When I first became a travel and cuisine writer (I know, nice work if you can get it), I was introduced to the chef’s tasting menu—a prix fixe on steroids, and way more thoughtful (or pretentious, depending on your point of view). In the beginning, I was both charmed and overwhelmed. I remember vividly a nearly four-hour chef’s table-tasting dinner with my ex at the old Alain Ducasse at the Essex House Hotel in New York (ADNY for short).
The ADNY experience was so over-the-top that it was alternately celebrated and ridiculed in the snarky Manhattan food press, but I was wowed by the quality, presentation, service—and what would have been the $1,000 check (including tip) had we not been comped. I recall a more down-to-earth chef’s table dinner with my brother Merick—that was literally in the working kitchen of the Ritz-Carlton in New Orleans, a feast conjured by the esteemed chef Matt Murphy.
But a few years later, when I shared an endless tasting menu with my friend David at Bouley in Tribeca, which was then one of the hottest gastronomic tickets in town, I was over the elongated tasting menu. Each of the 12 courses was a single bite, so David and I sustained ourselves with far too much wine and bread (which was delicious, it must be said), and after four hours, rolled out of there in a bloat of carbs. The experience was somehow opulent and meager at the same time, and that experience taught me that—for a tasting menu—timing and portion size are as important as quality and presentation. You are there to eat, after all.
All this background is to say that I’m not an easy sell—I’m even a little jaded when it comes to the tasting menu. But I should have known better. On a recent Bermuda-to-Miami cruise on Scenic Eclipse II, the cuisine on the previous nights had been top-notch: both the tangy toothsomeness of Koko’s Asian Fusion (I loved the Lebanese meze) and the French refinement of Lumière (for the set degustation menu, you can choose which main meal you would prefer—my filet of sole was delectable). The level of the cuisine matched the quality of the lavish suites (the bed was sumptuous) and the Armani-style aesthetic of the ship’s interior design.
I had also been tipped off: Ken Muskat, the managing director of Scenic Group USA, had raved about Executive Chef Viktor Malek’s wizardry—from the flavors to the interactivity. He told me that we would be prompted to use the little instruments housed inside a literal toolbox, and I was intrigued.
Ken was right about everything. Once again, I am a believer in the tasting menu. Chef Malek’s concept and execution were not only flawless and fanciful, but deeply satisfying, with curated doses of molecular gastronomy—the most obvious examples of which are when a familiar ingredient or type of food is, through physical and chemical processes, prepared in such a way as to look like something completely different.
But flavor and texture were never compromised for the sake of concept; quite the opposite. The foie gras, which appeared as a mini-candy apple, was set in a nest of cotton candy that dissolved with a savory squirt from an atomizer from the toolbox. The uncommon, whipped creaminess of the foie gras proved even more memorable than the squirt. For successive courses, the toolbox provided a sauce brush, a kitchen timer, and a mortar and pestle. (I won’t ruin all the surprises.)
As the meal progressed, things heated up. One showstopping course involved the appearance of a smoker box, which was appropriate since the ingredients emerged in the form of a cigar. “The smoke machine doesn’t just offer a great smoke,” Chef Malek said. “It also delivers a lot of flavor, and it’s a magical touch, a great show. People love it.” Another theatrical course required the blue flame of a smoking gun.
Not to be outdone, the pastry chef, Jed Brian, gave a bravura performance that started out curiously, with abstract, Jackson Pollack-like dribbles of sweet and citrusy sauce arrayed across glass panes. The dessert ended in sublime sweetness. “We call this ‘the Cleanup,’” Brian explained. “It melts in your mouth.” To understand why, you’ll have to book passage on Scenic Eclipse II. Cake-lovers, I can reveal, will be over the moon.
By Drew Limsky
Photos by Melanie Smit and Drew Limsky