On paper, Jason Kosmas, co-owner of retro-speakeasy Employees Only, has little in common with David Waltuck, the co-owner and chef at the very elegant, very French Chanterelle. Then again, there’s not much commonality between Portugal and China either--—save the tiny peninsula of Macao. So maybe it works out that the pair has joined forces to attempt to create a culinary legacy out of Portugal’s last colonial outpost—returned to China a decade ago—with Macao Trading Co.
Stylistically, there’s no question as to who’s in charge. Billy Gilroy, a co-owner, has fashioned one of Manhattan’s more dazzling settings. The dining room feels like some exotic foreign correspondents’ club, with slowly rotating ceiling fans, and a caged catwalk balcony overflowing with antique roulette wheels, trunks and other port-of-call knickknacks. Down a discreet stairway, a lounge adorned with vintage Chinese erotica hosts a few dining tables and a small bar.
The cocktail menu rolls with the culinary theme, infusing the deceptively strong drinks with Asian flourishes. The “Hong Kong Cocktail” is essentially a margarita leavened by port and nutty pandan-leaf syrup, while green-tea-infused vodka and Thai basil spike the excellent “Drunken Dragon’s Milk,” frothy with coconut puree.
The meal was less sure-handed. Fusion cuisine is about integration, but Waltuck’s philosophy on Macanese food seems to be “separate but equal.” Chinese and Portuguese dishes are listed in parallel on the menu. Some showcase one ingredient in two distinct variations, as in clams prepared “Portuguese-style”—with chorizo—or “Chinese-style”—with black beans and chilies. When I ordered both versions of the prawns, they were flavorful but not ground-breaking: the European version grilled and served in a cream sauce of white wine, tomatoes and garlic butter; the Asian rendition sauted sweet-and-sour, with chili peppers.
Thus was the trend in Waltuck’s one-menu, two-cuisine theory. Rather than having a single interesting Macanese restaurant, you get a Chinese eatery and a Portuguese one side by side. Mediocre ones, at that.
Most of the regionally diverse Chinese appetizers are dandified versions of what might appear on a dim sum cart. While I found the scallop-and-snow-pea-leaf pot stickers greaseless and perfectly pleasant, they wouldn’t turn my head at Jing Fong. The $13-for-five-dumplings price tag, however, would. Waltuck’s version of “ants climbing the tree,” chopped marinated pork over cellophane noodles, is a solid version of the spicy Szechuan standard, but fails to offer a fresh take on the dish.
The Portuguese bill of fare was more successful. Gently fried mushroom croquettes possessed a seductive truffle essence, and lamb meatballs harbored a gooey fontina center. The nicely grilled lamb chop, devoid of its promised red-pepper jam, proved a letdown.
In a departure from the theme, desserts hew strictly Iberian: Warm cinnamon-dusted fried milk with candied fruit rinds; first-rate churros, the center still soft and chewy. When I asked our waitress about the Chinese options, her response amounted to “Why bother?” She was referring to the traditional afterthought given to dessert at most Chinese restaurants, though her attitude could speak for Macao’s entire menu. David Waltuck, one of the best chefs in the country, should do far better. But with a great cocktail menu and a sexy environment already packing them in, he doesn’t have to.
Drink this: The “Drunken Dragon’s Milk” will ruin you for all pia coladas, while the Quinta de Porrais vinho branco from the Douro River region, at $36 a bottle, is a good reminder that Portugal makes underrated, affordable white wines.
Eat this: Mushroom and truffle croquettes, lamb meatballs, “ants climbing the tree.”
Sit here: Anywhere upstairs, where the vibe conjures an exotic movie set. The basement lounge is far more sedate, but the tables are too small and cramped.
Conversation piece: Tour the subterranean bar to view the collection of authentic Asian curios: everything from Indian snuff pipes to nudie pictures of famous Chinese pinups.
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