Food and the restaurant set up are the main reasons why Vodohod fares are less than many competitors. There are marked differences with the arrangement for mealtimes, which might initially come as a surprise to passengers used to the open-seating arrangement and ordering dinner upon arrival in the restaurant that are the norm on most lines.
At the start of the sailing, passengers are given a card showing the restaurant in which they will dine -- there are two on MS Rostropovich -- for the duration of the cruise, along with a table that they will share with fellow English-speakers (groups of friends or families get a table together and do not have to share with anyone else). A number of tables in the same section of the restaurant will be dedicated to English speakers. Passengers in this group are free to circulate and sit at any of these tables for the buffet breakfast and lunch while sitting at their allocated table for dinner (but in practice everyone tends to stay in the same place for breakfast and lunch too). This arrangement means you don't get to mix and mingle with different folks at mealtimes, but you do get to know your fellow dining companions. In our case, they were a charming couple from Serbia and we became firm friends by the end of the week.
Breakfast and lunch are self-serve buffets that lack made-to-order items, but are perfectly adequate. At dinner, you have to order your meal for the following night, generally picking from a choice of two appetizers, two soups, three mains (meat, fish or vegetarian) and three desserts and ticking your choice on a form that is left on the table each night. This means you need to think ahead and can't change your mind. That said, we heard no grumbles from anyone about this arrangement -- other than light-hearted comments that they had forgotten what they ordered (the previous day's form is also left on the table as a reminder!).
At the beginning of the cruise, the English-speaking host checks for any dietary requirements and allergies and shortly into the cruise the maitre d' comes to each table to check everyone is happy.
Passengers can expect a range of regional and international dishes that are good, but not gourmet. There are also less buffet choices than you find on more expensive lines, but even picky eaters would be hard pressed not to find something to their taste. There are also included extras such as a vodka and tea tasting party. Outside the restaurants, MS Rostropovich offers a for-fee bar menu of salads and sandwiches.
Complimentary cookies and snacks are available from the self-serve tea and coffee station situated on the Boat Deck, which opens at 6 a.m. Shortly before dinner, the station -- including the drinks section -- is closed until the following morning. Each afternoon, the snacks are supplemented by delicious pies and cakes at midmorning and midafternoon. Next to the tea and coffee station is a water cooler, which is available 24/7. There is a bowl of apples on the reception desk and candies in the bar and passengers can help themselves.
The young team of wait staff tried very hard to please, and although some were a little inexperienced and lacked polish, they always called for help if there were any language issues and were always smiling and cheerful.
Some excursions include meals ashore. For instance, in Moscow we went to a very atmospheric old restaurant off Red Square and in the craft village of Mandrogui, there was a fun barbecue lunch with entertainment, cooked and organized by the crew.
Opera Restaurant (Middle Deck): The larger of the ship's two restaurants is located aft on the Middle Deck and can seat up to 130 passengers on tables for four and six. Tables are pushed together to accommodate larger groups. It is a light room, decorated in shades of brown and gold, with large panoramic windows down each side and along the back of the ship. There are three buffet stations used for lunch and dinner -- two serving cold dishes and the third hot -- and this divided layout means there are never any long lines for food. Tables are laid out with crisp linens, with rich red cloths used during the vodka tasting and Russian-themed dinner. The room is surrounded by panoramic windows on three sides and doors at the aft lead to an open deck with four tables, each with four chairs. This is a popular spot for taking photos of the spectacular sunsets that generally coincide with dinner.
Breakfast is generally served from 8 to 9:30 a.m., sometimes earlier depending on the shore excursion schedule. It is buffet-style, with pastries, breads, fresh fruit, juices, yogurt, cereal, smoked fish, cheese, cold cuts, oatmeal, bacon, sausages and other hot items. Aside from staples such as bacon, sausages, pancakes and eggs, the other hot items change daily and might include waffles along with more unusual regional specialties such as cherry dumplings, cheesecake with carrot, pineapple fritters or beetroot rolls, which are well worth trying. Tea and coffee is served to the table. Boiled eggs are available on the buffet each day, with other varieties of eggs changing daily, such as omelets, scrambled or fried the next. There is no menu for made-to-order items; however the chef was happy to prepare eggs sunny side up for one passenger that requested them each morning.
Passengers can also expect brunch on any days where excursions leave in the late morning. The restaurants will typically open at 8:30 a.m. with breakfast dishes and then switch to main course lunch dishes at 11 a.m. before closing at 11:45 a.m.
Lunch is also a buffet and is usually around 1 p.m., again with times varying slightly to accommodate the shore tour program. There is a salad bar featuring a variety of ready mixed salads and ingredients and dressings to make your own. The hot section always offers meat, fish and vegetarian dishes; a pasta dish of the day; and assorted accompaniments of potatoes, rice and vegetables. Afterward, there is a choice of cold desserts, such as mousse, sponge cakes and fruit. The sweets, in particular, were always imaginatively served and presented.
Dinner is always an a la carte meal served at around 7:30 p.m. (the restaurant opening times can vary between 7 to 8 p.m. or slightly later depending on the excursion schedule). A copy of what passengers ordered the day before is always left on the table. The daily four-course menus feature a choice of two appetizers -- one always suitable for vegetarians -- such as salad with scallops, mozzarella and tomatoes with a spicy dressing or a Greek salad. This is followed by a choice of soup that might include potato with meatballs or vegetable cream soup with croutons. Typical entrees are trout fillet served with potato croquettes, asparagus, celery and creamy dill sauce; chicken roll with shrimps, risotto, baked pumpkin and orange sauce; duck breast with cranberry sauce and rice; grilled beef with wine sauce and grilled vegetables; or eggplant lasagna. There are always three options for dessert, such as chocolate panna cotta with cherry topping; syrup-covered pear with pistachio ice cream, nuts and whipped cream; pineapple and strawberry carpaccio served with ginger sauce and mint; or fresh fruit.
On each sailing, there are a number of themed nights such as Russian night, when the staff wear traditional dress and there is a live musical welcome in the dining room and the tables are specially decorated. Another particularly fun evening -- which we have only experienced on one other cruise line -- is a pirates' dinner where staff dress up in swashbuckling costumes. Passengers are welcome to join in and dress up in anything they have to hand, such as scarves and makeshift costumes.
One afternoon during the cruise, there is an entertaining vodka tasting and tea party where passengers get to learn about the history of Russia's most famous alcoholic drink and how to enjoy it, culminating with a taste of three different varieties served with a plate of cold snacks followed by pancakes with caviar. Afterward, tea and Russian pastries are served.
There is also a welcome dinner, plus a farewell five-course captain's dinner on each cruise. On these nights, passengers choose their main course and dessert as usual and will be served three additional set dishes such as an amuse-bouche of shrimp and avocado cream followed by cucumber carpaccio with cheese and salad and then mushroom julienne comprising veal tongue and mushrooms cooked in sour cream sauce. Vegetarians and others with dietary requirements may find themselves having to skip one or more of the extra courses on these evenings.
Tea, coffee and water are included with each meal and one glass of red or white wine, fruit juice or soda is included with dinner. Passengers can order additional glasses or bottles of wine or bar drinks during lunch and dinner, which are added to their onboard account.
Symphony Restaurant (Boat Deck): Situated immediately above the Opera Restaurant, this smaller dining room seats 80, with a similar setup of tables for four to six. It also has its own bar, open during lunch and dinner, and where bartenders serve drinks to the table for passengers eating in both restaurants. There are three stools and passengers can sit or stand at the bar and have a drink before their meal. Aesthetically, this is the nicer of the two dining rooms and has a more intimate feel than its larger counterpart along with a more sophisticated and contemporary black and gold decor. The restaurant is surrounded by panoramic windows on three sides, and doors at the aft lead to an open deck area with four alfresco tables, each with four chairs. The food served in this dining room is exactly the same as the Opera Restaurant.
Tea and coffee station (Boat Deck): Early-bird pastries are available from 6 to 7 a.m. --sometimes later depending on the schedule -- until the restaurants open for breakfast.
A selection of cold appetizers and snacks can be ordered from the River Melody Bar during opening hours. These include salads, a cold meat platter, cheese and variety of sandwiches such as tuna, ham, chicken, salmon and cheese. Prices range from 130 to 420 rubles.
Room Service: There is no room service, however passengers are welcome to take snacks from the tea and coffee station or bar menu to consume in their cabins. Similarly, if someone felt unwell or wanted to stay in their cabin for any reason at mealtimes then their roommate could take them food from the dining room.