Back when river cruising was just starting to take off in the early 2000s, the industry didn't necessarily score very high marks for its cuisine. Vessels had one restaurant that served all the meals, choices were limited and the end results often left something to be desired. Then, perhaps in an overzealous effort to rebuke that reputation, the food onboard evolved into incredibly decadent and elaborate affairs. Rich, multicourse meals ended with even richer desserts, all enhanced by a blur of wine pairings.
That decadence is still a defining part of the contemporary river cruise culinary experience, but more recently, river cruise lines have been getting more innovative and savvy about what they serve onboard, employing established chefs to churn out a wider range of options that incorporate more local and fresh ingredients, all with a greater emphasis on clean and healthy eating without sacrificing taste.
One prime example of that is Avalon Waterways' Avalon Fresh program, which is launching sometime this year. Designed in conjunction with Austrian brothers and chefs Karl and Leo Wrenkh (who own the Vienna restaurant Wrenkh), Avalon Fresh is based on the premise of bringing together wellness with well-executed, locally sourced vegetarian cuisine.
"Our philosophy: Taste is always No. 1," Leo said in a promotional video Avalon produced about the program.
Added Karl, "The reason why Avalon Fresh is so important to me is that I can actually bring fun and tasty food together with healthy food that we can now really provide to visitors cruising on European rivers. Food is actually the most important thing on a vacation because it's what you remember."
Chefs Leo Wrenkh, left, and his brother Karl worked with Avalon Waterways to develop Avalon Fresh’s menu, expected to launch this year.
Avalon Fresh manifests itself as vegetarian menu items with the Avalon Fresh logo next to them (the logo is explained at the bottom of the menu).
For instance, passengers might have a choice of several entrees during dinner, including meatballs in a creamy caper sauce, black mussels braised in white wine and garlic, steamed pollock, a Reuben sandwich or the Avalon Fresh options of either a lightly spicy root vegetable casserole or a butternut squash chipotle chili.
Tauck, too, said that it has been overhauling its onboard menus to add healthier choices to all its meals as well as continuing an ongoing effort to source ingredients locally when possible and putting a stronger focus on the wine selection.
Tauck is also redesigning the alternative dining venues on all its vessels, converting that space into a restaurant called Arthur's (named after company chairman Arthur Tauck Jr.) that will have its own dedicated kitchen and staff. Arthur's will serve an early-riser breakfast and then will be open from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m. daily, serving burgers, sausages, soups, salads, bistro fare and a selection of desserts in a less-formal setting than the main restaurant.
In fact, the alternative dining spaces (generally a second, smaller venue at the aft of the vessel — though some river cruise vessels have additional venues as well) are where some of the most novel approaches to river cuisine are taking place.
Ama Waterways has been a pioneer in this space, having gained a reputation for the haute cuisine served at its Chef's Table alternative dining restaurants.
For 2017, the company is stepping up its Chef's Table offerings even more, having created what the company calls a "true tasting menu" that features a journey through three appetizers, a Champagne sorbet intermezzo, three main-course tastes and three desserts, all complemented with wine pairings. Dining at the Chef's Table is included in the cruise fare and simply requires an advance reservation as the intimate restaurant seats only 28 guests, who can view through the glass walls of the venue's demonstration kitchen the chefs preparing dishes like cod with beurre blanc and crayfish cake.
Designed in conjunction with Austrian chefs Karl and Leo Wrenkh, Avalon Waterways’ upcoming Avalon Fresh program will offer locally sourced vegetarian cuisine as a menu option.
France is for foodies
France appears to be at the heart of another river cruise culinary renaissance, a destination where river cruise lines are pushing the envelope and showcasing what their chefs are truly made of. Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection is a company that prides itself on its high-quality, gourmet cuisine and has said that its forthcoming S.S. Joie de Vivre, launching in Paris next month, will be no exception. The vessel will feature two dining venues — the main restaurant, Le Restaurant Pigalle, and La Cave de Vins, a private-dining wine room — with a strong emphasis on French cuisine.
For those who would like to learn and understand why French cuisine is so coveted, Scenic is debuting this year an onboard cooking school called Scenic Culinaire on the company's France ships, the Scenic Sapphire and Scenic Diamond. The school will feature cooking stations as well as real-time cameras and screens for participants to view the maneuvers and instructions in detail. With an emphasis on fresh ingredients sourced from local markets, and with access to a proper wine and cheese cellar, instructors will introduce guests to recipes of the French regions they are sailing through.
Additionally, starting in 2017, Scenic's sister line, Emerald Waterways, will feature an onboard meal cooked by French chef Fabien Morreale on its Southern France sailings.
Morreale is from Martigues, a coastal town near Marseille, where he owns two restaurants, La Garage and Le Gusto Caffe.
He will cook a Provencal-style meal for all guests on the Emerald's Sensations of Southern France sailing during the evening when the ship is docked in Avignon.
Correction: The Arthur's restaurants on Tauck ships are named after company chairman Arthur Tauck Jr.