Story and photos
by David Dickstein
Ordering breakfast during dinnertime isn’t a big deal at many restaurants, but imagine how high eyebrows would be raised if you requested a menu item from an entirely different restaurant. On Norwegian Cruises, such expressions of skepticism are nonexistent thanks to the line’s unique Freestyle Dining program and a culture that puts hungry passengers in the captain’s seat.
The biggest distinction between Norwegian and its large-ship competition is all about eating whenever you want and wherever you want while wearing pretty much whatever you want. How liberating for the cruiser accustomed to a set dinner schedule in the main dining room.
Sure, other cruise lines offer their own brand of flexible dining. “My Time” is what Royal Caribbean calls its dinner program. On Carnival it’s “Your Time Dining,” and Princess has “Anytime Dining.” Passenger friendly as these options are, and certainly a benefit to early-seating diners with excursion conflicts, they are limited to a dedicated section of a main dining room. Most Norwegian ships offer three restaurants with complimentary dining under the Freestyle program in which reservations aren’t necessary, but they do guarantee a table at your designated time. On the recently sailed Norwegian Jewel, the two main dining rooms are the contemporary Azura and more upscale, Russian-inspired Tsar’s Palace. They share a daily menu, but not the same dress code; shorts, caps and sandals are verboten at Tsar’s. The other restaurant with a reservation-optional policy is the Asian fusion-inspired Chin Chin.
Freestyle Dining not only made a recent Mexican Riviera cruise more enjoyable aboard the Jewel, but also rescued my family from a few nights when certain dining rooms left a bad taste. A lover of rack of lamb, but not mustard, this veteran cruiser and former food critic was floored when told the dish absolutely must come with a Dijon crust. “It’s all pre-prepared,” snapped the waiter in Tsar’s. The first night in Azura wasn’t much better; the meat lasagna was of school cafeteria quality. Over at Chin Chin, nothing off the noodle bar menu was worthy of a second bite, and the three dim sum selections ranged from doughy, oily and flavorless to just plain gross.
Challenging as feeding 2,400 mouths a day is, the meals coming out of the Jewel’s non-specialty kitchens, including a buffet that never appealed, were subpar with one exception: The 24-hour O’Sheehan’s Bar & Grill served up delicious pub food all week, topped with dynamite spinach and artichoke dip, chicken tenders, chicken pot pie, and the most extensive beer selection on the ship. So dependable was O’Sheehan’s, our table asked for the day’s special of a burrito while dining at Azura. Actually, it’s more a slap on Azura than praise for O’Sheehan’s because we also ordered lamb—sans mustard crust—that we were told later came from yet another restaurant. For the right or wrong reasons, a meal in which three people can feast on cuisine that came from three kitchens is pretty awesome and very Norwegian.
While the complementary dining options were more miss than hit, the specialty restaurants were all winners. The Norwegian Jewel, like most of the line’s fleet, has several specialty restaurants, not including a sushi bar with a la carte pricing. The steepest are Cagney’s Steakhouse and a teppanyaki restaurant called, simply, Teppanyaki. Both come with a $29.95 cover charge, which is $10 higher than the fee at La Cucina (Italian), Moderno (Brazilian), and Le Bistro (French). Impeccable service was received at all but the one we didn’t patronize (can’t see paying extra for Italian food), and each one didn’t disappoint. If not for the normal rocking and rolling of being on a ship, you’d think you were dining at Morton’s, Benihana, Fogo de Chao, and Bouchon. Standouts were Cagney’s (can’t recommend enough the wagyu beef sliders appetizer, 18-ounce bone-in ribeye and Oreo cheesecake) and Le Bistro (beats the other big ships’ escargot hands-down and, oh, the rack of lamb topped not with that blasted Dijon mustard, but a delicate green olive sauce).
If there weren’t enough places to stuff your floating face, tasty, but lukewarm portabella mushroom burgers and other grilled items await at Topsiders, a poolside extension of the unenticing buffet. Snacks and desserts are found elsewhere at various times of the day and night, and there’s always room service, albeit with a $7.95 service charge for guests not staying in suites—something Norwegian instituted a year ago to the dismay of pajama-wearing vacationers craving pepperoni pizza and noodle soup at two in the morning.
The Norwegian Jewel continues its seven-day Mexican Riviera cruises from Los Angeles through mid-April, then will be based in Seattle for a summer’s worth of seven-day Alaskan cruises.