By Adam Coulter
Cruise Critic UK Managing Editor
4.0 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating: Dining

The quality of dining varies considerably. In terms of included restaurants, some of the best food can be found in the buffet and The Mediterranean, while the food in Latitude 53 is variable at best. However, Vista, which adjoins the MDR and specializes in Italian food, is superb. In terms of speciality restaurants, in general they are both good quality and good value, with one exception -- The Dining Club (the most fancy and expensive). There are a number of places you can grab breakfast and lunch including The Mediterranean and the main dining room. Waiters make a point of always asking about dietary needs before every meal and menu items are highlighted.

Latitude 53 (Decks 5 and 6): The Main Dining Room (so called because the latitude is where the ship was constructed, in Papenburg, Germany), is a traditional, double-deck space with a grand, sweeping staircase and lovely big windows at the aft, which flood the space with light. However, it is not traditional in the sense that there are no fixed times and although you can make a reservation, otherwise you just turn up when you want and sit where you want. There are a wide variety of tables, with plenty of two-tops should you not wish to sit with anyone.

In terms of dietary restrictions, there are always vegetarian and gluten-free dishes available, and wait staff always ask ahead of your meal. Service is attentive, but not hugely knowledgeable in terms of food and wine queries, but this may improve with time.

It's open for breakfast, some lunches (check Cruise News, but more often than not it is closed on a sea day) and dinner.

Breakfast: This is sit-down, waiter service. You can opt for a traditional English, with eggs, bacon, sausages, black pudding, grilled tomato and toast; an omelette, plain or with cheese; or an Express Breakfast, which is a smaller version of the English. In addition there are daily specials such as buttermilk pancakes and poached kippers. There are also juices, freshly baked pastries and cold cuts plus speciality coffees for a fee.

Lunch: Lunch is not served every day (often the restaurant is closed on port days), and much of it reflects what you might find in the buffet. Starters might consist of a smoked salmon dish, a soup and a salad. Mains might consist of fish 'n' chips, beef burger, a chicken dish or a ploughman's. Desserts include mousses, fresh fruit, puddings and cakes.

Dinner: Dinner is a three-course affair, with a starter, main and dessert; however, you can always ask for an additional soup or salad. Starters might include grilled vegetables, a chicken parfait, onion soup, lobster bisque or shrimp cocktail (always available). Portions are small, so it's worth having a fourth course (or fifth). The food is uninspiring, variously described as "bland", "a bit meh" and lacking any real kick. We also question how long ago it had been prepared, as some starters were rather dry and lukewarm.

Mains will include three "always available" dishes: grilled fish of the day, grilled chicken and a vegetarian dish -- roast vegetable and goats cheese tart. The others could be beef Wellington, macaroni cheese and roast duck. Again, portions are tiny (one fillet of fish; one slice of beef), with just a few over-boiled veg, though the fish (Dory family) was tasty.

Desserts will include a mousse, crepes suzette, some lovely pastry dishes, a fruit dish, ice cream and a cheeseboard. There are also some speciality coffees and liqueurs on offer for a small charge (£2.50/£2.90).

The wine list is extensive and reasonably priced with decent wines starting at £16 a bottle; £4 a glass. You'll find plenty of different grape varietals across a number of countries, both New World and Old. Most are priced at £16 or £17 with just a small selection over £20.

Open: 8 to 10 a.m., noon to 2 p.m. and 6 to 9 p.m.

Vista (Deck 5): Vista is a separate space within Latitude 53 which serves exclusively Italian cuisine, which is exceptionally good for a free restaurant. The menu is divided into Primi Piatti (starters) and Secondi Piatti (Mains), but with lots of other options available to turn this into a multicourse meal, including salads, sides, sharing dishes and various different pasta dishes which can be served in smaller portions. Waiters make a real effort, serving extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic for dipping and a freshly made bread basket to start. They are also extremely obliging and helpful in terms of dishes, offering to serve taster and sharing portions. Starters include calamari, meatballs, prosciutto ham and melon and minestrone soup, all of which were delicious. Mains include pasta dishes and various meat dishes, such as slow-cooked lamb, Sicilian beef roll, grilled cod and saltimbocca. Veg dishes include baked aubergine. There is just one dish which has a supplement -- pappardelle carbonara -- made tableside in a giant Parmesan wheel tableside. All of these dishes were cooked to perfection, light, tasty and fresh.

Desserts include Italian classics like tiramisu and gelato as well as Marella's Italia version of bread and butter pudding, which is mouthwatering. All in all, a real treat.

Open 6 to 9 p.m.

Snack Shack (Deck 11): Popular on the previous two ships (Discovery and Discovery 2), this poolside venue serves up hot dogs, burgers and fish 'n' chips, as well as a selection of ready-made sandwiches and fruit pots. There are also the line's signature "shacks", which are brightly painted wooden structures with place names on the outside, that make a nice spot to escape from the sun.

Open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The Marketplace (Deck 11): The ship's main buffet serves up a solid selection of English favourites throughout the day with two serving areas either side, which mirror each other in terms of food; plus a cooking station at one end. There is plenty of seating either side, including lots of tables by the windows and sit-up tables. It's not a huge space, and the queues do build up at peak times, such as just before or after an excursion, so it's worth timing your arrival outside of these times.

For breakfast, expect bacon, scrambled eggs, poached eggs, toast, baked beans and French toast, as well as porridge, a selection of cereals and yoghurts as well as a healthy section serving fresh fruit and spreads including Marmite. The cooking station serves omelettes to order.

For lunch there is always a roast of some sort, favourites such as bangers and mash, pasta, pizza, soups, grilled fish and roast chicken. You'll also find a selection of interesting salads and cooked meats and cheeses. At the cooking station, there are made-to-order stir-fry dishes, curries or other world foods.

A full afternoon tea is served here, with scones, cakes and delicious sausage rolls!

At dinner you'll find much the same dishes, with perhaps a few slightly fancier options such as beef Wellington and steak.

There are self-serve wine (red and white) and beer dispensers at the drinks stations.

Open 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.

The Mediterranean (Deck 11): This is a bit like an extension to The Marketplace buffet, reached just across the lift lobby. It serves a few alternative dishes to the buffet, and provides a much quieter area to eat. It has a glass roof, and on most ships this is likely where the indoor solarium would be. It leads out onto a large outdoor dining space, with a bar. The decor is all primary colours -- reds, blues, greens, yellows -- giving the room a fresh, contemporary feel. The Mediterranean refers to the fact that on one side you'll find fresh pizza slices and cooked-to-order pasta, and on the other is tapas of sorts. The tapas is more of a deli-type serving area, with sandwiches, wraps, small dishes and perhaps one "tapa" in the traditional sense, often paella. All of this is free, though you can, if you wish, order "espetadas", which are Portuguese-style meat skewers for £9.95.

Open: 6:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.

Fee Dining

The Dining Club (Deck 5); £34.95/£45: This is the ship's upmarket restaurant, which aims to be gourmet-style dining with a touch of "molecular gastronomy", but unfortunately, though it has all the trappings of this type of cuisine -- playful food presentation, exceptional service, wine pairing -- it doesn't succeed. The food is just not that great; it just doesn't sing and really only surprises with its mediocrity.

The room is just off the main Reception area, and done out in browns and golds and blacks, giving it an elegant look and feel. There are windows running all along one side, with fine views. There are lots of different table sizes and banquette seating, with most of the two-tops alongside the windows.

The lower price is just the food, the higher price is with wine pairing, which is offered on Dress to Impress night only.

It is effectively a three-course menu, not including desserts or amuse-bouche or a palate cleanser.

You choose from the following: warm crawfish gratin or scrambled eggs and caviar. Then it's a soup or salad. Then three main choices: lobster, lamb or a souffle.

The crawfish gratin was hard going: stodgy and salty, it was more like a solidified mousse. The scrambled egg was presented as a hard-boiled egg (that's the twist) with orange "caviar" on top. The caviar was not, rather fish roe -- giant beads that popped full of sea water.

The mushroom soup was beautifully presented, with a dollop of foam and then the soup poured around the bowl. The salade gourmande was a mess: great pieces of tough, overcooked duck in a fragile papery case, with no real evidence of salad at all. This was a huge missed opportunity: a few slices of tender, rare roast duck and some actual greens would have transformed this dish.

For the mains, the lobster a la nage was tasty, but again, lost in the leeks and spinach; the lamb was encrusted in so much pepper it was inedible.

Desserts consisted of The Igloo, a block of ice with a tiny vanilla pineapple pot in the centre; and the Explorer Sensation, which was a lot of small tasting pots and some cut fruit. A cheese board followed.

All the trappings were there (minus the dry ice), but the cooking could not live up to it.

Open: 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.

The Coffee Port (Deck 6); a la carte: Coffee shop serving excellent speciality Lavazza coffees at very reasonable prices (£1.35); soft drinks and sparkling water; as well as lovely handmade chocolates (0.95 pence) and brownies (£1.95). Lots of seating in and around here and against the windows, looking out to the promenade.

Open: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Surf & Turf Steakhouse (Deck 7); £28.95: This is the standout speciality restaurant onboard, and worth the cover charge. Reservations are recommended, but not essential.

It's located right beside Kora La, off the main corridor and the Apertif Bar. Decor is mainly dark woods, and there are a row of windows on one side. The open kitchen is fabulous, really adding a bit of theatre to the occasion.

It's a pretty straightforward menu -- you start with a choice of appetisers, which might include prawn cocktail, scallops or a sharing board.

Then you move onto prime cuts of Angus steak, such as sirloin, filet and porterhouse, as well as other meats, such as lamb, beef short rib and tuna steak. There is even a vegetarian option -- a vegetable and chestnut pithivier (a short crust pie). These can be paired with surf, such as lobster tail or salmon. But sometimes "straightforward" can be tricky to pull off, as there is nowhere to hide when it's all about the cut of meat. This place doesn't need to -- the steak is outstanding (we had the porterhouse) -- juicy, thick and cooked exactly to order. Service to match -- attentive and knowledgeable.

The desserts are sublime, the best on the ship: a trio of lemon dishes, which fairly zinged on the palate and the best New York cheesecake we have tasted on a ship.

Open: Sea days for Brunch (11 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and every evening from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.

Kora La (Deck 7); £22.95: A popular venue introduced on the line's two previous ships, Kora La is a pan-Asian restaurant launched by Chef Ian Pengelley, who runs a restaurant called House of Ho in London.

The setting is lovely, all gold, blacks and reds, with trellis windows, banquette seating and tables for two. It's a small space and reasonably priced, so it's worth making a reservation.

It's a small menu with just four starters -- chicken tempura, dumplings, trout and mango salad, and a Japanese green salad. Mains include Chilean sea bass, teriyaki salmon and shaking beef. There are also four curry dishes. The food is good rather than knock-your-socks-off outstanding. There is an amuse-bouche to start with (shrimp popcorn), which was tasty, but starters are variable -- while the scallop and crab dumplings were delicious, the tempura chicken was rather dry and salty. Mains too, varied tremendously, with the Chilean sea bass just on the right side of cloying and sweet, but the shaking beef a deep disappointment. The meat was OK, but that's all there was -- piled high with no sauce, no dressing and no accompaniments. Desserts were delicious, however, particularly the Korean pancakes, the mango crumble and the kue ruwok, layers of custard and meringue, the latter of which was so tasty we were tempted to order a second helping.

Open 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.

Umi Sushi (Deck 7); £9.95: This is a quiet spot which you could walk through (it's not so much a room as an area) and probably not even realise was a restaurant. There is a sushi counter which you can sit up at, and plenty of seating all around. You'll find expertly prepared sushi, sashimi and nigiri rolls prepared as you watch, as well as dim sum and teriyaki chicken, miso soup and duck spring rolls. Delicious and inexpensive, and well worth it.

Open 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.

Scoops (Deck 11); £2: Ice cream cart on the Pool Deck serving two scoops of ice cream for £2.

Room Service: Continental breakfast is charged at £4.95 and if you want an omelette, it will be a further £4.95. All day food includes soups, sandwiches and salads which start at £2 for soup; desserts, soft drinks and wine from £15 a bottle.

Marella Explorer Information

Marella Explorer Ship Stats

  • Crew: 794
  • Launched: 1996
  • Decks: 13
  • Passengers: 1,924
  • Registry: Malta
  • CDC Score: Not yet inspected

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