Friday, March 29, 2024

Eating on the rails: My meals aboard VIA Rail's The Ocean

As part of my pre-Christmas travels last year, I used my VIA Preference points to knock another iconic sleeper train off my list: The Ocean.

While not a bucket-list item like The Canadian, the Ocean was still a trip I wanted to try. It's an overnight sleeper train from Montreal to Halifax. In this case, it was a little more about the destination as I was looking forward to my first non-convention trip to Halifax. But I could have flown -- I was excited for the train.

It's only natural to make comparisons between The Ocean and The Canadian, as both are VIA's flagship sleeper trains. I loved the food on The Canadian. But I knew going in The Ocean had one major difference. While on The Canadian the meals were scratch prepared onboard, on The Ocean everything is loaded and simply heated up onboard. 

The Ocean departs from Montreal, so my journey began with a corridor trip from Ottawa in business class on one of their new coaches. I got to enjoy a very tasty and substantial "snack" of a tasty cheese plate with my favourite fancy crackers, as well as some chips, a bread roll and desert. A little carb heavy, but a tasty train treat.

After hanging out in the Montreal lounge for a bit, it was time to board The Ocean. My trip was in December and it was an evening departure, so I would not get to enjoy much of the scenery until the morning. I found my cabin for two (which I had to myself, of course), met the traina attendant and for settled in. 

This is a food review and not a train review, but I'll briefly discuss the cabin. My car was one of the ones that was originally built in England for a planned sleeper service through the Chunnel to mainland Europe. The service never launched and VIA later bought the cars on the cheap. So they're a fair bit newer than the antiques on The Canadian.

There's a lower bench that folds down into a pre-made bed, and one on top that folks out of the wall for an upper bunk. I slept on the lower. My cabin also included an ensuite bathroom with a shower, which was nice to have. You also get a keycard to lock your room when leaving, which I could not do with my cabin for one on the Canadian.

Much like The Canadian, you can do the early dinner or the late dinner. Still stuffed from my cheese plate I opted for the later sitting and was seated with an young Anglo couple from Montreal who were taking the train to visit the underwear factory and museum in Stanfield. Didn't know this was a popular tourist destination but I wished them safe travels.

Here were my dinner options:

I'm very particular about my soups so I decided to start with the Caprese salad. It was fine. I mean, it's a very basic dish. Was a good starter for my meal. The picked onions were nice but they really went crazy on the dressing.

For my main I went with the (clearly farmed) salmon, with brussel sprouts and rice. It was tasty but didn't wow me. It was a good portion, and was heated properly. I was worried the beef would be overcooked; I did consider the ravioli and I would have gotten it were it served with a cream sauce instead of a tomato sauce. But Grandpa always said fish is brain food, so it was a safe choice.

One of the highlights on The Canadian was definitely the deserts. There was desert on The Ocean too. It was --- OK. It didn't wow me like the deserts on the Canadian did. In fact, if I had to summarize the food on The Ocean overall I would say it was just OK. It did the job, but wasn't an experience in the way the Canadian was.

After watching the homes of rural Quebec pass us by in the dark and noting the lack of Christmas lights, I returned to my cabin to get ready for the night's sleep. It was easy to convert into bed mode -- the attendant offered to do it but it literally took seconds to do it myself. It was a thin single, but I had more room to stretch out my arm sleeping on the one side than I did on the Canadian. I would say I'm not the best train sleeper but I did get some sleep, and napped some more during the next day.

Breakfast is come whenever, and it was fairly quiet in the morning when I wandered down to the dining car. There was more to see in the light, and the scenery was getting interesting as, having checked my GPS, we were in the far East of Quebec in the Gaspesie about to enter New Brunswick. And already running a bit behind, which wasn't surprising and wasn't really a worry.

There were three choices for breakfast, and as I was on my way to Halifax it seemed appropriate to order the Donair Frittata.

I did not have a pleasant experience at breakfast. They took my order, and I waited. And waited. And waited. I don't like to be a complainer. I'm loathe to do so. But they kept walking by me with no food. I saw people that just sat down order and be given the same dish I was waiting for. After nearly 30 minutes, I was like can I get mine please? They were like ok, sorry, thought you had yours already. I didn't say it, but you kept walking by me sitting there without food, how the heck could you think that? Wouldn't you at least be trying to clear me from the table if that's what you thought?

Anyway, finally I got my breakfast from the microwave or however they reheat it.

Again, I would describe it as OK. Fine. I liked that the donair sauce was on the side and they didn't drown it like they did the caprese salad last night. But I had a sour taste in my mouth from the poor service.

There's no observation car on this train which is sad, as there was some enjoyable riverfront scenery through this portion of Quebec. There was a lounge car which had WiFi that I hung out in for a bit, but there wasn't a bar or snacks like on The Canadian. And there was data for most of the route.

Back to the dining car a few hours later for lunch whilst in New Brunswick, and these were my options.

I like to try local dishes or dishes using local ingredients when I can, so I was immediately drawn to the Bacon and Oka Tartiflette. But first, an unmemorable soup. I think it was mushroom. I don't remember. It was soup.

This was my favourite meal of The Ocean. I would call it scalloped potatoes. Cheesy, flavourful, tasty, can't go wrong with bacon. Served with a fresh salad, Italian dressing on the side. A truly excellent lunch.

There was also a desert. It again was not overly memorable. I think it was a berry cheesecake of some sort.

And thus ended my meals on The Ocean. We got into Halifax a few hours late, after dark. I had messaged my hotel so they wouldn't give away my room. I booked the Westin Nova Scotian, which it turned out was literally connected to the train station. So that was handy. I checked in and went out for an excellent late dinner, but that's for another blog.

Overall, my thoughts on The Ocean are as follows. The Canadian is a tourist train, designed for bucket listers wanting to experience the majesty of Canada. The Ocean is more a commuter train, for people travelling to see family, students going home for the holidays, etc. So they aren't directly comparable experiences. It was fine. Like The Canadian, I did this trip on points. While I'm glad to have had the experience, next time I'll just fly. I did love Halifax.

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