MIAMI — The Royal Caribbean culinary team has spent more than 500 hours working on its macaroni and cheese, which is getting a starring role among a spate of new dining venues coming to Icon of the Seas when it debuts out of Miami in just over six months.
“It’s about consistency,” said Michael Jacobs, lead for culinary operations during a recent tour of Royal’s headquarters where it workshops ideas for everything from attractions to bars to the new dishes set to appear on board its upcoming fleet. “It has to coat the pasta. Each pasta is cut for its own sauce.”
A test kitchen full of chefs concur for what turned out to be an unusually long mac-and-cheese-related conversation as visiting media tried samples of a variety of dishes coming to what will be five food hall options within the planned AquaDome Market, itself just a small corner of the massive AquaDome superstructure at the top of the 20-deck, 250,800-gross-ton cruise ship currently under construction in Finland.
One of those venues is Mac’s with working — as in not necessarily final, repeat, not final — menu items that for the time being include ideas such as Pepperoni Pizza Mac, Creole Mac, Bacon Mac, Carolina Pulled Pork Mac and of course, Classic Mac.
“The twist in the noodle does catch the sauce to make it cheesier,” said Royal Caribbean’s vice president of food & beverage Linken D’Souza. “I’m super proud of our mac and cheese as we have not done it well. This will let us do it well.”
Other new flavors coming to the complimentary food hall concept, which is a first for the line, look to cater to quick, casual yet different taste buds. On top of Mac’s are Crème de la Crêpe, GNGR, Feta, and Toast & Garden as well as a small bar.
The amount of attention invested in something as seemingly simple as macaroni and cheese, though, is just illustrative of the depths to which Royal Caribbean is investing time and effort into what will be its new flagship, the first in a class that will take over the title of world’s largest cruise ship from the line’s six Oasis-class vessels. It will arrive to the U.S. for test sailings in December, and begin Caribbean voyages from PortMiami in January.
It has a similar footprint as the Oasis-class ships including a neighborhood approach complete with the Royal Promenade and open-air Central Park in the middle of the ship, but many of the spaces have been retooled.
“I have a hard time comparing this ship to other ships,” said Tim Klauda, the line’s vice president of product development. “We often try to compare it to Oasis class and I even encourage us to not do that. Because while it has the split hull and it looks similar-ish — and it’s big — it’s so different. … the way you can get from neighborhood to neighborhood is so different that I think flow of people will be very different.”
He led a tour through Royal’s 7,600-square-foot working space where the line has built out a full-scale model for the marketplace so that designers can see how it will work in practice, and not just on the drawing board.
“It’s a chance to talk through some of these moments before we’re on board and before we have guests on board,” he said. “We can really work through the details together and it can be contentious and fun. But it allows us by having a cruise compass this early even though we have no idea how some of this is going to play out.”
For the food hall, the structures with potential menus are laid out in the real dimensions as when they will appear on board that let’s food and beverage staff interact with the space and set up potential changes.
“We’ve got all this awesome food and all these options which our guests want. How many people can really pack in there, and get to the food, and get in line, and how is that going to work, and having a queue?” he asks spitting out mental possibilities like hitting a punching bag. “We’re still working through the details but without this we’d be solving this after the ship was built which is way, way too late,” adding that sometimes “it’s silly details, but if you don’t catch it now, the change order you have to do … is a real pain … in the back side.”
The crêpe concepts, which again are not final, include both sweet and savory options. GNGR is an Asian build-your-own bowl concept. Feta is a similar approach with Mediterranean bowls and pitas while Toast & Garden is salads and sandwiches.
One of those sandwiches is likely to be a Monte Cristo for those who dig their savory ham, turkey and Swiss with powdered sugar and berry jam. Klauda and D’Souza are big fans and shared where their favorite versions are around the world — a Disneyland restaurant for Klauda and in a Toronto diner for D’Souza.
Icon of the Seas will launch with those five concepts, but future Icon class ships could see five entirely different food hall venues. The real goal was to give cruisers a free (for now) option that isn’t the traditional buffet that opens up new tastes, but executed with a higher level of quality than a buffet.
“This is a great place to iterate. We’re going to launch with this and we’ll learn,” he said. “This is variety — variety in day-over-day, variety for different guests. Obviously what kid doesn’t love mac ‘n cheese? This is largely a family vacation. You don’t have to have a family to come on an Icon ship and have fun but you need to have all these options.”
D’Souza said the goal was to satisfy as many types of people as possible.
“There’s a little bit of food for everyone. People want choice, selection, variety, it allows a multigenerational family to sit together and enjoy a dining experience that’s individualized but at the same time allows for that coming together as a family and being able to dine together,” he said.
Also mocked up in full form is the new Rye & Bean specialty coffee venue that will also be within the AquaDome neighborhood.
Alex Palmeri, manager of beverage operations, was on hand to serve up espresso martinis and other drinks, some with and some without alcohol with a tongue-in-cheek menu featuring the fictitious drink, the Mocha Bayley, named after Royal Caribbean President Michael Bayley, going for $100.
“That is a joke,” Klauda said with team members saying they wanted to make sure the head of the cruise line was paying attention. “If you can’t have fun at these things, then why do it?”
While the ship will have a Starbucks, this space looks to execute on taste and atmosphere with one of the best vantage points on the ship.
“The views are silly,” Klauda said. “You’re at the forward side of the dome and so you’ve got that view right behind the bar, but that wraps all the way around and that expands to the entire dome. Behind you is the AquaTheater. When that’s having a show and you want to pop over and get a really nice cocktail instead of a canned beer or something, you’ll have that access.”
It’s going to be popular both day and night, he said, and among what he expects to be the most popular new spaces when Icon debuts.
“I think in the morning you’ll have fountains, and mellow Zen and all this natural light. You’re out of the sun a little bit but you can still be outside-ish,” he said. “I think the idea of having coffee in a space like that and then being able to have booze — because I’m on vacation — any time of day.”
The showcased spaces are just some of more than 40 food and beverage options coming to the ship. Of those, 20 will be what the line deems new or signature venues.
One high-end offering coming to Central Park will be Empire Supper Club, which will take on the look, sound and feel of 1920s New York City serving an eight-course meal with offerings from caviar to wagyu steak and drink pairings with each dish.
“Empire Supper Club is what I would say is the most elevated dining experience we’ve created at Royal Caribbean,” D’Souza said noting even the music is paired with the courses and cocktails, and the venue will only be serving about 35 diners during two seatings per night. “It will be a full, immersive dining experience … unique and exclusive kind of new style dining experience.”
D’Souza was excited about bringing new dishes like rabbit and oysters to the table and what he said was everyone’s favorite, a cheesecake shaped like a block of cheese complete with a little mouse figurine accompaniment. He noted the challenge, though, of pairing cocktails across eight courses.
“What’s the size of the cocktail? So when people are walking out, they aren’t really happy when they walk out. We want them to be happy, but not fall-over happy,” he said.
Another new option in Central Park will be Izumi in the Park, an all-day sushi and Japanese street food walk-up window.
This is in addition to the normal sushi and hibachi offered by the main Izumi venue.
Other Central Park options include American steakhouse Chops Grille, the Trellis bar serving a new menu of small bites, and Park Cafe, which will be open in the evening for the first time. While there’s no food, Central Park is also home to Bubbles, the walk-up champagne bar and the Lou’s Jazz ‘n Blues club.
Another new venue will be Celebration Table, a 12-seat private VIP dining option that will offer another vista from the AquaDome.
“The views are ridiculous,” Klauda said.
Also in the AquaDome will be Hooked Seafood and Coastal Kitchen in the Suite Neighborhood.
Other specialty dining on board includes Royal Caribbean mainstay Giovanni’s Italian Kitchen & Bar and an exclusive Chef’s Table. Other small bites are available at the new Pearl Cafe in the Royal Promenade as well as Basecamp and Desserted near the new neighborhoods Thrill Island and Chill Island. Also for suite guests is The Grove with al fresco and casual Mediterranean.
Elsewhere on the ship are Playmakers Sports Bar & Arcade, El Loco Fresh, Sorrento’s pizza, Sprinkles for ice cream fans and the biggest Windjammer buffet yet.
The family-centric Surfside neighborhood has the Surfside Eatery buffet, all-day brunch at Pier 7 with casual California-inspired dishes and Surfside Bites walkup window. That also has a family-friendly bar with both adult and kid menus called The Lemon Post.
D’Souza loves getting into the details of each of the dishes, but knows feeding the ship’s maximum passenger capacity of 7,600 will be a challenge.
“As amazing and as big as Icon is, that means having food in more places than we’ve historically had,” he said unsure of how much more difficult it will be compared to Oasis-class ships. “To be honest, we don’t know yet. It’s a first in class ship.”