The hottest new restaurant in town isn't in town at all. It's onboard Oceania Cruises' new ship Marina. You may have to book a European cruise this summer in order to try it, but go ahead. It's worth it.
I hate the word "favorite." Call it a character flaw, but I enjoy so many things, especially when it comes to cuisine, that I hate to say I enjoy one in particular above all the rest. It seems somehow insulting to all the other perfectly wonderful experiences that by default come in somewhere between second and last. So while my love of all restaurants onboard Marina prevents me from using absolute superlatives, I will say that Red Ginger left me speechless.
Luckily, I had a pen.
The wow factor begins from the moment you catch sight of the entryway. The entire restaurant literally glows, impressing with a striking vibrance and yet still feeling softly, gently radiant. The golden walls, the deep red furnishings, and somehow even the ebony accents seem to be lit from within. When you walk into Red Ginger, you think you've entered one of the most renowned Asian restaurants in New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco. The décor is that distinctive and arresting.
The impeccable attention to detail apparent in the restaurant's design was amazing, and unfortunately photos simply can't do it justice. I tried to capture the beauty of the wall decor beside our table, but this only gives you an inkling of how uniquely eye-catching it was.
My husband perused the bamboo-bedecked menu while I documented the lovely place settings.
We selected our own chopsticks from a colorful Vietnamese assortment made of everything from steel to ivory.
Normally I would devote some time to the fine selection of wines available to complement the evening meal, but at Red Ginger I could hardly be bothered. Okay, yes, I managed to order a lovely glass of wine – a girl has to have standards – but for this meal the wine was practically an afterthought, as they had me at "amuse bouche." A miniature tureen of edamame beans with sea salt appeared to grace the red scrollwork on our exquisite chargers, and we never looked back.
However, I will confess that when the first dish arrived, I was momentarily afraid to take a bite. It was becoming increasingly apparent that we were being served works of art meant to be on display rather than edible fare. As soon as I lifted the fork to my mouth, the ever-adolescent Ashton Kutcher would leap from behind the giant Buddha head, laughing uproariously at his practical joke and screaming, "You got punk'd! Don't eat the artwork, dude!"
As you may have already guessed, this did not come to pass. Each course was as deliciously edible as the china was stunning.
A word on china. When I picture china, I think of dainty white plates with exquisite borders delicately hand-painted around the rim. Well, this ain't your grandmother's china. There is a theme in Red Ginger – striking, bold, modern – and it holds true from floor to ceiling: the wall coverings, the chairs, the chandeliers, the works of art (really EVERYTHING is a work of art), and yes, the china. With all of the distinctive shapes, colors and textures, you could sit and stare at the plates for hours, if the food sitting upon them wasn't so tantalizing.
Oh yeah, the food. Lest you think Red Ginger is all beauty and no brains, let me assure you, the food is brilliant.
In the foreword of Taste the World: The Food and Flavors of Oceania Cruises, Jacques Pepin writes: "Although the food [in Red Ginger] is pan-Asian, this is not a 'fusion' restaurant. Rather, the culinary team did hands-on research throughout Asia and worked with chefs all over the world to find recipes and techniques that represent the best of Vietnamese, Thai, and Japanese cooking – and spent months mastering their preparation. The presentation is refined in a way that is exciting and modern, but the dishes themselves, like all of our food, is firmly grounded in authentic recipes, traditions, and ingredients."
The hard work of the culinary team certainly paid off. Hallmarks of Asian cuisine are represented in fine fashion – spring rolls in crisp wontons or delicate rice paper, sashimi so fresh that any condiment was optional, a perfect balance of sweet and spicy flavor profiles. And speaking of flavors, Red Ginger's are exactly what one finds in any successful restaurant – rich and varied, yet unified. Each dish brought something new to the table (apologies for the bad pun), but each bite was distinctly Asian, and more importantly, I soon realized each bite was distinctly Red Ginger.
Beef Carpaccio with roasted peanuts, coriander, shallots and chili oil
Tom Kha Gai soup made with lemongrass, coconut milk and chicken
An important note: That most essential component of Asian cuisine – spiciness – was perfectly executed. No matter how spicy you prefer it, even if you want your taste buds seared, good spicy food still has flavor. Even the hottest chili sauce should ultimately complement the dish in which it is featured, and the food in Red Ginger achieves this delicate balance.
Avocado Lobster Salad with tuna and hamachi on crispy lotus with den miso and shiso vinegar
You may be startled to discover that we are just now arriving at the entrée. Yes, as is our sorrowfully indulgent habit, my husband and I tend to over order when dining with Oceania Cruises because there are simply too many tempting options. But this is another beautiful thing about Red Ginger: Each dish was so delicate, so exquisite, so perfectly envisioned, that we enjoyed every bite of our entrées and even dessert despite the number of courses in which we indulged. And we were still able to rise from our seats, hustle to Horizons and dance the night away afterward. I don't know what more a couple could ask of a restaurant.
But I digress. As impressed as we had been up to now, the excitement was palpable as we awaited our entrées. And we were not disappointed. My husband ordered the Miso Glazed Sea Bass, which had already practically become a signature dish of Red Ginger. It was a huge hit. Everyone was doing it, and not just because of the cool factor of the mini clothespin grasping the hoba leaf, but because of how the den miso marinate and perfect preparation brought out the rich flavor of the filet.
I ordered the Sang Har Mien. I am not a connoisseur of Sang Har Mien, and I do not have many experiences with this dish to compare to. Frankly, I wasn't completely sure what Sang Har Mien was and only ordered it because it sounded delicious, and I was convinced by that point in the meal that I couldn't go wrong. I was right.
Whatever the standard may be, Red Ginger's Sang Har Mien surely meets and exceeds it. The noodles were perfectly crunchy until it was time for them to soften, and then they melted in my mouth. The seafood and vegetables were not only my favorites – jumbo tiger prawns, scallops, squid, carrots, broccoli, shitake mushrooms – but were tender and flavorful. And the saucy broth was absolutely divine.
It is wrong of me not to have mentioned the tea until now, but my husband and I are not usually tea drinkers, and we did not realize what we were missing until we ventured out at the end of the meal. There is both a special menu and a server dedicated to tea service in Red Ginger, and once you taste the teas, you will understand why they merit such attention. Just like everything else at Red Ginger, the presentation is flawless and the flavors delectable.
Speaking of service, I've hardly mentioned it, but as was the case with the wine, I was distracted by the artistry of the food. Suffice it to say, the service was everything I've come to expect from Oceania Cruises – personally attentive, highly knowledgeable, and perfectly paced.
Our server recommended the sorbet assortment for dessert, so even though we'd already selected our desserts, we trusted that this recommendation should not go unheeded. We were correct. This grand finale was beautifully presented, immensely refreshing, and the ideal conclusion to a spectacular dining experience.
Oceania Cruises is currently featuring a poll on Facebook about onboard restaurants. Vote for your own personal favorite at http://www.facebook.com/OceaniaCruises?ref=sgm.