High-end restaurants arrive in Macau casinos
A wave of long-awaited high-end Chinese restaurants have opened in Macau's casinos, writes Mischa Moselle
Perhaps only in Macau could it seem logical to spend US$14 million on a single restaurant - that's the investment in City of Dreams' Jade Dragon, which will officially open late next month.
The restaurant is the latest in a new generation of high-end venues in the territory. Restaurants are a way of offering a proposition that differentiates one casino resort from another. But the food is not just there to attract the gamblers. As Macau's government worries about diversifying revenue sources, casinos have found that the more dining tables they can offer, the more gaming tables they are allowed.
At one time, resorts planned to broaden their appeal with large number of restaurants offering regional Chinese cuisines. That has not happened but there are now several venues offering a variety of cuisines. The result of the resorts' willingness to spend is a large number of openings. Here are some of the better high-end experiences to be had by foodies visiting the city.
Jade Dragon, City of Dreams
Where did that US$14 million go? The display plates, laid out at the start of the meal - but never to be used - cost HK$5,000 each, according to Kristoffer Luczak, vice-president of food and beverage at Melco Crown Entertainment, owners of City of Dreams. The restaurant's ornate murals were painted by two artists from Hangzhou. The venue, with its 11 private rooms, is on two storeys and an open kitchen takes up just over a quarter of the space. The restaurant has its own Chinese herbalist to concoct tonic soups.
Here, even the char siu is made from premium black pork ( porco preto) ham and from a cut that gives a particular succulence. Other highlights include a herbal soup with mushrooms, wood-fired crispy chicken and deep-fried oyster that could win over the most hardened objector to having the bivalve cooked.
Desserts return to the Pearl River Delta with a milk tea ice cream, based on one of Hong Kong's favourite drinks, and a variation on the local egg tart - this one has a caramel topping.
Wing Lei, Wynn
Wing Lei's appeal has spread beyond its mainland client base to attract a loyal local following, and the key has been the quality of its dim sum. The noise level is also appropriately high.
While presentation varies from chic individually plated portions to traditional dim sum steamers, the emphasis is on traditional, mostly Cantonese, flavours. An exception is the steamed cod roll with preserved seeds, a Taiwanese dish that wraps fish around tofu and seeds that have an olive-like flavour and consistency. While dim sum such as steamed prawns and baby spinach dumplings, steamed layered bean curd skin and spring rolls offer consistency rather than surprises, there is a neat twist on char siu bao. The sweetened crust gives a crunch to a well-made classic.
The chef gives a nod to some years spent in Hong Kong, with a version of "typhoon shelter" crab that smothers a claw in garlic.
Here the crispy chicken is tea-smoked, while dessert is a sexy deep-fried egg custard roll.
Golden Flower, Wynn Macau
Head chef Liu Guozhu was chosen by casino owner Steve Wynn to give him the best Chinese restaurant in the world. Liu has been famous since the age of 16, when he was chosen to cook for foreign dignitaries staying at the Beijing Hotel, perhaps most notably for Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and Margaret Thatcher.
The restaurant is happy to help you pair wines with its food, but the point of dining here is to match teas with the cuisine. The idea behind tea and food matching is to pair strongly flavoured teas with strongly flavoured foods, light teas with light dishes and white tea with dessert.
Liu is a specialist in several cuisines, but focuses on Tan cuisine here. The late 19th century invention of a scholar for the then ruling Qing dynasty, Tan cooking is all about the chicken stock. The stock for dishes such as stewed fish maw with crab claw in supreme chicken soup or whelk and jasmine in chicken soup is cooked for eight hours. The flavour, Liu says, comes from taking an old hen and poaching it for long enough to release and then reabsorb its fats. With most dishes relying on cooking costly ingredients in the same base, this is chicken soup for the rich Chinese soul.
For a cheeky pudding, try the Imperial Dessert, a concoction of red bean paste, glutinous rice and a yellow bean paste that tastes like a sweet hummus. It is nicknamed "donkey rolling in the dirt" because that's what it looks like.
The 8, Grand Lisboa
The restaurant may be a few floors away from the gaming tables, but the reminders that you are in a casino are all around. Walk over the electronic goldfish, "swimming towards money" and see the decorative centerpiece of the restaurant - a ball of crystals that becomes an auspicious eight when viewed with its reflection on the dark floor. This is another loud establishment, with diners eyeing other tables to see what's worth ordering.
Wine enthusiasts will probably be tempted by one of the 9,300 labels of Lisboa hotel group executive director Alan Ho's legendary collection.
At least a couple of the many options on the voluminous à la carte menu give a nod to Macau's culinary heritage. Baked whelk comes in a Portuguese sauce - a mildly spiced coconut sauce that is gratinated. Its version of the egg tart is served blisteringly hot. It's supposed to make the pastry crispier, but we just found it awkward to eat. It comes with a cup of the sweetest milk tea this side of an Indian street-side chai stall. Oddest of all is a snowman-shaped dessert made with bird's nest and red bean paste.
Zi Yat Heen, The Four Seasons
While elegance is the aim, the restaurant still mostly plates up family-style. Presenting dishes on a single plate may happen in the future, but only if enough customers ask for it. It serves elegant versions of many simple dishes, although others are more complex. Highlights include barbecue pork in honey that is chewy without being too sweet; duck tongues that are an excellent vehicle for the garlic, sesame and chilli that coat them, and a superb chicken dish with crispy skin and deeply coloured glaze.
Desserts include osmanthus jelly with wolfberry that shows a refinement and subtlety often lacking in the dish. The custard tart is served without cinnamon.
Wine is central to this experience - a glass-walled wine room at the centre of the restaurant contains some of the 1,100 labels on offer. Recently updated, the list includes bottles from Donnafugata in Sicily, some serious Bordeaux and Burgundies, and Portuguese favourites. Wines from the US Pacific, Australia and New Zealand are also well represented, along with those from other French regions.