I've never been on a cruise liner. Although I'm intrigued to know what it would be like. Horrendous, I suspect, being cooped up for days, surrounded by 'entertainment' and bores talking about other cruises. It must be the same on Viking River Cruises, whose name I am now so fond of as it appears in every ad break during detective dramas like Endeavour. As the logo appears my wife and I scream in ridiculous voices 'There's no mystery with Viking River Cruises.'
Except as I haven't been on one there is mystery. But I feel I got close to one this week as I dined at Rivea at London's Bulgari hotel.
A long glitzy and circular staircase glides you down into the bowels of this ship, permanently docked on Knightsbridge. Staff dressed in a curiously studied casual look greet you. They wear trainers, black trousers and buttoned-up cardigans. Almost the sort of thing country bumpkins like me consider as trendy office wear. Then there's a white shirt and big black bow tie, presumably as a little formal nod to the casual effect.
This may or may not be the idea of the man behind Rivea, Alain Ducasse. But there is a similar thing going on upstairs. A man at the door asked me if I'd like to give him my cycling bag and helmet. He was dressed in a sort of boiler suit with a crumpled shirt. I thought for a moment that he was attempting polite spot of theft action before realising this was some kind of trendy Bulgari hotel statement.
Back down in the restaurant the cruise ship theme continues with the décor. The staircase is decked with hangings that glisten and shimmer. The walls are fabricated with a shiny wooden look. But there there are no portholes. And nothing living, apart from the humans. No flowers or plants. Just an old meat-carving machine - or some such - that sits at the bottom of the stairs, the idea I suppose being to add some foodie authenticity to the terrible room.
It pains me to think about it. But London has so many beautiful rooms that serve amazing food so however good the food and service it will be hard to force myself to return.
And the food and service is great. Staff are lovely. There's a table overflowing with tall grissini. You're not offered it, but I did steal a few giant sticks.
On my table, nicely positioned, not hemmed in at all; a table for five that was perfect for two (I'll always be with the late great Michael Winner on his views on tables sizes).
Lunch started with a small selection of dips that correspond to a little map. There's a tapenade, one with chick pea, another with aubergine, another with peppers and so on. Each tiny pot has a little china spoon which you then precariously use to spread onto a small grissini stick. They don't offer the big ones for this, as I say, you need to get up and go and pinch one.
They should dispense with the spoons, so you just dip. Or get rid of the little grissini and give you bread.
But they were tasty little morsels. Then along comes the sweet Scandi waitress who asks if anyone has explained the 'concept' of the restaurant. A phrase that always sends food critics into a rage. Because you see we think we understand the concept. You look at the menu. You order the dishes you like the sound of, the chefs cook them and they get brought to the table.
But of course Rivea's concept is to produce dishes to share, a trend that has now disappeared so far up its arse it's come back out through the nose.
So you order two of this, two of the other, and then a few more here and there and you both dig in.
So we ordered a few things including warm octopus salad and sea bream. Two small dishes then arrived and the waitress asked us whose was whose.
We looked confused as we thought it was their idea to share, not ours.
'We'll share them, so you can pop them anywhere,' we said, hoping not to sound controversial. The octopus was wonderful, soft, just warm enough with a lovely soft potato. As we were sharing it there was not nearly enough of it. We ate asparagus too. Gone in a flash, not enough - however beautifully cooked and with a whisper of grilled parmesan crisp (just perfect).
Then came the nicest plate of gnocchi I have ever tasted. So far from the gelatinous rubbery crime you can find. Just soft, melting, a real wonder. And with a delicate sauce infused with sage. DOING! That disappeared, too quickly. As did the raviolis stuffed with artichoke; like a pretty little hat; or rather three pretty little hats (emphasis on little). Really good, great kitchen skillage, nowhere near enough of the stuff.
Then there was some soft chicken with crispy skin and a couple of delicate fish dishes along the way. The fish, cut up so small - naturally - it would have been just the ticket for the little gnome who could have been wearing the ravioli boater.
Next came a little plate of little English soft cheeses. Hastily gobbled up along with more lemony bread - which along with the giant grissini I was consuming.
The smallness of the plates continually confusing my brain to thinking I wasn't eating very much. 'Til along came puddings - a lovely (and get this) quite big plate of rhubarb and strawberry with ice cream. There was a chocolate pudding too and we ate this with a wonderful new find: a glass of Gourt De Mautens Jérôme Bressy Rasteau 2006. This was the sommelier's answer to the question 'Banyuls'. It came out of a large bottle - not some tiny dessert wine thing and was epic. Seek it out next time you're planning a rich chocolate tart or a plum pudding.
At which point I felt stuffed. Must have been all those little dishes.
Then the power failed, the lights went out and those that stayed on rendered the room rather lovely for a second. Perhaps we'd hit an iceberg. We downed our drinks as we waited for the call to abandon ship. But the lights came back on so we disembarked back onto the streets of London pondering on the delicate wonder of the cooking as directed by the amazing old cool French gent that is Alain Ducasse and wondering what on earth he was doing down in that basement.