Sherman's Food Adventures: February 2020

NCL Norwegian Bliss Alaska Cruise

Viv loves cruising.  From the very first time we took a cruise together, she was hooked.  However, she is indifferent about cruising to Alaska.  In fact, she may have stated that she will never do another Alaskan cruise (we've done 2).  So when the NCL Bliss started doing the Alaskan run from Seattle, I was afraid to ask her if she wanted to go or not.  You see, I really wanted to cruise on that ship...  She begrudgingly agreed after I sold her on the 18 different restaurants on board as well as the 2-deck go-kart track.  Oh and we booked a Mini-Suite, which included a full-sized shower and balcony.  Yep, let's travel in style, it really doesn't matter where we go!

Now about that Cabin, it was not really a "suite" as it was no bigger than the regular balcony cabin at 249 square feet.  As such, the cabin was pretty much what you'd find in any other cruise ship in that particular category.  Since we had the kids with us, the cabin was a quad where there was a pullman bed above the sofa bed.  Our 2 twins combined into a king.  We really enjoyed having USB ports at each side of the bed.  Still only one electrical outlet though at the base of the vanity.  Closet space was pretty limited located just to the left of the sofa bed.  It was enough, but barely.  The real highlight of the room (other than the balcony) was the large Washroom with full-sized shower.  Finally, I could move around and not hit my shoulder, head or butt into the wall or shower curtain.   Loved the multiple spray nozzles as it provided a full-body wash.  The double sinks also allowed for 2 people to get ready.  The fact that the toilet was not pushed up against anything was also a plus.

Although the NCL Bliss isn't as big as the Oasis class ships from RCCL (I've been on the Allure), it is still one of the larger cruise ships in the industry.  Although there were plenty of public areas, I found many of them rather crowded and with many bottlenecks when activities overlapped.  One of the worst locations was the Atrium (not pictured) where it seemed that they used for almost everything.  This included trivia, live shows and seminars.  Trying to get a seat would require one to stalk the previous session and hope people would leave.  There was not enough seating at times for the amount of people who wanted to attend/participate.  To further complicate the situation, the same area also contained guest services, Starbucks and the photo studio.  As a result, people just passing through would be stuck in the crowd around the atrium.  One of the ways to avoid this is to sit above in the Local Bar & Grill and look down into the atrium when there were are shows.  Whenever we wanted to grab a quick bite in a more tranquil setting, we headed over to the Observation Lounge.

Boasting 18 different restaurants, there was no need to worry where our next meal would be.  However, most came with a cover charge or a la carte pricing.  We ended up getting the 3-Restaurant dining package included with our cruise.  For the kids, we had to add 2 more packages to cover them since each cabin only comes with 2 free packages.  Even though one could pick any 3 restaurants, Ocean Blue required an extra $10.00 surcharge.  We decided on Cagney's, Le Bistro and La Cucina as our 3 specialty restaurants.  To ensure we sampled as many dining options as possible, we went a la carte at Food Republic and Q Smokehouse.  Moreover, we visited all 3 main dining rooms (complimentary) including The Manhattan Room, Savor and Taste as well as the Garden Cafe (buffet) and Observation Lounge (light buffet).  For lunch, we paid the cover charge for Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville.  Other than Ocean Blue (focus on seafood), the other spots we didn't get to try were The District Brewhouse, Los Lobos (Mexican), Teppanyaki (we tried this on a the Pride of America) and The Haven Restaurant (only available to those staying in The Haven).  In the following days, I will address every restaurant we ate at as an individual post.

In addition to the many restaurants, we found the aforementioned Starbucks, Coco's, Dolce Gelato and The Bake Shop.  At Coco's, one could feast on desserts, milkshakes and custom sundaes.  Adjacent to each other, Dolce Gelato featured 8 flavors and The Bake Shop boasted an array of macarons (12 varieties) and other pastries.  These were all extra charge and I only got to try the macarons.  They weren't necessarily on the level of the finer macarons in the world (like Pierre Hermes), but they were still legit.  So all the food was a big part of the cruise and so it should be, yet, one cannot go aboard the NCL Bliss and not be aware of the 2-level Go-Kart track at the back of deck 19.  These were electric go-karts and were able to go pretty fast, but limited by the staff.  I found it to be quite fun albeit frustrating due to the variety of racers on the track.  Some clearly have never done go-karting and hence do not know how to drive nor move over when they are going slow.  This was an extra $10.95 per race.  If you want to book a time, do so immediately when you get on the ship at many of the touchscreens near the elevators.  Otherwise, you will be on standby.

Another one of their featured activities was the Laser Tag on deck 20.   This was also a $10.95 charge for 2 games.  With the purpose-built futuristic bio-hazard lab theme course, we were placed into 2 teams (we didn't have a choice which team and who to play with).  I think they did as good of a job as possible given the space available on the top level of the ship.  There seemed to be enough room to hide and move about.  Instead of wearing vests, the guns were also the target for the opposing team.  This made is it a bit confusing who was exactly on our team and also, it was hard to aim at an opponent when they could hide their gun at their side.  Whatever the case, this was still a fun experience and worth trying out while on board.  Nearby, the 2 Watersides were pretty impressive to look at, but for us, only one was working all cruise.  The wait for it wasn't actually that bad, but we had to walk quite a distance to go from the end of the slide back to the start.  It didn't go very fast, but again, worth a few runs.

In terms of entertainment, the one show we really loved was The Jersey Boys in the Main Theater.  The production quality as well as the talent was top notch.  For those who haven't seen the play, it is about the rise and fall of the Four Seasons.  In the cruise ship industry, we find full-length Broadway productions generally on larger cruise ships (and longer cruises).  I've watch Chicago on The Allure of the Seas before and The Jersey Boys was certainly on par.  To ensure you are guaranteed a seat to watch the show, you must book in online prior to your cruise or if still available, on one of the screens near the elevators (or your room too).  Another highlight was the cover band of the Beatles playing at the "Cavern Club".  Yes, they did a version of the original nightclub in Liverpool that the Beatles used to play at.  The musicians were really good and everyone always had a rockin' good time at all their shows.  We watched them twice!  We also caught them in the main theater for their final show of the cruise where they were dressed in their Sgt Pepper's unis.

Since this was our 3rd cruise to Alaska, the ports weren't as important as the ship itself.  However, we did try to enjoy each stop regardless.  We did noticed that in Juneau, they had moved the location of Tracy's Crab Shack into an actual B&M rather than a food stand.  Over in Skagway, the town has been built-up more, but we opted to go for a hike to Yakutania Point and Smuggler's Cove.  It was moderate and offered up some amazing views.  We didn't get too creative in Ketchikan, where we only wandered around the town.  Miraculously, this was our 3rd time here and it hadn't rained each time.  You see, Ketchikan sees only 100 days of sunshine a year!  And you thought Seattle and Vancouver had it rough...  Of course, probably the highlight of the cruise was cruising into Glacier Bay where the views were spectacular.  We've done this before, so it wasn't as awe-inspiring, but for those who haven't seen it, definitely get those cameras ready.  Honestly, Victoria was a throwaway stop (only 7:00pm to midnight) because it was only on the itinerary to satisfy the "international port" requirement so that they could have an international crew.  The fact this cruise was a return trip to Seattle, meant we would have to drive back up to Vancouver afterwards, but Seattle is a great destination in itself.

Similar to many other cruise lines, we chose our embarkation time and arrived within a 30-minute window.  This really cut down the lines and amount of people arriving at the docks at the same time.  However, the cruise terminal in Seattle wasn't the best for being dropped off as the street was narrow and parking was limited.  Once inside, it was a breeze to get on the ship.  Getting off the massive ship was another story though.  There were 2 lines to get off and one was definitely longer (which we were in).  That line snaked through the casino.  We really should've used the other line which was at the front of the ship.  This process took very long and according to our time, over an hour.  Not unusual though as it took some time on the Allure as well.  Overall, we enjoyed out cruise aboard The Bliss where the food at the specialty restaurants was good and the entertainment was top notch.  There was enough activities on board for the younger crowd and plenty of shows around.  However, we found that there could've been more things planned on our daily schedule.

The Good:
- New and modern cruise ship with all of the amenities
- Lots of dining options
- Unique activities such as go-karts and laser tag
- Top notch entertainment
- All the new technology

The Bad:
- Some bottlenecks with so many thing happening at once 
- Non-specialty restaurants are so-so
- Similar to other cruise lines, the best food comes with a surcharge
- Arriving in Juneau at 2:30pm limits the activities you would want to do
- Debarkation was very long

Matt's Rotisserie & Oyster Bar

Since we didn't have our car for the day, we ended up spending our time in and around Redmond Town Center.  Why didn't we have our car you might be wondering...  Well, we were to picked up by Goose the next day heading to Pier 66 for our cruise aboard the NCL Bliss.  So I had dropped our car off at his place the night before (and also saved myself $25.00 in unnecessary valet fees since I didn't need the car anyways).  Therefore, we picked Matt's Rotisserie & Oyster Bar for dinner as it was practically across the street from our hotel.  

We got a couple of starters including the Hot Dungeness Crab & Artichoke Dip served with rosemary croccantini crackers.  Yes, the crackers looked a look like saltines, but they were definitely not.  They were much firmer and crunchier.  As such, they held up just fine when used to pick up the dip.  Thick, cheesy and full of fluffy crab, the dip was definitely one of the highlights of our meal.  We thought the viscosity was just right as it wasn't watery, yet wasn't too rich at the same time.  With a fairly decent portion size, the Flash Fried Calamari was quite good.  The batter was crispy, light and well-seasoned.  Tender with an appealing chewiness, the squid was cooked just enough.  I thought the lemon-garlic aioli was a good balance of tanginess and aromatics.

Even though we had fries accompanying some of our dishes already, we went ahead and ordered the Garlic Truffle Fries anyways.  Good decision as the kiddies gobbled it up.  Almost like shoestring potatoes, the fries were crispy, light and not overly greasy.  This is unusual as many versions of truffle fries are coated with far too much truffle oil.  There was plenty of garlic, parm and truffle for the fries to be tasty on their own.  However, the garlic aioli amped it up further.  I only wished it wasn't so runny.  Surprisingly, my daughter was okay with ordering the kid's Fish & Chips (she usually orders an adult meal) and they were hit and miss on the same plate.  The fish was flaky and moist but the batter was far too thick and she decided to just eat the fish.  Tartar was chunky and tangy while the fries were as good as the appie version.

My son decided on the Beef Short Rib Stroganoff sporting port-braised short rib, portabella & crimini mushrooms, egg noodles and a dollop of sour cream.  This was a fairly large portion of tender noodles and an equal amount of meaty short rib.  There was also no shortage of plump mushrooms either.  Heavy on the wine flavor, but still balanced, the stroganoff was also full of meatiness.  Of course the sour cream on top added body and tanginess.  My parents weren't very hungry, so they shared the Rotisserie Salt & Pepper Half Chicken with Yukon Gold smashers and herb jus.  This was a major disappointment as the chicken was dry and bland.  Other than the well-rendered skin, there wasn't anything redeeming about the chicken.  For a place that calls itself a rotisserie, the chicken was several levels below the one found at Costco.

For myself, I had the 9 oz Rotisserie Prime Rib with mashed potatoes and broccolini.  I asked for medium-rare and it came out more like rare (which was fine by me).  I thought the prime rib was super moist, yet wasn't as tender as I would've expected.  With that being said, it was still completely fine.  The mashed potatoes were firm and starchy while mildly seasoned.  Perfectly crunchy and vibrant, the broccolini was seasoned just enough.  Viv stayed on the same theme with the Rotisserie Prime Rib Dip with caramelized onions, Swiss cheese and horseradish mayo on a Macrina roll.  Viv thought the sandwich was smaller than expected, but it was enough nonetheless.  There was a considerable amount of cheese and combined with the onions, the au jus was not even needed.  However, it did help soften up the bread and we liked how it wasn't too salty.

Goose had the Steak Frites where the fries were of course the same crispy shoestring ones found in the other dishes.  As for the steak, it was nicely seared on the outside, but was overdone.  Rather than medium-rare, it was closer to medium.  Not sure if that affected the texture as the steak was not as tender as he would've hoped.  Again, much like my prime rib, it was still fine as it was far from being chewy.  Mother Goose went with the Scampi Prawns which was lacking in capelini pasta.  Despite this, the prawns were perfectly prepared being meaty with a snap.  Lots of flavor from the garlic, basil, tangy confit cherry tomatoes and olive oil.  Unlike other versions out there, the pasta was moist from the oil, yet not greasy at the same time.

Goose's son went for the Rotisserie Prime Rib Tacos with chipotle slaw, guacamole and tomatillo pico de gallo on two wood-fired corn tortillas.  These tacos were huge!  Thin and crispy, the corn tortillas were able to hold everything in without completely falling apart.  This was an achievement since there was a tonne of tender prime rib.  Definitely filling and satisfying.  Overall, we found the food at Matt's to be hit and miss with some real highs and some disappointing lows.  They really need to work on that chicken as it doesn't do the name of the restaurant justice.  I guess if one was to order the better dishes, Matt's does do the job with decent portion sizes.

The Good:
- Lots of choice
- Decent portion size
- Some good dishes

The Bad:
- Some really bad dishes too
- Not cheap

Feast Buffet (Dinner)

Before we get into this post, I would like to state that I much prefer proper sit-down meals rather than sloshing through mounds of mediocre food found at a buffet.  Okay, with that out-of-the-way (and hopefully silencing some haters), I do admit that the occasional all-you-can-eat meal can be fun and offer up a selection of food that even the most bountiful of meals cannot match.  One of the better AYCE spots in the Seattle area is Feast Buffet in Renton.  I've been here before several times for lunch but never for dinner.  This time around, it was as good as any other time to experience the difference between the two (other than the price $26.99 vs. $31.99 adult weekend lunch vs. dinner).

The biggest difference was very obvious when we were seated.  All we had to do was look over to the Seafood section of the buffet where there was a long lineup.  This was for the Half-Lobsters which were served individually to diners by a staff member.  Yes, I wouldn't trust anyone with a tray of lobsters either!   You know what?  These were actually quite good.  Yeah yeah, I know they were of the frozen variety.  They still had a bouncy meaty texture to them and were not overcooked.   In addition to the lobster, we also found Snow Crab Legs, Fried Shrimp, Mussels and Fried Fish as well as Black Bean Clams.  The best of the bunch was the plump clams and surprisingly, the snow crab.  It was fairly meaty and had a springy texture (even though we know they were also frozen).  To get you money's worth, it really was all about the lobster though.

One of the largest and most popular food stations is the Sushi and Sashimi.  I believe Feast boasts the largest selection in the Seattle area (maybe Mizuki comes close).  The main difference between lunch and dinner is pretty obvious with one quick scan of the station - much bigger selection of sashimi.  We found salmon, tuna, hokkigai, hotate, unagi, red tuna and tai.  Although no one can ever compare buffet sashimi to the expertly prepared variety at legit Japanese restaurants, these ate fresh and were fine texturally.  The variety of Nigiri was also more extensive compared to lunch with hotate, hokkigai, salmon, tuna, unagi, tai, seared salmon, tako and inari.  Again, considering the venue, I thought the rice was acceptable.  Yes, it was a bit dry and lacking in seasoning, but it wasn't terrible either.  As evidenced in the picture, the fish on top was vibrant in colour with a fresh sheen.  Not the best, yet certainly not bad either.  To round things out, there was a selection of "California-roll" based Maki Sushi as well as tempura and condiments.

With the cooked food, there was plenty to choose from, but I decided to hit up the Chinese and Dim Sum stations first.  If we were to compare the dim sum here with what we would normally find in a regular restaurant, some items were respectable.  Their chicken feet must be from gigantic chickens because they were extremely plump.  As such, there was plenty of soft cartilage and fat underneath the fried skin.  Tripe was tender while the spareribs were meaty.  I wasn't impressed with the Shrimp Dumplings and Siu Mai though.  Both were dry and lifeless.  I decided to try some of the Chinese food in the Broccoli Beef, Honey Shrimp and Sweet & Sour Pork.  Pretty typical North American-style Chinese food.  At least they didn't overcook the broccoli.

Other than the seafood, the one station that does it for me would've been the Mongolian Grill.  Yes, it ain't the sexiest food nor is it particularly the most "worth it", but I enjoyed the freshness.  With an array of choices for vegetables, noodles and meat, one can have a customized plate food.  Only problem is that it will fill you up really quickly.   They did a good job here where the noodles were still al dente and the veggies crunchy.  Shrimp was bouncy while the steak was surprisingly tender and well-charred.  This is best shared amongst a few people.  One needs to save room for more variety!  Only issue is that you have to wait there for it to be done.  I saw some people leave, but then your dish could be hijacked or waiting there getting cold.

One of the most disappointing stations was the Carvery.  For the pricing, one would expect more than mashed potatoes, sausage, ribs and roast beef.  I mean, not that anything was necessarily bad, it just wasn't that important to eat.  That is the complete opposite of most buffets where we would find chicken and/or turkey, ham, prime rib and the sort.  Making up for this was the massive Dessert Bar where it occupied the whole center of the buffet.  Not that anything was amazing, but the variety was good.  In addition to cakes and little bites, we found fruit, a chocolate fountain, hard ice cream, made-to-order crepes and a Taiwanese shaved ice station.  Now if I had to choose between the lunch or dinner service, I would pick lunch hands-down (especially on the weekdays, if you can make it).  The extra cost for dinner is just not worth it for a few more items.  With all that being said, Feast doesn't do everything well, but for a buffet, it does it well enough in relation to everyone else.

The Good:
- Lots of choice
- Decent Japanese food station
- Relatively reasonable price for weekday lunch

The Bad:
- Carvery is embarassing
- Dinner is hardly worth it

Cheesecake Factory (Bellevue Square)

Did you know that one of the first ever posts I did on this blog was the Bellevue location of Cheesecake Factory (picture courtesy of Vanfoodies)?  Now you won't find that post anywhere because I deleted it.  Why you might ask?  Well, it was crappy to be honest.  The pictures was with my Blackberry (LOL) and the writing was pretty brief.  So off it went into cyberspace trash forever.  I've been back since to this location many times, but never wrote a post about it because...  well, most people have been to Cheesecake Factory and I didn't feel inspired to write anything.  This time around, it was for lunch and we had a few of their lunch specials and yes, I felt like blogging about it.

Interestingly, they the menu claims that their specials are smaller portions of their regular sized dinner servings.  If you know anything about Cheesecake Factory, their regular portions are quite large.  Hence it was no surprise that the Miso Salmon looked practically like the usual one.  As much as some of the dishes are merely large here, the salmon is one of my favourites.  This one was no exception with buttery and flaky salmon.  The miso glaze was salty but mostly sweet with rice underneath.  Another one of their more popular items is the Chicken Piccata and yes, it didn't look small at all.  There was a bevy of tender and moist chicken tenders bathed in a buttery and tangy sauce.  Although there was a noticeable amount of capers, the sauce was not salty.  This was good with the fairly al dente angel hair pasta.

Although there are more better dishes to order off the menu, Viv had The Everything Flatbread Pizza which was pretty good, if not typical.  It was on the thicker side, but didn't eat too dense.  The bottom and edges were crispy and nutty with enough browning.  As stated in its name, there was a bevy of pepperoni, sausage, peppers, onions, mushrooms, mozzarella and tomato sauce. For myself, I also had a lunch special in the Famous Factory Meatloaf with mashed potatoes, mushroom gravy, grilled onions and corn succotash.  This was once again a pretty large portion for lunch.  The meatloaf was moist, meaty and well-seasoned.  Gravy was rich and full of umaminess.  Naturally, this was more comfort food than anything, so I wasn't expecting much.  It did the job well.

Shockingly, my daughter settled for the kid's menu and ordered the Spaghetti and Meatballs.  Turns out I should've steered her away from this despite the cost-savings.  This was a pathetic interpretation of the classic dish as there was hardly enough sauce for even half the amount of pasta.  Therefore, the dish was clumpy and flavorless.  The only redeeming thing about it was the robust meatball that had plenty of natural texture.

Of course we couldn't end the meal without a few slices of cheesecake right?  We decided to try one of their featured selections in the Upside Down Pineapple Cheesecake.  What a complete mistake this was as the thing was practically inedible.  The sugar content was far too high and each bite was not pleasant.  Even the pineapple was far too candied for our liking.  Fortunately, we had a much more appealing Raspberry White Chocolate for our second cake.   This was much more representative of what Cheesecake Factory is all about.  It was definitely cheesy and rich without being super heavy.  Sweetness was purposeful and the raspberry helped lighten things up.  As you can tell, I like Cheesecake Factory.  Yes, I know there are detractors out there and I don't necessarily disagree.  Some of the dishes here are not very good, only saving grace is the portion size.  However, if you pick the right things, you get both.

The Good:
- Large portions
- Huge menu
- Pick the right items and it'll be good

The Bad:
- Most of the menu is just size and really heavy food
- Don't understand the lineup

Ham & Eggmans

Vancouver's brunch game has steadily evolved where stand alone spots are fairly common.  So that means no one should be defaulting to a hotel or chain restaurant for their morning (or early afternoon) eats.  Now I'm not slagging the aforementioned spots because they can be good in their own right.  Rather, I'm merely suggesting that these independent places can not only hold their own, they can be unique and offer up a more homey experience.  One of the newer joints is Ham & Eggman's out on Rupert in shuttered location of Aburi King.

I was recently invited along with the foodie fam (Joyce, David, Maggi, Hanson and Diana) to try out their brunch service.  Diana has been here before and she really wanted to order the Oatmeal with seeds, nuts and dried fruit.  Well, she is a smart woman as it was actually really good!  Completely cooked through but still appealingly chewy while not too wet, the oatmeal was spiked with enough cinnamon for effect.  It wasn't very sweet where the other ingredients could be heard.  Another one of her suggestions was the Wild Mushroom Benedict.  As it turns out, this was also very good with a properly toasted English muffin (stayed crispy, but wasn't hard either).  There was plenty of button mushrooms underneath.  Not sure about the wild part, nevertheless, they were buttery and well-seasoned.  Eggs were soft poached and the Hollandaise was rich, but had enough tang to balance.

We got versions of their hashes in the Pork Belly Hash as well as the Lomo Saltado Hash.  For those who are hungry, these 2 were the largest plates of the bunch.  The pork belly hash sported crispy pork belly, Asian greens, cabbage, shiitake & kennebec hash browns tossed in gochujang BBQ sauce.  Normally, when something has gochujang, I cringe because it is completely overused.  Not here though, there was just enough of it to be noticed without being goopy.  Potatoes remained crispy while the big chunks of pork belly were buttery soft and tender.  Consisting of Peruvian style marinated steak, fajita peppers & onions, grape tomatoes and fresh herbs, the lomo saltado was full of earthiness from the initial hit of cumin.  The sweetness of the peppers and onions were also prominent.  I found the steak lean and a touch dry, but still tender.

For our one choice of scramble, we ended up choosing the Mexican since it had the best chance at having some colour.  Other than that, we also found the combination of house-made chorizo, fajita peppers & onions, aged cheddar, salsa and sour cream appealing.  The best part of the scramble was the eggs itself.  Unlike many other versions, the eggs were still fluffy and not overdone.  There was plenty of ingredients that made the whole thing hearty and filling.  On the side, the kennebec potatoes were awesome being crunchy (remaining so until we finished the last one) with a fluffy interior.  Something a bit different was the Shakshuka with Turkish style spiced tomato sauce, poached eggs, feta cheese and fresh herbs.  Although the eggs weren't cooked within the sauce, that didn't detract from the dish.  I found this version to be very bright and tangy being on the lighter side.  Best eaten atop the accompanying toast and runny eggs.

Our last 2 dishes were pretty similar in the Chicken & Waffles and the Waffles by themselves (with hash browns though).  Flanked by a huge bowl of fresh fruit, the fried chicken thigh was very good.  It was aggressively fried where the batter was crunchy and not greasy at all.  The chicken itself was moist and juicy.  Although the Belgian waffles were crispy on the outside, we found them to be a bit dense.  For the plain waffles dish, it was served with hash browns, maple syrup and strawberry compote.  I thought it was a nice touch they included real maple syrup rather than the thick artificial stuff.  That is pretty much the theme of the place as everything is house-made except for the bread.  Seeing how we practically ate the whole menu, I can confidently say that most of it is well-portioned and carefully made.  I would come back.

*All food and beverages were complimentary*

The Good:
- Well-portioned
- Everything made in-house
- Some interesting items on the menu

The Bad:
- Waffles could've been less dense