Long seen as the home of casinos and Portuguese egg tarts, Macau has never been considered the capital of Cantonese cuisine. Hong Kong and Guangzhou have always held the honours. But few outsiders may realise that, having escaped the atrocities of World War II and survived the Cultural Revolution in the late-50s relatively unscathed, Macau has managed to preserve Cantonese cuisine in a near perfect state. Wander through the maze of alleys within the city and you’re whisked back in time as you’re surrounded by Chinese restaurants and roadside stalls. At the fine dining level, it boasts two Cantonese restaurants with three coveted Michelin stars, and seven with one star, which is no mean feat for this tiny Special Administrative Region. If you’re the gambling kind, here are some eateries worth betting your money on.
01 THE EIGHT RESTAURANT
The Eight was the first Cantonese restaurant in Macau to attain three-Michelin starred status in 2014, and has kept it since. It sits in the opulent surroundings of the Grand Lisboa in the older section of Macau, and is helmed by executive chef Joseph Tse. Chef Tse is no stranger to connoisseurs in China, Hong Kong and even Malaysia, having made his mark in hotels in those countries until 2015, when he was headhunted and relocated to Macau.
Trained in a conventional Cantonese kitchen, Chef Tse laments that the profoundly important stir-fry technique of Cantonese cooking is often neglected in today’s kitchens. Food can be under-or overcooked in a mere minute, so precision is key, as seen in his dishes such as Stir-fried Boston Lobster and Preserved Black Beans. But one challenge Chef Tse faces daily is getting the right ingredients. “Guangzhou or Hong Kong can produce most of their ingredients, while Hong Kong can get fresh ingredients delivered in a day or two from all over the world,” says Chef Tse. But in Macau, imported ingredients come in only on certain days of the week because of fewer flights and longer clearance times at customs. So it’s common for him and his team to make quick trips to Hong Kong to get their ingredients for the day. Chef Tse also sources from farms in mainland China and Taiwan, where he often comes across unique ingredients such as corn-fed duck with a taste of cherries when cooked.
Diners clearly are impressed with Chef Tse, who has been hands-on in the kitchen from the start. Even today, he’s always the first to arrive at work and the last to turn off the kitchen lights.
The Eight Restaurant, Grand Lisboa Macau, Avenida de Lisboa, Macau
02 WING LEI PALACE
The former executive chef of Jade Dragon, Tam Kwok Fung, is not a typical inscrutable Chinese chef. Gregarious and media-savvy, he knows how to engage the current generation of journalists, food bloggers and his professional peers.
Before he left Jade Dragon, it was the only Chinese restaurant included in the coveted Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Less than a year after joining Wing Lei Palace, it debuted at number 36 in the 2019 Asia’s 50 Best list.
How did he do it? Chef Tam understands where Cantonese cuisine is heading. “When ingredients keep on changing, it is hard for the chef to make one dish that is exactly the same from 50 years ago. The evolution of technology and transportation make it easier for individuals to find different kinds of ingredients everywhere. So don’t be surprised to find Chef Tam blanketing his lychee-wood roast goose with black truffle, or his suckling pig with a thick veneer of caviar.
Essentially, a chef must know what his guests want. “Market trends are important. For instance, a traditional Chinese restaurant would only use regular beef but now, wagyu is one of our main ingredients.”
With the blessings of his current employer, Wynn Palace, Chef Tam has the liberty to collaborate with top chefs from all over the world through four- or even six-hand cooking events. “Through such exchanges, we are able to apply newly acquired knowledge into Chinese cuisine, to provide the best experience. “ But he also believes in strong fundamentals when it comes to traditional cooking methods. That allows innovation to shine while remaining true to the basics. “Be open-minded to the differences in cooking cultures, structures, concepts, and living styles, as this will help develop one’s creative mind,’ he says.
Wing Lei Palace, G/F Wynn Palace, Avenue de Nave Desportiva, Coloane Taipa, Macau
03 JADE DRAGON
Jade Dragon became the second Cantonese restaurant to reach the three-Michelin starred list in Macau in November last year. It was a pleasant surprise, considering that the previous executive chef had left barely six months before the Michelin announcement. But stepping easily into his shoes was executive sous chef Kelvin Au Yeung, who was promoted to executive chef. Barely 40 years old, Chef Au Yeung is a high flyer in the industry, who became a restaurant head chef when he was just 23.
Before he joined Jade Dragon in 2012, he had been the senior sous chef at Treasure Palace and Lung Heen in Macau, as well as Island Tang and Eryl Tower in Hong Kong
Thrust into the limelight, Chef Au Yeung is determined to maintain Jade Dragon’s reputation while proving himself to his peers. “Being head of a restaurant, there is so much more to learn, such as acquiring wine knowledge, while continuing to woo customers with new tastes and plating.” While eager to raise the standards of Cantonese cuisine to another level, he realizes the importance of self-restraint – nothing is over the top. While Chef Au Yeung is fast establishing his own style, as seen in the likes of steamed garoupa on egg white and soy custard, popular signature dishes are more refined now under his supervision.
Going by the positive reviews he has been getting, his efforts have paid off.
Jade Dragon, Level 2, City of Dreams, Estrada Do Istmo, Cotai, Macau
04 SING GOR PRIVATE KITCHEN
For those in the know, Sing Gor enjoys cult status as a much sought-after private kitchen, even without any stars. Sing Gor, or Brother Sing in Cantonese, is an elderly chef specialising in authentic Shunde cuisine. The Shunde district in Guangzhou produces many of the best known Cantonese culinary masters, whose diverse and complicated cooking techniques transform mundane ingredients into dishes fit for an emperor. Having worked in some of the finest Cantonese restaurants in Macau, Chef Sing opened a two-table-only private kitchen in a residential building. Diners are pampered with long-forgotten dishes such as stir-fried frog’s legs stuffed with kailan, shark’s fin broth, crispy chicken, and an elaborate snake soup in winter.
Reservations need to be made a couple of months in advance, with a tab per person of around S$200.
Sing Gor Private Kitchen, No. 17, 13 Avenida do Almirante Lacerda, Tel: +853 2836 2082
This article was originally published in The Business Times.