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Macau - Part 3: Affordable Upmarket Restaurants



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. ALBERGUE 1601 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. THE EIGHT 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.

Not only was the little Koi fish gorgeous to behold, beneath its perfectly al dente tapioca flour wrapping was a premium filling of South Pacific Blue Shrimp (better known as Tenshi-no-Ebi, or Angel Shrimps when used in Sashimi) that also made it one of the freshest, crispiest shrimp dumplings we've ever tasted. While 20 Patacas (CAD$2.9) per dumpling may sound pricey for Har Gow, I found it quite reasonable for the Michelin 3-star quality. At 68 Patacas (CAD$7) a piece, the most expensive item of the day was this palm-sized pastry topped with the opulence of a whole braised abalone. While it couldn't have been a reconstituted abalone at this reasonable price, it was well-flavored and chewy as one would expect from one of the world's leading Cantonese restaurants. My wife the abalone lover was quite happy with it. The only dish I did not thoroughly enjoy -- and it was probably my mistake -- came about when I deviated from the safety of Cantonese classics and ordered a steamer of Shanghainese Xiao Long Bao (a.k.a. XLB Dumplings), seasoned here with the celebrated Jinhua Cured Ham, the Prosciutto di Parma of Chinese cuisine. I thought the addition of cured ham was an unnecessary distraction designed only to elevate the stature, and therefore price, of this peasant favorite. We probably should have stuck to some unpretentious Cantonese Siu Mai instead. As we asked for the cheque our waitress came back with two of Macau's best loved tea-time indulgences, scrumptious Portuguese Pastel de Nata accompanied by a cup of traditional, velvety Milk Tea, both tasting of the high quality one would expect from an authentic Cha Chaan Teng (Macanese Cafe) ... and for FREE. As mentioned this was a Michelin 3-Star restaurant after all, which was never going to be dirt cheap. But compared with your typical Michelin starred establishments in France or the UK, 215 Patacas (CAD$30) per head was a definite bargain, especially for a 7-course lunch at one of the premier restaurants in the world for its genre. Bill for Two Persons Chilled Abalone with Pomelo Jelly and Minced Pork Crisp FREE Rice Roll with Barbecued Pork and Japanese Kyuuri Pickles 60 Patacas Crispy Barbecued Pork Buns in Hedgehog Shape 45 Patacas Steamed Crystal Blue Shrimp Dumpling in Goldfish Form 60 Patacas Pastry with Whole Abalone, Morel Mushroom and Diced Chicken x 2 136 Patacas Xiao Long Bao with Cured Jinhua Ham 60 Patacas Tieguanyin Tea for Two 30 Patacas Pastel de Nata FREE Milk Tea FREE Service Charge 39 Patacas TOTAL 430 Patacas (CAD$61) I had a slight dilemma in classifying our next stop as an upmarket restaurant for its grimy plastic chairs, folded tables and greasy bowls. But then it's no longer the cheap mom-and-pop joint it once was, after earning accolades in the Michelin Guide several years in a row. Prices remains somewhat reasonable (144 Patacas / CAD$20 per person during our visit); just bear with the sticky floors.

WONG KUNG SIO KUNG 308-310A Rua do Campo; 3 minutes walk to the north from Edificio Administracao Publica Along with Luk Kei at Ponte 29 and Sing Kei off Av. Almeida Ribeiro, this place is well-known as one of the best spots in town for the Cantonese late-dinner favorite of Shui Hai Juk, or Crab Congee. Next to pictures of visiting Chinese celebrities and politicians were scribblings of menu offerings, which really wasn't necessary since everyone came for one of the three or four specialty items anyway. Wong Kung Sio Kung's original claim to fame wasn't even the Crab Congee, but its artisan noodles meticulously made by folding duck eggs and flour under a bamboo press, operated by the master noodlemaker who would bounce up and down a ginormous bamboo stalk. These resulting Lo Mein noodles were as fresh and chewy as anyone could expect from pasta strands of such small radius, and the generous dusting of homemade Dried Shrimp Roe -- which could apparently be purchased for 288 Patacas (CAD$41) per jar -- was a nice traditional touch. Years ago I learned my lesson to be extra cautious about crustacean-based congee after following a Hong Kong local to a Crab Congee place near Jordan Station in Kowloon and came down with a weeklong bout of serious diarrhea and fevers. The congee must be piping hot in order to penetrate the crab chunks and roes, which was well done here at Wong Kung Sio Kung with its saltwater crabs. While the flavor of the congee was slightly underwhelming for its price of 220 Patacas (CAD$31), at least the crab was fully cooked and filling enough for two. That said, I still wish Luk Kei were open that evening for us to get some Deep-Fried Dace Meatballs. Bill for Two Persons Lo Mein Noodles with Dried Shrimp Roes 68 Patacas Sea Crab Congee (1/2 Wor) 220 Patacas TOTAL 288 Patacas (CAD$41)


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