It was just four days, but that’s all you need to get in the groove, the kind of groove that feeds your soul and nurtures your body. We all need to hit the reset button every now and then - to spend time away from the hustle and bustle of daily life to be with a loved one (or just yourself) and reconnect, relax, and come back new. Nothing heals quite like good food and drink…and spa treatments…and quiet poolside reading.
I recently took a 4-day culinary cruise on the Ruby Princess (check the Princess Cruise site for upcoming culinary cruise dates), beginning my voyage in Los Angeles, then heading to Santa Barbara’s wine country, followed by a deliciously gluttonous food crawl through Ensenda, Mexico. I returned home recharged, revitalized, and, indeed, a wee bit fatter.
First things first: spa time! After dropping my bags off at my stateroom (and soaked in the beautiful sunset view of Catalina Island) I headed promptly to the Lotus Spa (awarded Best Cruise Ship Spa by Spafinder Wellness 365) for a 90-minute hydrotherapeutic seaweed wrap and massage. I felt detoxed, relaxed, and slightly akin to a wet noodle. It was bliss. Following my massage I headed upstairs to the quiet tranquility of the Sanctuary, an adults-only spa-inspired retreat featuring plush furniture, exceptional views, spa food, and open-air massages. I ordered a glass of Champagne and nestled into a comfy lounge chair to enjoy my Kindle and the vast blue of the ocean that stretched on before me. From a do-nothing-but-lounge perspective, the aptly-named Sanctuary is the best place on the ship to recharge.
Later that evening, I met my group and we headed to one of the ship’s newest specialty restaurants SHARE by award-winning chef, New York Times best-selling author and restaurateur Curtis Stone. As its name expresses, the restaurant features family-style dishes meant for sharing; the comfy, homey decor the perfect atmosphere for conversation.
“Sharing food and conversation with family and good friends in the best way to eat. I love the process of passing plates amongst each other and creating meaningful connections, sharing what you like, and reflecting on your adventures of the day. It’s these moments that create memories we treasure forever.” ~ Curtis Stone
At SHARE, we were offered a tasting menu of some of the intriguing signature dishes beginning with a plate of charcuterie including jamon Iberico, salami finocchiona, velvety chicken liver pate, house pickles - including pickled cauliflower, tiny pickled shallot “cups” embedded with pickled mustard seed - vibrant green Castelvetrano olives, and a mini, warm-from-the-oven housemade pain d’epi (a pull-apart baguette in the shape of a wheat stalk).
We then moved on to the salad course, which included a little gem and nasturtium leaf salad with pickled pearled onions, oro blanco (a citrus fruit similar to a grapefruit), and a nasturtium flower pesto dressing; as well as a salad of shrimp nestled among turnips, thinly shaved radishes, paper thin cracker-like slices of brioche, and dotted with a lemon gel.
Two housemade pasta dishes made their appearance beginning with the pillowy, dumpling-like cavatelli. These tender “little hallows,” as their Italian name denotes, were bathed in a velvety Castelmagno cheese and adorned with roasted beets, sun chokes, and Brussels sprouts leaves.
The tender, paper thin tagliatelle ribbons were adorned with buttery bits of roasted Alaskan king crab and bespeckled with red chili and fresh parsley.
Our main dishes began to make their grand appearance with the roast turbot white fish gratine the first in line. This tender, flaky fish was encrusted in a gruyere cheese crumb and set atop a bed of spinach and a creamy blanket of white vermouth sauce. Next was the butter poached lobster with caramelized endive adorned with an endive foam.
A succulent duck leg was twice cooked with a Parmesan cheese crumb and draped over a bed of a savory cassoulet-like dish of fennel and white beans.
Next up was beef cheek pie served in a quaint little Staub cast iron enameled pot. A beefy balm wafted out of a hole in the center of the buttery pastry into which our server poured a steaming savory broth, my mouth salivated over the aromas of meat and earthy porcini mushrooms.
Intermingled among the main dishes were an assortment of sides. A homey, comforting dish of Braised Kale with Smoked Ham and Crispy Shallots, and a most memorable dish of Melted Leeks - a tongue-caressing dish of thinly shaved leeks coddled in cream and adorned with a brioche breadcrumb dusted confit egg yolk. It was mind-blowingly delicious.
I was pulled away by the heady perfume of truffles as a dish of Potato Gratin was placed before me. A generous hand had liberally shaved truffles over the top.
As the Europeans do so well, we moved on to the penultimate course of cheese. The quadfecta of domestic and European cheeses included Bethmale, a mild yet tangy, natural-rinded French cheese that is pleasantly pungent, buttery and nutty, and shimmers with fat. In fact, it’s known as “the fat cheese of Saint-Girons” due to its fatty inner glow. (At this time in the meal, I, too, was developing an inner fatty glow). This cheese was served with waxy honeycomb dripping with its sticky elixir, and a mini baguette. The Spanish La Gruta is a combination of sheep’s, cow’s and goat’s milk and has an intense and distinctive flavor. It paired perfectly with sweet quince paste and toasted pecans. The Pantaleo is a goat’s milk cheese from the island of Sardinia in Italy. It’s a firm cheese with sweet citrus notes that pair beautifully with sherry and Chardonnay. It was served with a pear mostarda and black pepper crackers. From California, we enjoyed Shaft Blue, a rich and creamy blue that’s aged in an old gold mine located in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. This cheese was served with a crab apple mostarda and chestnut crackers.
We ended the evening with a decadent Tarte au Citron Vert, little lime tarts served with raspberries, meringue, and a sprinkling of granola.
Day 2: At Sea, Another Trip to the Spa, and a Culinary Demo
The second day was spent at sea and, as anyone would do on a morning not filled with a running checklist of things needing to be accomplished, I awoke thinking luxuriously, oh, what to do, what to do? So, I picked up the phone, booked another massage, and promptly headed to the spa. Afterward, I spent a relaxing afternoon reading in the Sanctuary, a quiet space located at the bow of the boat.
Later than morning I made my way to the theater and watched the hilarious and informative culinary demonstration from guest chefs Ted Hopson (executive chef and owner at The Bellwether in L.A.’s Studio City) and Joel Miller (executive chef at The Wallace in Culver City). Chef Ted prepared pan fried shishito peppers (a small sweet pepper that is mild, yet every now and then you get a fiery hot one. Because of this, I like to call them Russian Roulette peppers), topped with cotija cheese, cilantro, pickled red onion and serrano, seasoned with salt and lime juice. He served this alongside grilled cobia fish (a firm white fish like hamachi) with ancho chile onion puree, creamed corn, nasturtium micro greens, and French breakfast radish. Chef Joel prepared roasted cauliflower with parmesan and fried rosemary, and served this with a Oaxaca Fresca, a lightly sweet and fruity cocktail made with hibiscus syrup, dry sherry, white rum, mezcal, and lime juice. Each dish and cocktail were served at restaurants and bars throughout the ship, so passengers got to sample first hand. The fun thing about the demos were that each chef gave tips, tricks, ingredient substitution ideas, as well as plating tips and culinary terminology.
That evening, we dined at The Salty Dog gastropub, an upscale wood-paneled tavern with warm ambient lighting and live music. The pub was created in partnership wit the highly-acclaimed gastropub chef, Ernesto Uchimura, former Corporate Executive Chef and partner for the mega-brand Umami Burger. What I love about this relatively new-to-the-ship restaurant (established in 2015) is that you get exceptional gastropub cuisine (high-end pub food) but in smaller sizes, so for $19 each person can select 3 items from the mouthwatering menu. Plus, each dish is accompanied by either Truffle-Parmesan or Sweet Potato Fries, just in case you worry about not getting enough to eat. They also serve classic craft cocktails, like Whiskey Sours and 007 Martinis (shaken, not stirred) and Seawitch craft beers to wet your whistle.
Charred Asparagus and Toasted Halumi Cheese with Lemon-Shallot Vinaigrette and Smoked Almonds
Maryland-style Jumbo Lump Crabcake with a Roasted Garlic Remoulade and topped with crispy onions.
Beef Short Rib Poutine braised in a Cabernet wine rosemary gravy served with potato frites and cheddar cheese curd.
The star of the menu was the “Ernesto,” an unctuous creation from burger exert Chef Uchimura. The baseball size “patty” was a combination of fresh ground rib eye and short rib topped with grilled pork belly, cave aged Gruyere cheese, caramelized kimchi beer battered jalapeño, smeared with a charred onion aioli and served on a buttery smoked salt and pepper brioche bun.
It’s not surprising I had no room for dessert, but the Bourbon Chocolate Pot de Creme with Salted Caramel Popcorn and the Lemon Posset did call out to me. Other featured desserts were Strawberries and Ricotta Cream with Honeycomb Crisp and Coffee with Doughnuts filled with Espresso Mousse and Cinnamon and Jelly. I waddled back to my stateroom, avoiding all elevators and opting instead for the stairs, hoping to burn off some of the night’s feast.
Day 3: Wine Tasting in Solvang, Galley Tour, and a Chef’s Dinner
I awoke to the beautiful sunrise over Santa Barbara. The ship anchored just off shore, so later that morning we hopped into large tenders that transported us to land. From here we traveled about 40 minutes outside of Santa Barbara and through the charming Danish town of Solvang, located in the Santa Ynez Valley.
Just through town and over a dirt road is Buttonwood Farm & Winery, a picturesque, 106-acre property brimming with olive, pomegranate and peach trees, herbs, and vegetables. The 39 acres of vineyards are all managed with “green” practices and a stewardship to the land through the use of all organic, natural products which replenish the soil and provide both nutrients and protection to the vines.
After barrel sampling their future vintages of sauvignon blanc we walked up a short hill just beyond the winemaking house to a small pond, the setting of our scenic picnic, where we noshed on artisan breads with a goat cheese basil spread (below), gazpacho, and sandwiches in the shade of the grand oaks.
As we sipped our wines - Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Malbec - we listened to Buttonwood winemaker Susan Steinwachs wax poetic about the vineyards, the land, and turning old-vine fruit into beautiful craft wines with character.
Next, we headed to another organic winery in the Santa Ynez Valley, the beautiful Provencal-style Sunstone Winery. Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Mourvedre, Syrah, and Viognier are all grown on the 28 acres of biodynamic vineyards; in fact, Sunstone is the oldest, continuously organically grown vineyards in Santa Barbara County. The gorgeous Villa, which includes the tasting room as well as five suites available for events, is bedecked in lush French lavender and rosemary, reminiscent of the countryside of Provence, the interior rustic yet beautifully appointed in reclaimed materials including a fireplace from Bordeaux and hand-hewn pine beams from Queen Victoria’s lavender factory. You truly feel like you’re in Europe, such a great place to taste wine then take a glass out to the beautiful courtyard for a picnic (they even offer gourmet box lunches). How heavenly it must be when the wisteria and lavender are in full bloom!
Here’s a taste of our picnic:
Fresh Salad Rolls with Asian Dipping Sauce
Foie Gras Mousse Tarts
Blackened and Seared Aji Tuna on Black Sticky Rice
Pork Belly Slider
We headed back to the ship and readied ourselves for a chef’s dinner in one of the ship’s main dining rooms, which began with a tour of the galley by the head chef himself. If you’ve never toured a ship’s galley, book one on your next cruise. It’s beyond impressive the amount of food that is so beautifully and efficiently prepared and with such precision and attention to detail. It’s truly mind-boggling how many meals are prepared in a short amount of time and yet the kitchen stays immaculate. Home cooks could certainly learn a thing or two from the galley staff about timing, prep, and organization! We sampled internationally-inspired dishes such as Indian samosas with green chutney; potato pancake with creme fraiche, truffle and caviar (shown right); and foie gras.
We then sat down to a gourmet dinner featuring dishes such as risotto studded with lobster and asparagus; a carnivorous trio of tender, cut with your fork beef, veal, and pork bathed in a velvety demi-glace, a delicate dish of creamy blue cheese mousseline pillowed between paper thin pastry served with a swoosh of sweet preserves to round out the saltiness. Dessert was a glorious chocolate ganache tower.
Risotto with Lobster and Asparagus
Beef, Veal, and Pork with Demi-Glace
Day 4: Ensenada and FOOD! FOOD! FOOD!
My final full day was spent in the Mexican town of Ensenada, or as the locals fondly refer to it "The Cinderella of the Pacific." Our culinary journey began at Tacos Marco Antonio (shown above) where local dishes such as marinated tuna (Adobada de Atun), flavorful fish stew (guisado), and, of course, tacos of nearly every variety are dished up daily. Tacos Marco Antonio’s, which got its start as a tuna cannery, has a fun and casual vibe with non-nonsense picnic tables and walls bedecked with memorabilia from the old cannery days.
We then headed to Sabina, a food cart specializing in tostadas by the famed La Guerrerense (shown on right), a more than 50-year tostada icon. The cart was located across from the restaurant, so we headed in to taste some of the selections: fish, shrimp, octopus, clam, cod, sea urchin, sea cucumber, abalone, sea snail, crab and crab salad - you name it, they’ve got it! I sampled a fresh from the water sea urchin tostada (sweet, spicy, and marvelously delicious!), their classic crab salad tostada, and a tender octopus tostada with avocado.
Next up was Capitan 646, a large and lively family-friendly restaurant, where I (somehow) made room for scrumptious enchiladas, chicken mole, chile rellenos, finger size bean and chicken sopes, margaritas, and more.
To end the glorious day, we walked around town then headed to a small fish market for a peak at the day’s catch.
I headed back to the ship, grabbed a cold beer, and sat at the stern of the boat, enjoying the slow sail away from Santa Barbara. Who knew so much delicious fun could be packed into four days!
Editorial disclosure: Foodista's travel and expenses were generously provided by Ruby Princess.