January 22, 2013
There are more than slot machines that need feeding in the popular getaway, so Hana R. Alberts heads off in search of the hottest new menus. And she’s not disappointed. PHOTOGRAPHED BY DAVID HARTUNG
Published on Jan 22, 2013
It’s telling that Michelin-starred restaurant Fortaleza do Guincho chose Macau for its first outpost outside of Portugal, opening the doors to Guincho a Galera in the glitzy Hotel Lisboa in January. With richly upholstered armchairs and ornate tchotchkes, it might as well be the drawing room of some European aristocrats—if they had recently gone to Asia and brought back a smattering of curios to scatter about. A dragon-addled carved box here, an emerald gilded vase there. In between the atmosphere is hushed and refined, with groups of well-heeled patrons chatting softly as they swirl their wine glasses. They’re diving into traditional dishes made luxurious with top-shelf ingredients and delicate plating—for example, seafood rice with Boston
lobster. Luckily, lest the environment feel too stiff to enjoy, a warm and efficient wait staff make it all too easy to lean back into the plush navy fabric of my seat. As dish after impeccable dish starts to arrive on the table, I realize this is not just any meal.
Guincho a Galera’s mission is to take the conventional elements of Portuguese food and dress it up it for a modern, savvy audience. “We use the staple ingredients—like potatoes, olives, tomatoes and fish—and present them in innovative ways,” says manager Eric Wong. The restaurant takes authenticity seriously; Wong went on a year long crash course in Portuguese food and wine before the restaurant even opened. Guincho a Galera’s offerings are in sync with Macau’s erstwhile colonial roots, to be sure, but dining here feels different than some smaller, family-run joint serving Portuguese fare. The attention to detail is painstaking; even the breadbasket was a work of art. (Appetite alert: it includes soft, airy banana rolls paired with banana butter, plus another loaf containing chorizo and cheese). The story of Macau—China’s gambling enclave, which tiptoed onto the world’s radar as a one-casino monopoly but has, in the decade since, exploded into a free-for-all construction zone with revenues that leave Las Vegas in the dust—is one of growth at a breakneck pace. For high-rollers and avid shoppers,
Macau remains a worthwhile, even desirous, destination. But what about for gourmands? Vegas has its Mario Batali-backed goliaths, but how does this former Portuguese colony stack up? I set out to try Macau’s newest eateries and determine whether rampant economic expansion has brought with it the kind of food that would make this 21-squarekilometer territory worth the trip for the even the most discerning of diners. At Guincho a Galera, the answer is a definite yes.
With that in mind, I head to Taipa and hunt down a trendy pastry shop. Launched earlier this year, co-owner Jerry Lei teamed up with Cordon Bleutrained Nicole Lei (no relation, but they are dating now) to create Kafka, a hidden gem located down an inconspicuous street near some car dealerships and fast-food joints. Once inside the packed café, a glance at the clientele assures me that, though the Venetian is not far away, this place is populated by local hipsters rather than the casino-going crowd. (It’s obvious that the customer with a tattooed arm sleeve and piercings spearing a sweet with a fork wouldn’t really fit in at the Venetian, anyway.) In a cozy space with Moleskine notebooks covering the walls, Kafka serves up a Japanese-inspired French menu, with rich, dainty rose and passion fruit cakes as well as some made with green tea and red bean, and even a literal toast box made out of sugary bread and adorned with honeycomb and dripping with caramel. Drinks are another specialty; both Leis recommend the green tea latte and the homemade caramel latte. A vintage coffee-making machine sits in the corner; they take their java seriously here.
It turns out, that’s a good thing, because the caffeine helps propel me to my next stop: Kam Lai Heen, a Chinese restaurant at the 29-year-old Grand Lapa, a Mandarin Oriental-owned property. Plate after plate of Cantonese staples is placed on big round tables surrounded by generations sharing weekend dim sum; they may all be together, but the parents have their noses in newspapers and the children subtly tap away on video games under the tablecloth. When Grand Lapa gave itself a makeover last year, Kam Lai Heen was overhauled along with it, earning a new name and a new chef. A veteran of five-star hotel kitchens, Allan Tse re-taught his staff how to make quintessential dishes the right way: roast pork (siu yuk); barbecued pork (char siu); Peking duck and all the rest. He makes his own tofu, and dresses up the traditional har gow (steamed shrimp dumplings) by using lobster. Tse says his focus is on classic dishes with up-to-date presentation (read: more deliberate than plopping some stir-fry on a plate.) He’s not worried about having his food compete against the allure of the blackjack table. Reasons Tse, “After gambling, they’ve got to eat, right?”
The family-style Chinese feast under chandeliers is a far cry from my next stop, Sky 21, a sleek restaurant with a stellar view decked out in muted, mature hues. It serves up pan-Asian fare, making the menu an odd polyamory of Indian curries, sushi, spicy Thai salads and even—incongruously—some traditional Macanese dishes, too. In the place of a breadbasket is a bowl of crisp papadums and shrimp chips. The raw bar inspires me to order a surprisingly affordable sampling of six oysters. Given that the chef has a background in Thai food and that there’s also a Japanese-trained master at work in the kitchen, I order tom yum and a meaty fish with a crunchy crust covered in sweet, tangy teriyaki sauce. Considering the ambitious breadth of the menu, the dishes are solid if not all home runs. Upstairs from the dim dining room, which is centered around a see-through wine cellar, is a bar with outdoor and indoor seating boasting lovely panoramas from the fluorescent, flower-shaped behemoth that is the distinctive Grand Lisboa to the many bridges spanning the waterway to Taipa. Next time, I’m going to order off the downstairs menu on the high tables outside and take in the vista along with a cocktail.
On to The Tasting Room at the City of Dreams, a restaurant that opened in April. Though it’s one mere cog within this mega casino complex, The Tasting Room feels spacious and sophisticated. Young French chef Guillame Galliot, who earned a reputation at the Raffles Grill in Singapore’s eponymous hotel, was tapped to bring his innovative dishes and imaginative take on modern European cuisine to Macau. Take his onion soup: the hot, viscous stock contains a textured marmalade of onions, topped with a scoop of cold, onion-flavored ice cream that melts into the mix. Making for an impressive display, the broth is poured right in front of me from a giant teapot. The soup itself is hearty and refreshing, but its elaborate presentation stands out. The meal continues with more nuances. The Wagyu beef tenderloin is brought out for my examination on a bed of steaming kindling—it’s just been smoked—so that I can inhale its aroma; the signature mille-feuille is carefully layered so that the crunchy, creamy, sweet and bitter parts all intermingle. The Tasting Room also has a chocolate bar, and several seating areas for those who may want a cocktail and a meticulously constructed canapé instead of a multi-course meal. Given Macau’s nascent food scene, an eight-course degustation menu comes out to an astonishingly affordable MOP1,000 per person (more if you want wine pairings, but still a bargain in light of the cost of a comparable meal over in nearby Hong Kong). Before the meal, chef Galliot will come out for a jovial chat, ascertain your preferences and tailor the dishes to your tastes. It’s a far cry from the wonton soup some gamblers slurp between rounds, that’s for sure. “Macau isn’t just for gaming. Food is one of the factors,” Galliot says. “It’s getting better and better. People come and want an experience. They want to discover.”
Weeks after my indulgent adventure, I think back to the dessert cart at Guincho a Galera. Stacked with serradura, pumpkin cake, crème caramel, rice mousse and more, the variety is overwhelming—sort of like the selection of good, new eats in Macau itself. I watch as a glass of sweet Portuguese dessert wine is poured, take a sip of water from my crystal goblet and wish my stomach would expand a little bit more, just for today, so I can fit in as much of this modern Macanese cuisine as possible before my ferry leaves.
Guincho a Galera
3/F, Lisboa Tower, Hotel Lisboa, 2-4 Avenida de Lisboa; +853 8803 7676; hotelisboa.com/diningguincho_a_galera-en
Kam Lai Heen Grand Lapa
Macau, 956-1110 Avenida da Amizade;
+853 8793 3821; mandarinoriental.com/grandlapa
152 Rue de Braga, Taipa; +853 2882 0086 kafkasweets.com
21/F, AIA Tower, 251A-301 Avenida Commercial de Macau; +853 2822 2122; sky21macau.com
The Tasting Room
3/F, Crown Towers, City of Dreams, Estrada Do Istmo, Cotai, +853 8868 6681; cityofdreamsmacau.com/restaurant/signature