Turning the tables
Can Macau really boast the world's best Chinese restaurant? That was the ambition of Steve Wynn, developer of the Golden Flower restaurant at Wynn Macau Resort.
The flood of money, both in investment from casino developers and the spending of mainland guests since the liberalisation of the territory's casino licensing laws in 2002, has led to an explosion of restaurants and a huge leap in quality, some gourmets argue. As new five-star hotels compete for custom, their high-end Chinese dining options bid to outdo each other in decor, quality and variety.
Donald Hall, head of Chaine des Rotisseurs in Macau, an association dedicated to promoting fine dining, believes restaurants in the former Portuguese colony are better than those in Hong Kong.
'Chefs in Macau have more pressure because management is constantly looking at the competition. Everyone is pushing for quality because they are bringing in high rollers from China; they need to prove they have the best restaurants, and mainlanders want to be treated well.'
Macau's chefs are more willing to bring diners the new experiences they are demanding.
'In Hong Kong the food is more traditional like [at] The Chairman in Central. It's important for them to keep the food quality high, especially [at] the older restaurants. Hongkongers are willing to try modernised dishes once in a while, but they will revert back to traditional restaurants,' says Hall, who has lived in Asia for 49 years, splitting his time between Hong Kong and Macau before settling in Macau eight years ago. 'In Macau it's not about attracting locals because it's too expensive for them. Instead it's about the high rollers, Hong Kong residents and tourists.'
Haigan Wong, general manager of wine importer Adega Royale, also emphasises the reliability of some Hong Kong restaurants. He cites places such as Luk Yu and Langham Place's Ming Court as his favourites, saying: 'I like the simplicity of their clean dishes.'
Sophie Lei, business development manager of Soda Magazine, a Chinese-language lifestyle publication for Macanese, also believes Hong Kong is tops with its Chinese restaurants, citing Yung Kee as one of her favourites. 'The best Chinese restaurants in Macau are in the big casinos and we have to keep in mind they have only come up in the last few years. While we have more choices than before, the service, price and taste is still better in Hong Kong.
'That said, I have some Hong Kong chef friends who are happy to be working in Macau because they have a big food budget because they are part of a hotel, and it's easier for them to keep the standard and quality. Even the food court at MGM is good,' she says.
While hotel restaurants in Macau are geared towards visitors, those in Hong Kong are aimed at locals. 'On the Hong Kong [island] side, it's 60 or even 70 per cent towards locals, but on the Kowloon side it's up to 80 per cent,' says Eric Chiu, director of food and beverage at Hyatt Regency Hong Kong in Tsim Sha Tsui.
The high ratio towards local guests is unusual compared to other places around the world, where residents do not usually step foot in hotel restaurants.
Chiu also says that while Chinese restaurants in Macau have new food and beverage concepts, the 'software', or staff who are mostly recruited from northern China, do not have the hospitality skills yet. 'Hospitality takes a long time to learn, and this is not just front-line staff but production ones too,' he says. Chiu thinks Macau needs a few more Hong Kong chefs to boost and maintain the quality of its kitchens.
While Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong put more emphasis on food quality, in Macau it's about the entire dining experience, which is probably best illustrated at Wynn Macau's Golden Flower. It's the epitome of opulence, with its foyer decorated with blue-and-white porcelain on shelves that reach the high ceiling while a tea master sits in front, preparing carefully chosen tea leaves.
Inside, the Chinese restaurant is a courtyard-like setting complemented with decor featuring roses on the backs of chairs and mosaics on the floor. But perhaps most decadent is the concept of the restaurant, which features Tan cuisine. The obscure, sophisticated cuisine was started in the 1860s by a scholar named Tan Zongjun who was raised in what was then Canton and came to Beijing to take the civil service examinations.
Not only did he become an official in the Qing government, he was also a gourmet. He created Tan cuisine through the combination of southern and northern Chinese cooking styles that he only served to elite members of society. Very often a southern ingredient such as seafood might be given a northern treatment such as tea-smoking. Now Golden Flower is bringing these dishes to Macau as Wynn hopes that doing so will create an 'unparalled' experience for the territory and southern China, says Tom Connolly, Wynn Macau's vice-president of food and beverage.
The rice-smoked chicken has a subtle fragrance from tea leaves, while the stewed fish maw's generous chunky pieces are served in a thick flavourful chicken-based sauce. A whole sea cucumber presented on the plate is tender and meaty, while the clear chicken broth has hints of jasmine tea leaves that smell and taste divine.
The luxurious decor and exclusive cuisine served to the upper echelons of society creates a recipe to make Golden Flower what Wynn hopes to be the 'best Chinese restaurant in the world'.
'Macau is growing very fast with many hotels going up and many visitors coming,' says executive Chinese chef Liu Guo-zhu. 'The future of Chinese cuisine here in Macau is good.
'Hong Kong is very old style,' he says, having taught here for six years at the Chinese Cuisine Training Institute. 'The competition here will only get more fierce.'
Executive sous chef Louie Wong at the Michelin-star Imperial Court at MGM agrees, saying the competition has spurred chefs to be more innovative in their dishes. His menu has such dishes as barbecued sliced black pork stacked with mushroom and foie gras, wok-fried Australian wagyu beef with morel mushrooms and white asparagus. But his signature dish, which has even been copyrighted, is the double-boiled shark's fin soup served in Hawaiian papaya. Wong believes the Hawaiian fruit is sweeter than that from Thailand. 'The shark's fin here is different from the ones in Hong Kong - it's thick because our guests expect [it] to be thick,' he says.
'The most important thing is that the guests like the food. If we are all the same, there is no reason for people to come back.'
Meanwhile, at City of Dreams' Treasure Palace it's also about knowing what guests want to eat. 'When the mainlanders come here for gambling, they spend a lot of money so they are expecting everything to be super deluxe,' says Chinese executive chef Tam Kwok-fung. 'While 70 to 80 per cent of our dishes at Treasure Palace are Cantonese, we also cook northeastern dishes, which [mainlanders] consider comfort food and need to be at a very high standard.'
Tam, who was transferred from Ying at Altira, which was awarded a Michelin star last year, says it's also important for all the staff to understand the regional eating cultures within China.
'For example, people in Wenzhou like to have fried rice first before they drink, or have garlic cloves and ginger marinated in vinegar and soy sauce. We hire different managers from different areas of China.
'When customers order they quickly identify where they are from and then they can suggest dishes that would suit them. It's hard to figure out who is going to be the biggest spender by appearance, so we have to be careful.'
Originally from Hong Kong, Tam also likes to travel to different parts of China, not only to become more familiar with the various cultures personally, but also to taste authentic dishes and try to replicate them back in Macau. He thinks the quality of Chinese restaurants is higher in Hong Kong than Macau, despite his menu including a whole piece of fish maw braised with vegetables, Iberico ham roasted like char siu, and steamed Macau sole seasoned with dried mandarin peel for a subtle tangy flavour.
Wong, also from Hong Kong, visits his hometown frequently. He says its Chinese restaurants use less expensive ingredients.
In addition to the inventive dishes, the Chinese restaurants in Macau hotels have the sophisticated decor to match. Tin Lung Heen at the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong seems the only close contender in terms of its very high ceilings, warm earth tones and grand chandeliers, along with amazing views of the city.
However, there are many options for a classy atmosphere in Macau restaurants, which have more space to play with than Hong Kong's.
For example, Treasure Palace is a very large two-storey restaurant with a high ceiling, wooden pillars, marble stairway and large crimson globular chandeliers. Upstairs there are several private dining rooms, but the ground floor offers relatively quiet dining and large windows to let in natural light.
Meanwhile, Imperial Court at MGM has an impressive giant carving of a traditional Chinese dragon curled around the grey column that reaches its ceiling, while the rest of the restaurant looks very contemporary.With Macau's Chinese restaurants having gone from zero to hero in just nine years, one can only imagine what might happen in the next few years.
Share your recent Macau dining experiences with other SCMP readers at www.facebook.com/southchinamorningpost
Here are the contenders for the best Chinese cuisine in Macau:
Wynn Macau, Rua Cidade de Sintra, tel: (853) 8986 3689; www.wynnmacau.com
MGM Macau, Avenida Dr Sun Yat Sen, tel: (853) 8802 3888; www.mgmmacau.com
Level 1, the Boulevard
City of Dreams, Cotai, tel: (853) 8868 6661