MACAU Macau has witnessed a restaurant explosion over the past few years. Until recently, apart from the staple Portuguese and Macanese fare, the enclave was best known to Hong Kong folk for its inexpensive, gut-busting Chinese food. But now Macau is coming into its own as a gourmet's paradise. While it has not been exactly smooth sailing for some of the new enterprises (a couple of high-end venues have been worried about empty tables), upmarket places are starting to hit the mark with visitors to the city. The new restaurants offer clearly superior service and ambience to what Macau once had, when its eateries attracted mostly the budget conscious. While diners are still a bit wary of the hype surrounding the new breed of Macau restaurants, they have identified some worthy places. Hero Chinese Restaurant in Fisherman's Wharf, for example, opened in April and already has a loyal regular clientele that loves its fiery Sichuanese dishes. Macau's economic boom has boosted local spending power and people are splurging on fine dining. The enclave expects 20 million visitors this year, but Chan Kuok-leong, general manager of Chinese Hero Restaurant, says he is really after the half-million locals. 'Most of the visitors are mainland Chinese. They are interested in only one thing - gambling. Because many casinos offer complimentary food and drinks you can't depend on tourists as your primary customers,' Mr Chan says. Meanwhile, regardless of the newbies, Macau continues to enjoy the fame of its Portuguese and Macanese fare, along with its cobblestone streets and Mediterranean churches. Macanese cuisine is a unique draw. Camilda, proprietress of Praia Grande, says Macau is the only place where you can find dishes such as African Chicken. A Lorcha is as popular as ever. Clients must call a week in advance for weekend bookings. The owner Adrian Neves says 90 per cent of the weekend customers are from Hong Kong. 'A Lorcha's recipe for success is intimate ambience and authentic flavour. We have been in business for 17 years,' Mr Neves says. 'Our objective has always been to offer our guests family-style Portuguese food. Our food has never changed.' While the classic Portuguese restaurants are sticking to their tried-and-tested formula, new restaurants are moving upmarket in anticipation of visitors with deep pockets as Macau transforms itself from a low-cost day-trip destination to a glitzy Las Vegas-style entertainment, retail and dining hub. The opening of the US$1.2 billion Wynn Macau has brought in more than gaming tables and slot machines. Its many quality restaurants include fine-dining Chinese outlet Wing Lei, Osaka (evidently a Japanese option), Red 8 for comforting congee and noodles, and Ristorante Il Teatro, already a favourite with Italian food lovers. Another example is New Furusato. The old Furusato was closed a few years ago after Macau's decade-long economic recession. Hotel Lisboa converted a gambling room to create this new Japanese restaurant, which overlooks the spectacular performance lake at Wynn Macau. It is being hailed as one of the best Japanese restaurants in town. It offers a fantastic selection of fresh seasonal seafood flown in almost daily from Japan. The bill may be a tad high for the average local, but by Hong Kong standards the prices are more than reasonable. Inoue Yoji, executive chef of New Furusato, says Hong Kong businessmen are among the regular clients. The gambling and tourism boom is having quite the opposite effect on restaurants not associated with casinos or hotels, which are devouring local resources and pushing up wages and rents and making life harder for small and medium-sized businesses. The smaller restaurants have no choice but to pass on the extra costs to their customers. Meanwhile, there is still a lot of old-world charm in this former Portuguese stronghold. Fernando's is packed out at every meal, and a walk along the scenic Praia Grande waterfront recalls the quiet, sleepy days. Will Hong Kong's sister city eventually lose its nostalgic element and become a thriving Vegas of the East, or will we continue to enjoy the best of both worlds? Given the speed of change going on here, the answer should not take long to present itself.