Macao Trading Co.
311 Church St (Walker St)
City: New York, NY
Phone: (212) 431-8750
Site: Visit the restaurant site
Chef: David Waltuck
2nd Cuisine: Portuguese
I’ve never been to Macao, but my friend Kathy has, and she describes this former Portuguese colony as a sort of Asian Las Vegas, a buzzing, overly energized island supporting various levels of sin (drinking, gambling, perhaps some other things, too) that’s easily accessible by a quick ferry ride from Guangdong Province, China. Kathy is right. According to the Times, “While gambling remains illegal in mainland China, it is pure oxygen for Macao, which Portugal handed back to China in December 1999. The tiny territory, which has been enjoying a gambling-tourist-building boom since 2004, relies on gambling for 75 percent of its tax base.” Indeed, as I recently learned, it’s a port of temptation for many Chinese, including a mayor who dipped
into the municipal kitty, losing $12 million. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Wow. Well, it’s seems fair to say that Macao has come a long way from its former spice trade route between China, Portugal and Africa.
Here in New York, on a barren stretch of Court Street (in the former Sugar space), the team behind Employees Only has eschewed the current incarnation of Macao to bring to life the colonial port city of the ‘40s, creating a stunning industrial replica of Macao’s red lantern district.
To say the room is sexy is like saying Beyonce has a nice figure. Sure it’s true (and then some), but it’s too one-dimensional a description. She’s got a killer body, a load of talent, plus glamour and charisma, too. Similarly, the room—a speakeasy-styled hideaway, which boasts a long and comfortable bar as you enter and an 82-seat dining room towards the rear—is not only drop dead gorgeous, it’s got depth to its design. It’s rich and layered with exotic details. An intoxicating haze of candle lights flicker off jewel-toned apothecary bottles lined up on back lit glass shelves behind a magnificent mahogany bar. Stained glass and iron lanterns sway from the ceiling, intricate lattice wood work divides an area of banquettes into snug sectional dinner spaces with walls constructed of weathered brick and wood. Sturdy booths that might have once been filled with sailors trafficking between the colony and the mainland, line the far walls, set up under a faux mezzanine with chain link fencing filled with lighthouse lanterns, and antique furnishings that make it resemble a First Officer’s vintage library. Sitting in a roomy booth with Kathy and Julie, I had trouble concentrating on anything other than the room, which was designed not by AvroKo as was my first guess, but by I-Beam and the Macao team, in particular, Billy Gilroy who sourced a lot of these eye-catching decorative details: the lanterns, the back bar, the intricate teak panels, weathered mirrors, tables, and artwork. He’s got a gift.
The room is not the only pretty thing to look at. Some very attractive people fill it, too: there were Twizzler-thin girls in slinky sequined tops, luxuriously styled women in various shades of black, groups of slick Mad Men-esque gents in suits who apparently still have jobs (pretending not to notice the aforementioned females), and the requisite cadre of flannel-shirted artisan cocktail geeks at the bar. It’s a scene, and a fun one at that.
The bar is half the draw here of course, as the boys behind EO know a thing or two about how to mix ‘em and shake ‘em. They’re serving some of their signature cocktails from EO but they’ve also busted out a brand new line of Macao-inspired drinks listed in a neat black leather bound volume titled “Inventory.” They include the Drunken Dragon’s Milk—Charbay Green Tea Vodka shaken with Young Coconut Puree,Thai Basil & Macao Five-Spice Bitters, served tall, the Yellow Fever—Rittenhouse Rye, Benedictine, Lemon Juice & Egg White, shaken and layered over Cherry Heering and the Hong Kong Cocktail—El Tesoro Platinum Tequila shaken with lemon juice, Dow’s Fine Ruby Port & Pandan Leaf Syrup ($14 each). The wine list is not that wallet-friendly though. We had trouble finding a bottle under $50 and settled on a $36 red from Sardinia that Susie, Adrienne and Jamie and I had tried while traveling in Italy a few years ago.
While Kathy entertained us with stories of a recent ski trip to Vail in which a skier lost his seat on the lift and wound up pantless and dangling by his feet (funny to hear about, but I am sure not so comical to experience), we surveyed the expansive menu by Chanterelle chef David Waltuck and sous chefs Keith Harry and Lisa Leonard-Lee. Their vision tracks two separate dynasties of Macao: the Portuguese and the Chinese. These two strands are kept separate, so this is not a fusion restaurant (wise), but one that explores and expresses the dynamic cuisine of these two cultures. Both paths of the menu work equally well, and while you may be overwhelmed by choice, don’t worry. You can always come back for more another night. My guess is you’ll want to return fairly soon.
All dishes are served family style in beautiful royal blue and white ceramic bowls and platters. On the Chinese side, we started with a plate of scallop and snow pea leaf potstickers ($13), which were terrific—hot and crisp on the outside, fat with succulent scallops with a hefty dose of vibrant green pea leaves inside. From Portugal, we went with a steamy bowl of chorizo and clams swimming in a rich red broth that was wildly and wonderfully smoky. Smartly, the kitchen sends every dish with some sauce or broth that you might want to mop up, with rolls for that very purpose. We dunked away, shooing away bussers who wanted to clear what they thought were empty bowls. Not so fast!
Back to China, the fried oysters with curry aioli and cucumber salsa ($14) were so crunchy the noise from eating them threatened to drown out conversation, and from the Portuguese side, lamb meatballs ($8) were plump and tender, brightly seasoned, resting on a thick and sweet tomato sauce (bread was served with this dish, too), with a gob of melting cheese secreted in their core. But another classic from Portugal, the shrimp in green sauce ($9) was not as interesting. While the shrimp were quite juicy, the sauce was anemic and paled in comparison to the muscle of the other dishes. But the quail stuffed with sticky rice ($14) was really fun. This humble little bird rarely gets enough love and this preparation- stuffed with sticky rice, lacquered in barbecue sauce and set up with a vibrant pickled slaw- let it shine in a way I’ve never seen before.
Larger plates are, well, extra large, and most probably you’ll end up too full to finish what’s in front of you and end up travelling home with a care package for lunch the next day. But don’t let that deter you. Prices are gentle for the generous portion size and for three people (especially if you’ve loaded up on small plates as we did) you really only need one or two large plates and perhaps a vegetable or side.
Ants Climbing the Tree ($12)—Chinese glass noodles sautéed with spicy pork—is one of Kathy’s all time favorite dishes from Shun Lee and we had to try it here. If it’s anywhere as good as the one at Macao, it’s easy to understand her feelings. This dish, however, is not for those on a first date or those who are self conscious about eating. These noodles are in quite a tight tangle and take some effort to get at without making a huge mess, but it’s worth the struggle because the mix of minced hot chile pork and silken noodles is super.
The Chinese whole fish ($26) is tender and moist, saturated with the flavors of ginger and peppers, though it was not as crispy skinned as I would have liked. While I liked the dry fried long beans ($8)—they were rather piquant—Kathy was not into their vinegary taste. I ate her portion with pleasure. But Bacalao fried rice is a fluffy and flavorful riff on the classic with pork or beef ($9) that had no shortage of takers.
Desserts (all $7) are also family-sized, so it’s difficult to make the commitment unless you have plenty of people to share with. But if you are up for it (at least share one), the fried milk with citrus salad is a good way to go—imagine creamy milk latkes, dusted with cinnamon. The rice pudding with port-soaked figs is also good, though I’d prefer it thicker. This was quite thinned out with milk (and cream, I imagine).
Another favorite was a dish of housemade ice cream, especially the red bean, served with a big sugar cookie. While there are no fortune cookies here, it does seem like the sort of place where you might find a real fortune teller. Come to think of it, perhaps they can get the one from EO to stop by once in a while to peer into the future. Though, truth be told, for the folks at Macao, living in the past seems to be working out quite well.
Review By: Andrea Strong