“Ahoy, mateys, and welcome aboard the Spirit of Ethan Allen III,” boomed a recorded voice over the loudspeaker. The “captain” proceeded to outline “life-saving measures,” of which diners should take note during lunch. As the kitchen crew began to prepare the buffet tables for service, I made a note of where flotation devices were stowed on the Admiral Deck.
My job doesn’t often bring me to restaurants where sinking during lunch is a concern — or ones that feature daytime dinner theater. But this little slice of tourist culture pops up weekly just blocks from the Seven Days offices, and I couldn’t resist a taste. So I embarked last Wednesday at noon on the “Sweethearts of the Silver Screen” luncheon cruise. The $41.99 package included a buffet lunch, a narrated voyage and a one-woman variety show by Glens Falls, N.Y.-based entertainer Laura Roth, who started performing on the Spirit III this summer. The ship’s regular dinner cruises include interactive murder mysteries, a variety show and a Cuban-themed feast with salsa-dancer accompaniment.
The three-and-a-half-hour tour clearly wasn’t designed for food writers; most of my fellow voyagers were tourists on bus trips and seniors, with plenty of overlap. As the vessel left the dock, a brass band playing “Anchors Aweigh” boomed over the loudspeakers, and I knew I could expect more kitschy touches to come.
The dining room did not disappoint, though it also had a quirky charm. I took a seat at my small assigned table, covered with a plastic tablecloth printed with an antique map labeled in Latin. Its hint of cosmopolitanism was somewhat at odds with the rest of the décor, which included a faux grapevine snaking across latticework behind the dessert table, and an off-duty, lazily shimmering disco ball.
The dark-complected waitstaff conversed in what I at first assumed was an impenetrable Québecois dialect. When I asked my server where she was from, I learned that most of the Spirit III’s crew is more familiar with the Mediterranean than with the northern reaches of Lake Champlain. The majority, including servers, the bartender and some of the kitchen staff, are on a work/travel program from Macedonia.
Too bad there was no kebapi or burek on the menu. Instead, chef Robert Dekeersgieter, the boat’s executive chef for the past nine years, concocted a meal that he described to me as “comfort food.” Though the Belgian native prepares upscale dishes for the more sophisticated dinner cruises — such as filet mignon and shrimp wrapped in puff pastry with curry sauce — Dekeersgieter says the lunch crowd is “looking for something more mellow.”
That doesn’t mean packaged foods or lazy preparation. There is no freezer in the ship’s galley. Dekeersgieter said he and his team don’t decide on a menu until they get product in from Burlington Foods on the morning of service or the evening before.
Before the buffet opened, servers delivered cups of soup to each table. The smell of fresh cream wafted from my bowl, though the chef later told me the rich, velvety soup was primarily composed of finely puréed butternut squash. Perhaps not the most seasonal choice, but delicious.
As I ate, I listened to Tim Kavanagh’s recorded narration — much of which was fascinating, even for a local. When we approached Appletree Bay, site of the largest mass Champ sighting on record, the “captain” warned, “We don’t want any of our guests thinking we see Champ every cruise.” He also set the record straight about the monster’s fear factor: “I don’t know why we call him a monster; I don’t know of many monstrous things he or she has ever done.” Clearly our tour guide had not read any of the Weekly World News’ reports of Champ’s caddish behavior toward his baby-mama, Nessie.
Shortly after we heard about the wholesome wonders of North Beach, a cook emerged to carve the pork loin, and lunch was served. Diners lined up under the disco ball to assemble a salad from all the basics, including homemade dressings. I selected the tangy balsamic vinaigrette.
Given our nautical setting, it came as a surprise that the only seafood offered was a pink salmon salad. I chose a few chunks of chicken salad instead. Not usually a fan of mayonnaise-y preparations, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the morsels of chicken flavored with orange zest and whole cranberries.
The macaroni and cheese was even better. The noodles were cooked al dente — uncharacteristic for a restaurant dish — and the mouth-coating sauce was comforting. Sharp cheddar and two kinds of imported Parmesan made for an ultracreamy coating, but according to Dekeersgieter, it was heavy cream boiled with hot peppers and onions, then strained, that accounted for the welcome hint of heat.
The only disappointment was the pork loin, topped with pineapple and maraschino cherries. The fruit wasn’t sufficient to flavor the juicy, undersalted meat. Dipping it in my salad’s balsamic vinaigrette easily repaired this.
Dessert was laid out with lunch, so it was up to the diners to decide when to partake of carrot or lemon cake, the only elements of the meal not made on the boat that day. (They were prepared to Dekeersgieter’s specifications off site.) I waited until we’d passed Rock Dunder, near Shelburne Point. According to the recorded narrator, this jagged projection is the earthly remains of the Abenaki god Odzihozo, who turned himself to stone in the lake he’d created.
Once I’d paid my respects to the dead deity, I grabbed a slice of lemon-curd-filled white cake. Others took several pieces. That was the beauty of the buffet, I was discovering — big-bellied tour-bus denizens could satisfy themselves with multiple trips, while older folks with smaller appetites picked at manageable portions.
We sped back to the dock at College Street, where I learned that most of my companions had only bought lunch and the tour. They filed out once we docked, leaving only seven of us on board. The dinner theater, apparently, didn’t attract many people that day.
It was then that Laura Roth showed up with her crew, including her accompanist, Marilyn Bueller, her husband and her aged father-in-law. Bueller’s keyboard blocked the rolled hosing and fire extinguishers located at the back of the tiny stage — which was so small that, until that point, the pair of elderly couples from New Jersey who dined behind me couldn’t seem to locate it. Once they had, they moved to a table in front. The couple from New Hampshire remained at the back, and we set sail once again.
Roth began her show with an intro to Brenda Lee, the first “sweetheart” she would embody. When she entered, it was clear that this mother of adult children was not the teenager who sang “I’m Sorry” in 1960. Once Roth opened her mouth, the gap wasn’t as obvious. The nasal belting that poured from her was Brenda Lee. The big voice sounded almost disembodied, like Shari Lewis emerging from Lamb Chop.
Roth broke character to tell a few old Irish drinking jokes and make small talk with the audience before disappearing to switch divas. Her husband entertained us by reading parodies of 1950s cigarette ads and trivia about real ones. The audience must have contained some midcentury smokers — they passed with flying colors.
Roth emerged from her tiny dressing room (actually a handicapped bathroom) as Marilyn Monroe. The stunningly resonant voice of moments before was replaced by Monroe’s whisper. Roth’s rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” brought all the star’s vocal tics, including that unmistakable vibrato, into a cabaret-style take on the song. “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” sounded like Monroe, too, but with better acting.
As Roth changed outfits again, waves started rocking the boat, their rhythm going from sciatic massage to red alert. When the singer returned, attired as a late-’90s Barbra Streisand, lightning began to strike the lake with alarming and dramatic regularity. During her first song as Streisand, Roth, who we learned suffers from seasickness, stayed immaculately in character. Vertigo forced her to sing kneeling, but she played it off with a broad Brooklyn accent and Funny Girl-style jokes.
“Oh shit, they’re runnin’!” she exclaimed with a measure of seemingly genuine fear, as the kitchen crew dashed upstairs to save chairs that were flying off the top deck. “Is that me?” she asked, nervously smelling her armpits.
The sky began to lighten just as Roth sang “Happy Days Are Here Again.” Afterward, she turned into Streisand’s duet partner for that song — onstage. Roth bore more than a passing natural resemblance to Judy Garland, but it was her glazed eyes and shaking that signaled we weren’t in Kansas anymore. This Garland was from the coked-out Palace Theatre era. Roth’s voice quavered as she sang a heartbreaking “The Man That Got Away.” She came off as the best drag Judy of all time, with all of the attention to detail and none of the camp.
The show ended in Roth’s own voice, with her version of Shirley Horn’s “Here’s to Life.” I couldn’t have said it better. What I’d embarked on that day as a goofy lark certainly had its ironic pleasures, but that’s not why I’ll return. My lunch on the Spirit of Ethan Allen III showed me that it can be joyful playing tourist in my own town.
The Spirit of Ethan Allen III departs from the Burlington Boathouse, 1 College Street. Info, 862-8300.