Besides its charming historic quarter, my favorite reason to keep visiting Macau is the alluring fusion cuisine, refined over 450 years of cultural amalgamation between the seafaring Portuguese and the indigenous Cantonese people. While I do tend to focus on cheaper hole-in-the-wall shops, this time I did visit some mid and upper range restaurants recommended by the locals.
Calcada da Igreja de Sao Lazaro 8; 5 minutes downhill walk to the east from Fortaleza do Monte
This was our most expensive meal in Macau, a seafood dinner of Portuguese favorites on the quiet backside of Fortaleza do Monte, overlooking an elegant cobblestone square that belied its past history as a leper hospital. For the romantic ambiance or the traditional recipes, Albergue 1601 is widely known as a popular venue even on weeknights, and we did make our reservation in advance.
It must have been at least 10 years since I last had Sopa de Rabo de Boi, or Portuguese for Oxtail Soup, from a neighbour's home cooking. As a carnivore I would have loved a little more meat, though my wife was quite satisfied with the broth in this Iberian classic.
My favorite Portuguese ingredient -- and I'm sure I'm not alone in this -- is the simple and flavorful Bacalhau. Picking just one out of many delectable Bacalhau dishes always creates a dilemma whenever I'm in Macau, and this time we ordered the popular Bacalhau a Bras, a scrumptious mixture of salted cod with crispy potato shreds, scrambled eggs and what might have been a fusion touch of Cantonese mung bean sprouts to soak up the flavor. Yes, it's as good as it sounds, at least to this Bacalhau fan.
My wife's favorite, and arguably the best value of the night, was this gigantic pot of Arroz con Mariscos large enough to feed two for 228 Patacas (CAD$32.6). I don't remember how we managed to finish the dish, but it did take us the rest of the night.
Swimming inside the paprika (didn't think it was saffron, but I could be wrong) infused soup stock were generous portions of blue crabs, giant prawns, clams, calamari and white fish chunks, the essences of which all became absorbed by the rice at the bottom. The final bill turned out to be 255 Patacas (CAD$36.4) per person without any alcohol, not exactly cheap but reasonable for some colonial nostalgia at one of the most charming locations in town.
Bill for Two Persons
Sopa de Rabo de Boi 68 Patacas
Bacalhau a Bras 168 Patacas
Arroz con Mariscos 228 Patacas
Service Charge 46 Patacas
TOTAL 510 Patacas (CAD$73)
One side effect of Macau's overabundance of mega casino complexes is the blossoming of top end restaurants catering to a very specific clientele, the increasingly affluent upper class of the Chinese-speaking world. While our modest budget could not afford 700 Patacas (CAD$100) per person dinners, extravagant Dim Sum lunches could be enjoyed for just a fraction of that price.
2/F at the Grand Lisboa Casino
This has to be my best ever Dim Sum lunch in terms of quality, beating even Hong Kong's Lung King Heen, yet another Michelin 3-Star restaurant, in my mind.
And this is coming from someone fussy enough about Dim Sum that I've completely given up on Gwun Tong Gau because the modern interpretation has a light broth outside the dumpling (shouldn't that be called Gau Gwun Tong instead?) as opposed to the traditional, gelatinously thick and delicious paste inside. But I digress.
At the time of writing, The Eight remains one of the very few Michelin 3-Star Chinese restaurants anywhere in the world, having successfully defended its prestigious ranking several years running. While prices were upmarket as expected, every diner would be spoiled by this lavish appetizer duet of Chilled Abalone with Pomelo Jelly and Minced Pork Crisp in a paper-thin shell, served individually for FREE.
Yes, FREE abalone, simmered in consommé and served cold to accentuate that unique chewiness and Umami flavor. People can complain about the pot of tea for 30 Patacas (but it was a high quality Tieguanyin!), but the free abalone was certainly an eye-popping initiation to a fantastic lunch.
We purposely started with the classic Dim Sum staple of Rice Roll with Barbecued Pork, except this time it came with a fusion twist of Japanese Kyuuri no Tsukemono which, despite our initial skepticism, lent its acidity very well to complement the sweetness of the Char Siu. Two terrific dishes to set the tone, and things would soon get even better.
I had always been conditioned to avoid cute, contemporary Dim Sum -- Hello Kitty puddings and pink piggy steamed buns which typically turn out tasteless and stale. While I was glad that my wife loved the appearance of these little hedgehogs, I honestly did not expect them to rank among my two favorites courses of this meal, until my first bite.
Hedgehog-shaped or not, these were exceptional Crispy Barbecued Pork Buns in their own right -- crusty but not charred, crumbly to the bite and filled with a luscious Char Siu paste. One must appreciate the painstaking handiwork and cleverness of the chefs -- how did they manage to crisp the outer shell without browning the tips of the hedgehog spikes?
My absolute favorite of the meal was another Dim Sum classic with a contemporary twist. These Steamed Crystal Blue Shrimp Dumplings in Goldfish Form were so meticulously hand-sculpted that it was impossible not to stop and admire the level of edible craftsmanship typically found only in the best Japanese Nama-gashi ... and this is arguably even more difficult as the handworked dough of rice and tapioca flour had to be steamed and remain intact at the tips of the clientele's chopsticks.