offerings like pan-fried grouper with marinara sauce, Singapore noodles, roast veal, or baked chicken with spaghetti, tomato and mozzarella. In addition, there's a 'pub favourites' menu featuring traditional British dishes like onion fritters, Scotch egg or cottage pie. There are also two vegetarian mains -- I tried cauliflower au gratin and vegetable tempura, both of which were real comfort food. Desserts include one dish of the day and an always-available cheese plate (which was uninspired), fruit salad and ice cream.
Dinners are rather grand affairs, with three starters, two soups, two salads, four mains, four desserts and cheese, so plenty of choice! On top of this, there's a five-course vegetarian menu and an always-available menu of steamed vegetables, grilled chicken breast or grilled salmon. The standard is high -- given that this is a relatively low-priced cruise, the food really impressed me, from a traditional prawn cocktail to a very tasty tagliatelle with salmon and a vodka cream sauce. Flavours are from all over the world, so you can expect dishes like Vermont turkey breast, aloo gobi, pork with a Calvados sauce and Thai beef salad. On the last night, the waiters parade around with baked Alaska in the time-honoured cruising fashion, to much applause.
Wines are recommended with each evening's menu, although there's no sommelier and the waiters are not particularly well-informed if you ask them to recommend something. If you order a bottle of wine in one restaurant and don't finish it, you can save it for the next day, wherever you're dining. Wines are exceptionally reasonably priced, with the house white, red or rosé at £14 a bottle or £5 per glass, and a decent selection of others from £15 to £18. There's a drinks package available for £17 per person per day, which includes house wine, house beer and various cocktails, with discounts offered on anything not included.
Sugar-free, gluten-free and other special diets can be catered for if you ask in advance.
Plantation Bistro (Deck 12): The Plantation Bistro is the main buffet restaurant, brightly decorated with jaunty green-and-white striped walls, potted plants, hanging baskets and pots of herbs (all artificial), and shelving units displaying various objets, from shells to glassware. The buffet is open for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. There's plenty of seating, although the outside area, with expansive teak decking, is popular on sunny days. The venue is open for early bird breakfast at 6.30 a.m., then main breakfast till 10 a.m., lunch 12 p.m. to 2.30 p.m. (although this is sometimes adjusted to fit round shore excursions), afternoon tea 3.30 p.m. to 4.30 p.m., and dinner 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Breakfast is a decent array of hot dishes, from baked beans and a rather sloppy scrambled egg to bacon and hash browns. There's a separate omelette station and a big pot of hot porridge with golden syrup on the side. Cold dishes include cheeses, smoked salmon, cold cuts, six cereals, fruits, pastries and juices. Coffee comes from a machine and there's a selection of teas that should impress British tea drinkers -- proper English breakfast, not the insipid Lipton's Yellow Label favoured by American lines.
Lunch is very much designed for the British palate, with stews, breaded fish, a daily roast, a daily curry and assorted vegetables. There are two soups daily and traditional desserts like rice pudding, crumble and jelly. Dinner, again, is all about comfort food, from roast beef to various pasta dishes, with chocolate mousse and ice cream for dessert. You can turn up for dinner as late as 9 p.m.
Afternoon tea is served every day, including cakes, cookies, finger sandwiches, filled rolls and some very good scones with jam and proper clotted cream.
Pool Grill (Deck 12): A small pool grill is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., weather permitting, with a very limited offering -- just burgers and hot dogs with a couple of fillings (pickles, onions and so on), not even any chips or salads. There's a daily special that's a bit more appealing, not least the souvlaki that's cooked in the tandoor oven on deck that's used for Fusion, the Indian restaurant, in the evenings.
Room Service: In-room breakfast is available from 7 a.m. to 10.30 a.m. Guests in the suites can order smoked salmon, omelette, pancakes and eggs Florentine, while those in lower cabin grades have to be content with continental -- cereals, pastries, fruits and yoghurt. There's no cost for breakfast but, after that, there's a charge for simple dishes like Caesar salad (£6.80), a club sandwich (£5.95) and spaghetti bolognese (£6.95).
Hemingway's (Deck 5, midship); a la carte pricing: This speciality coffee shop, situated in the atrium next to the shore excursion desk, is a nice idea but never seemed very busy. The cakes looked tempting -- £1.90 for a slice of victoria sponge or carrot cake and 60p for a Danish -- but CMV passengers don't seem inclined to part with money for cake when pastries are free on the buffet. A latte or cappuccino costs £1.80, using Piazza Doro Espresso beans, but the barista wasn't familiar with a flat white. CMV has a partnership with Whittard Teas, which cost £1.60 for black, green or various infusions.
Chef's Table (Deck 7, aft); £49: This is a table, rather than a restaurant, located at the heart of the Waterfront Restaurant but surrounded by wine cabinets. It seats 14 and serves as the Captain's table on formal nights. On other nights it offers a smart, eight-course degustation menu, which costs £49 a head and includes wines paired with every dish and an aperitif held in the library. Expect fine dining dishes like beef carpaccio, asparagus cream soup with carrot flan, blue cheese and crunchy walnuts, lemon basil sorbet, pan-fried sea bass, surf and turf, and macadamia nut chocolate mud pie.
The Grill (Deck 12, forward); £24.90: The Grill is one of two speciality restaurants onboard and is open for dinner only, by reservation. At £24.90 a head, it's not cheap, but the food and service are top-notch, and the atmosphere intimate and romantic. All the meat served is organic, provided by the award-winning Well Hung Meat Company, based in Dartmoor.
The menu is very, well, meaty, as you'd expect, with ribeye, rump and strip loin steaks, rack of lamb or chicken as mains. Starters include scallops with a foie gras butter and wild mushroom cappuccino, and there's a big selection of sides and sauces. There's not much for vegetarians or pescatarians on the menu, but the chef could not have been more helpful in coming out to discuss my requirements and producing two exceptional swordfish steaks with beurre blanc.
The printed menu really doesn't do the experience justice as dinner was full of pleasant surprises. A mixed bread basket came with two kinds of tapenade and a delicious garlic dip. An amuse-bouche of pata negra ham arrived and my partner's rack of lamb, he claimed, was better than he'd had on luxury lines. We ordered sides of wild mushrooms with asparagus, spinach and sweet potato fries, all of which were excellent, while the trio of desserts, including a fabulous tiramisu, was decadently good. House wine, a perfectly respectable French rose, is only £14 a bottle, although water is less of a bargain at £2.20.
Fusion (Deck 12, aft); £14.90: Fusion, the speciality Indian restaurant, costs £14.90 and, like The Grill, is worth every penny. It actually sits in a section of the Plantation Bistro, roped off from the melée of the buffet by a dramatic metal curtain. Soft lighting, Indian ornaments and waiters in silk turbans all create an exotic ambience. Fusion is overseen by Chef Michael Shaji, born in Kerala and corporate chef for the whole of CMV. It's only open for dinner service.
The menu is short: a selection of Indian appetisers, like lamb koftas and miniature samosas, with dips, and the lightest naan bread I've ever tasted; and five mains, one of which is vegetarian. The meats and naan are cooked in a real tandoor oven that sits outside on deck, glowing embers at its base, which explained the freshness of the naan and tenderness of the chicken. We had the tamarind and chilli prawns and a thali, both of which were perfectly spiced, with some fluffy rice on the side. An Indian dessert platter of items like stuffed dates and halwa follows, but we were defeated by then.
Gelato's (Deck 12, midship); £1.50 per one scoop cone: CMV has a new partnership with Gelato Gold, a family-run ice cream maker that has a stall on the pool deck that's open from 12.30 p.m. to 9 p.m., weather permitting. One scoop in a waffle cone is £1.50, two £2.50. The flavours and quality are top notch, with salted caramel ripple, Madagascan vanilla, clotted cream, and toffee apple crumble, among others.
Cappuccino's (Deck 12, forward); £1.80 for a latte: Cappuccino's is a pretty little coffee bar on the pool deck, but it seemed very under-used, probably because there's a second coffee venue on deck 5, Hemingway's. Cappuccino's sells a range of speciality coffees, offering the same menu. It really would be better used as a pizzeria or a superior version of the pool grill.