Carnival Spirit: The Nouveau Steakhouse

Okay, so I did that thing again. That thing where I suddenly show up here saying, hey, I'm home from a cruise! The thing where I don't tell anyone in advance because I'm scared that the Internet will try to break into my home while I'm away and steal something... like our nearly 20-year-old television or one of our eight bottles of watermelon syrup from Torani. (Sprite + syrup = something I dare say is even better than Watermelon Fanta aka Smart Watermelon. Yum!)

We were back on Carnival Spirit again, this time taking advantage of a new port (La Paz) and - through a little honest-but-sneaky website wiggling - scoring the legendary cabin 7258. Being on the same ship twice in a row gave us some issues, to be be discussed someday in another post, but we did try to notch some new things, including the Nouveau Steakhouse.

I posted my report on the Steakhouse on Cruise Critic in a post titled "Vegetarians - Don't Fear the Steakhouse! (Or the dress code.)" However, what with being home sick (again) today with a very lousy cold (but I'm glad it's just a cold after the recent scare that... hey... more stuff I never talked about here), I'll also post the review here and feel like I'm doing my 21st century duty to generate original content... or just that I like to share. Here we are!

For our New Year's cruise on Carnival Spirit one of our "to do" items was to try the steakhouse. We'd been skittish about it before; I'm a vegetarian, and Mike doesn't like seafood, fish, or any meat with more than the barest glow of pink. People on CC said that you could arrange for veggie fare in advance, but how much of a hass would it be? (After all, perhaps Carnival removed the vegetarian option from the printed steakhouse menu for a reason.)

Still, after four cruises in 18 months, the MDR menu was getting a little samey. (It doesn't help that we eat out quite a bit at home in Las Vegas, usually trying a new restaurant if we can.) In addition to giving the MDR Indian a go (which Mike already posted about and I'll add photos to later), we decided to buck up and make Nouveau Steakhouse reservations.

As soon as we boarded around 1 p.m. we joined the short steakhouse queue. (Good thing, too, as New Year's Eve was down to only 5:30 and 6:00 reservations.) While waiting for the couple in front of us to finished, I glanced at the steakhouse promo sign and did a double-take:

Nouveau Steakhouse - Jeans Allowed

Wait... "Jeans allowed on Cruise Casual evenings"? Do you mean to tell me that while emotional "Are jeans allowed in the MDR?" threads regularly bring out the raging ugly side of Cruise Critic, Carnival is going around making it explicitly clear, in 100+-point type, that jeans are specifically allowed most nights in the... the... the holy cathedral of Carnival dining... the steakhouse?!

(I almost ran to the closest barstool to post the photo on CC right away, but - you know - vacation to enjoy and stuff.)

Now, Mike and I are casual dressers and we like being casual dressers, but we don't like being inappropriate dressers. We'd read mixed reports on CC about jackets being expected in the steakhouse on Cruise Elegant evenings. This was troubling because Mike doesn't have a jacket (and at his cuddly size, I'm not sure Formalities could rent him one), but the Cruise Elegant evenings were the evenings we most wanted to get away from the MDR menu. (I know, I know - some of you are horrified that people actually run away from lobster night!) Still, we wanted to play by the rules, so as we made our reservations for both elegant nights, we asked if jackets were required for Cruise Elegant evenings.

The hostess looked a little bewildered, like we were talking crazy talk, and reassured us that this was certainly not the case. Just no shorts, flip-flops, t-shirts, jeans on Elegant night, etc.

Of course, she may not be speaking for all Carnival steakhouses, but if you're on the Carnival Spirit, rest assured that they don't require a jacket - ever.

We ended up being somewhere in the middle in terms of dress compared to other patrons. For the Elegant evenings Mike wore dark pants, button-down shirt, and a tie. I wore a tea-length black/floral cotton dress. (Nothing sparkly but my shoes.) On the Casual evening, Mike wore a black polo with his black pants, and I wore a black blouse with stretchy cotton pants and blingy black sandals. We were like the Johnny Cash ninjas of the foodie set.

And yes, if you just caught the math, we ended up eating at the steakhouse THREE times! But first let's cover how the veghead fuss played out.

When we made our reservations at embarkation, I asked the hostess if they could accommodate me as a vegetarian. "Sure," she said. "Would you like mushroom strudel, some kind of pasta - what would you like?" She intimated that the chef could make just about anything; I just had to say what. I said I'd try the strudel for the first night, so she wrote that down and we decided to discuss the menu for the second evening after I'd tried the strudel. She asked me to make sure that I was fine with all of the starters/soups/desserts, and that was that.

It was just that easy.

Nouveau Steakhouse

(Pictured above: ~5:45 p.m. New Year's Eve - second elegant night - ship just outside Cabo San Lucas.)

So, the first night came and we had a lovely table for two on the lower floor by the window, looking at the sea as the sun set. (And also looking at a family of sunbathers, but they packed up a few minutes later. Other than the very occasional jogger, we never saw anyone on the deck.)

We were asked if we wanted still or sparkling water. (We always chose still, so I don't know if they charge for sparkling.) Alex the (amazing, jubilant, debonaire) sommelier came by to consult with us on wine. Neither of us really drinks, but Alex still gave us excellent service, happy to keep Mike in constant Mr. Pibbs instead and to throw us some cheerful banter whenever he passed by.

The main server (I've regrettably forgotten most of their names, but I think we met them all over the course of the cruise and they were all exceptional) brought us "complimentaries" from the chef. I got a tiny roasted red pepper soup that was full of flavour yet not too hot. Delicious! Mike pretended to enjoy something with lobster; after the first night, when we felt more "matey" with the staff, he let on that he didn't like seafood. After that they always brought him the same complimentary they brought for me - no problem. (We did appreciate that they tried to present each of us with something special and different.)

I didn't have a camera with me the first night, but below is what we had on subsequent visits.

Chilled Melon Soup:

Nouveau Steakhouse - Chef's 'Complimentary' - Melon Soup

Mike quite liked it even though normally he's not altogether keen on honeydew or cantaloupe.

Potato-Thingie That I Can't Remember Except That It Was, as Mike Puts It, "Freaking Good":

Chef's 'Complimentary' - Potato Thingie

Just before the bread basket was offered (for the first time of the evening), one of the servers (sometimes we would have up to three) would bring this selection of tomato confit, butter, and eggplant tapenade:

Nouveau Steakhouse - Tomato Confit, Butter, Eggplant Tapenade

It was all delicious, but we were especially crazy about the confit. We were trying to make the remaining spoonful last the first night when our server happily brought us a fresh bowl. Mmmm!

The breads offered each night were the same: a brioche and a rosemary focaccia. I didn't get a photo of the brioche because after the first night I always went for the focaccia. The brioche was good, but I enjoyed the slightly less buttery and more earthy taste of the focaccia.

Was it better than, say, the onion and bleu cheese focaccia served on the Lido deck? Well, it was much warmer, of course, but while we really enjoyed the bread, it wasn't much different in quality from the MDR bread. I'd file it under "Very nice but nothing to shake up your world" - and that was fine.

Nouveau Steakhouse - Rosemary Focaccia

(By the way, the bread has been pulled apart in that photo, not bitten off. I don't want you to think I'm posting pics of gnawed-on food here!)

For a starter I ordered the Baked Onion Soup, but almost before the words were out the server warned me that the soup had a veal base. (I hadn't even mentioned being a vegetarian, but everyone there seemed to know.) Now, I know I surely eat meat products all of the time without realizing it, just like I know that some of the dairy products I so love probably come from the worst of factory farms, but I'm just a person who tries her best to meet her own expectations. (And they're just mine - I don't expect anyone else to meet them.) I only bring this up because sometimes when you admit to being a vegetarian people get huffy, and they seem to take glee if you don't conform to whatever standards they think defines a vegetarian. So, some omnivores may find my objection to veal-based soup illogical, or perhaps some vegans will be horrified by my decision to eat in a restaurant where they wheel a big cart of dead flesh to each table to be admired before you order (even Mike was a bit squeamish at first), I'm just sharing what was what, and I'll let the reader decide if knowing that the onion soup has a veal base is useful or not.

Mike ended up having the Baked Onion Soup, actually, because it was the only starter that came close to meeting his own dietary preferences. He's lukewarm on onions soups to begin with, and not a fan of veal (although he couldn't taste it), so it wasn't surprising that he didn't like it. It was served in a beautiful, deep mini-tureen, though, and I regret not taking a photo.

(The server seemed concerned that he didn't like it, but he explained that it just wasn't his thing. He did visit the steakhouse later in the week to see if he could get a different starter for our next reservation - like, something served in the MDR that night - but they said only the menu items were available. So, the flexibility only goes so far. Quite understandable, of course. They make far more money off the vegetarians - if the maitre d' was to be believed when she told another table that all the fee really covers is the the steak - so it's no wonder they're willing to accommodate vegetarians but can't really get into tweaking the menu for everyone.)

Because I found that both a starter and a salad course before the main course was a little too much food for me (I'm just not as good at being a fattie as I look), Mike not having a starter worked out well. I only had either a starter or a salad on subsequent nights, so we went from four courses to three.

The vegetarian starter is the Grilled Portobello Mushroom:

Nouveau Steakhouse - Grilled Portobello

This is served on tomato shaved so finely that at first I thought it was salmon. I thought I might get mushroom'd out, but the flavours of the starter and the main course were quite different.

My salad choice was the vine-ripened tomatoes with gorgonzola:

Nouveau Steakhouse - Vine-Ripened Tomatoes with Gorgonzola

The tomatoes were delicious (actual taste and everything - not something I usually get at the local grocery store) and even though I'm not always a fan of gorgonzola, this was deliciously tangy stuff.

On the last night we saw someone get the Caesar Salad - made tableside with much elegance - and he asked for it without anchovies. I'm sure the staff would be happy to make an anchovy-free salad with a different kind of dressing if a vegetarian wanted. Mike had the heart of iceberg salad every night, and he really enjoyed the vinaigrette, which he found a little less sweet than the MDR vinaigrette (although he loves that one, too).

Nouveau Steakhouse - Heart of Iceberg Salad

Now for the main course. By this point on the first night, we were already having such a wonderful time that we couldn't wait to return. The view, the general quiet, the spacious atmosphere, the service, the food so far... If the steak and strudel were good, then our whole future cruising experienced just changed.

As mentioned a hundred jillion paragraphs ago, Mike likes his meat well done. (Something I tease him about all the time, having come from an upbringing where "real" meat-eaters like their steaks red and rosy, and anything less gets called "shoe leather.") After Mike saw the height of the NY Strip Steak (the smallest option) on the preview tray, he had his doubts this would happen. He's certainly been burned several times before by high-end kitchens who consider "well done" to be the same as "light pink," when he'd rather be completely pink-free.

I didn't get a cross-section pic, or even a good pic, but here's one of three best steaks Mike has eaten in his life:

Nouveau Steakhouse - NY Strip Steak, Well Done

The other two best steaks were on the other nights in the Nouveau Steakhouse. Yes, says Mike, it's really that much different from the MDR.

I know that there's been a lot of arguing on the boards about Carnival's decision to offer these higher quality steaks for a fee in the MDR on ships that don't have a steakhouse. Well, after trying the steakhouse, Mike wishes he could pay extra to get that quality of meat in the MDR on ANY ship, regardless of whether they had a steakhouse. To us, it's no different in philosophy than paying extra for wine or a cocktail in the MDR instead of just drinking the included beverages. According to Mike, the quality of the MDR Strip steak and the steakhouse Strip steak is just worlds apart.

Sure, there's always the fear that such a practice could be a slippery slope leading to all MDR steaks costing extra, but Mike would definitely rather enjoy those high quality steaks in the MDR now and worry about a policy change later if it ever happens, and not succumb to "what if???!!!" fears while missing out. (Yes, we could eat in the steakhouse every night, but - cost aside - we'd miss our fave MDR starters, the Indian meals, etc.)

Anyway! Off the soapbox! I didn't get a good photo of my mushroom strudel (and accompaniments), but here goes:

Nouveau Steakhouse - Mushroom Strudel, Wasabi Mash, and Stuff

This plate (more enormous than it looks) pretty much defines "savoury." The strudel was rich yet light at the same time, like magic. Dead center you see a tomato resting upon macaroni and cheese than had some deep notes I didn't recognize - perhaps truffle? The tomatoes and olives (blur in the far back) were marinated in something full-bodied and sour. Delicious. One of two pieces of thin garlic toast is resting on a larger (unmarinated) tomato that had been filled with a mellow cheese and peas mixture and baked with a little crust on top. Even though I could only eat about half of the plate at best, it was all so good that I ordered it again for our second night. Who wants to live in a world without getting to eat this at least twice?!

To the side you see the wasabi horseradish mashed potatoes, which Mike and I had almost every night as our choice of side. I definitely liked it, although I'm not sure if I liked it because it was really tasty or because the taste was really interesting. (Hopefully that makes sense.) The potatoes are spooned out of a little boat by the server, so if it's just you ordering them, you have to say "when."

On the last night Mike decided to try something else, just to see what it would be like, so he ordered the baked potato:

Nouveau Steakhouse - Baked Potato

He described it as "okay, but just a baked potato." Keep in mind that for whatever wacky reason he doesn't really like the potato part of baked potatoes, so he's not really in a position to review this. I shared my wasabi mash with him that night, which he found as "awesome" as ever.

I also wanted to try something new for the third night, so I bid adieu to my strudel and, after some tableside consultation with the chef on our second visit, I decided to try his spicy pasta primavera.

I may be a vegetarian, but I'm very picky about vegetables. I don't like monster-size hunks of broccoli or cauliflower, and cooked spinach has left me gagging for over 40 years. Carrots and eggplant can't be too mushy, but I can't get enough onion or mushroom. Pasta primavera experiences have varied so much in my life that I knew I was taking a risk, but I was so impressed with the steakhouse that I decided just to trust the chef.

Nouveau Steakhouse - Spicy Pasta Primavera

Mike later asked if I preferred the strudel or the pasta. No answer - it's impossible to choose! The photo doesn't really let you see the size of the portion (huge), but even though I didn't get all of the interesting sides with the pasta primavera, it was still wonderful. Fresh in taste, the vegetable sizes and textures delicate, and subtly spicy. (Spicy enough to make my nose run a little - sorry, but it's true - but not overbearing when in the mouth.)


Finally, the dessert course. The first night we both had the chocolate sampler:

Nouveau Steakhouse - Chocolate Sampler

(Mike's belly looks pretty full, but believe me, we both found room for this.)

I don't know what to say - each offering is chocolatey but not too heavy. I believe that, left to right, it's the chocolate marquise (berries and what tasted like the inside of a truffle), tiramisu, flourless chocolate cake with can't-remember-the-flavour ice cream, and a banana pannacotta that wasn't really our thing, but the quality of the construction was obvious. The marquise was Mike's fave, but I couldn't decide.

The second night I decided I had to give the other desserts a chance. I got the Washington apples caramelized on puff pastry:

Nouveau Steakhouse - Caramelized Apples on Puff Pastry

Again, terrific. I'm not usually wild about cooked apple desserts, but it was deliciously complex and yummy.

For the last night, we both got the cheesecake. Colossal mistake.

Nouveau Steakhouse - Cheesecake

By "colossal mistake" I mean that "WOW! It's COLOSSAL!" and "it's a mistake for more than one person at the table to get this because each slice surely sates four. Maybe six."

The cheesecake itself was simply excellent, with a chocolatey rich crumble-crust, yummy hazelnut cookie on the side, and streaks of berry gel that was so tart and lovely that I kept scraping every part of the cheesecake through it.

We couldn't even begin to finish, so the server asked if we wanted to take what was left with us. Whoa, you can do that? (It was news to the couple at the next table who'd just reluctantly sent away the huge remains of their cheesecake, so don't be shy to ask if a to-go option isn't offered.)

Around this time the server told us about a passenger, a very slim and small woman, who - after having a full meal of two starters, two salads, and a steak - had ordered the chocolate sampler and finished it. Then she ordered the apple pastry and finished it. Then she ordered the enormous slice of cheesecake... and finished it! Incredible!

(Of course, all Mike and I could think when we heard this was... hey... wait a minute, you can order more than one of something?! What?! Good to know, but I don't know where we would have put it.)

I actually teared up a little when we left the steakhouse for the last time. It really added something special and new to our cruise. Service beyond par, food beyond the MDR.. I know from trip reports here that not everyone has been so lucky when visiting a Carnival steakhouse, but we were impressed well beyond our expectations.

If you've just scrolled to the bottom of the post and are looking for the "TL;DR" highlights, I offer this:

  • For special diet considerations, Nouveau Steakhouse requires a day's notice.
  • Vegetarians don't have to have the mushroom strudel.
  • Jeans are specifically allowed, in writing, in the Nouveau Steakhouse on Cruise Casual nights.
  • If you finish something (other than a steak, I assume) and want more, ask.
  • If you can't finish something, don't be embarrassed to ask to take it with you.
  • It can't be said enough: it's not the same as a steak from the MDR.
  • Dining in the steakhouse is extra special at sunset.
  • For $30, it's an incredible value, even for a vegetarian.

Special bonus photo of Mike at the steakhouse, looking out at Cabo as we sail away for New Year's Eve at sea:

Nouveau Steakhouse - Mike Looking at Cabo San Lucas

11 January 2011 |

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