macao, or i told you so

I had been told time and time again over the past week – by total strangers even – to avoid a planned side trip to Macao, the former Portuguese colony which returned to the fold of the Chinese motherland in 1999 as an autonomous Special Administrative Region similar to Hong Kong. Yet hearing it described variously as a hole, a pit, and a cesspool only made the prospect of a visit that much more tantalizing: if Macao was truly a vision out of Dante’s ninth circle, well, I needed to see the spectacle for myself. A speedy ferry from Kowloon or Hong Kong island made it a no-brainer for a day trip. Plus, the proliferation of big-time casinos clustered at the northern end of the peninsula means winners and losers can be shuttled back and forth through the night with all the ease of a taxi. If Macao was really that dreadful I could just up and leave. Well, surprise, despite the gluttonous display of wealth the casino end of town is a pit. Duh. (Was I expecting the Fremont Street experience?) But there’s history here, too, and a European-influenced heritage that I’m determined to see.

 

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what’s good for the belly

What better introduction to a country than a fashionable and defiantly cool lunch?  Relaxed and oh so chill atop the clubhouse at Penha Longa, Arola is chef Sergi Arola’s modern twist on Portuguese cuisine.  A disciple of Ferran Adria, Arola spent eight years in the kitchens of El Bulli and it shows. His respect for tradition and heritage, while contrasting unexpected flavors and textures, is an obvious homage to his mentor. It begins with a bowl on the table that I at first mistook for the centerpiece: garlic cloves, cherry tomatoes, and small toast squares.  I soon learned the trio is a classic Catalan tapa served DIY before the meal in every village in Spain: tomato toast. Halve a clove of garlic, making sure to leave the skin on so as to not get the smell all over your fingers.  Rub the cut side across a piece of the toast.  Halve a tomato and do the same.  Drizzle with a little olive oil, a sprinkle of sea salt, and voila: ridiculously simple perfection that also happens be a convivial, participatory start to the meal.

The fun doesn’t end there either. Rather it’s delivered via the kitchen on plate – no work required: thinly sliced pata negra with spunky  Saõ Jorge cheese, Royal and King crab salad, foie gras-topped oxtail ravioli, ethereal Bravas potatoes dolloped with crême fraiche, John Dory on a puree of boletus mushroom with ox tail. I’m tempted to order the rest of the menu, but I’ve already devoured every tasting plate put in front of me – helped along in no small part by an unassumingly fresh bottle of red from Portugal’s Douro Valley. Partridge cannelloni, Iberian ham croquettes, and Massuça goat cheese will have to wait another day.  I can’t even imagine dessert until something called Arola’s Sweet Moment arrives.  It’s a petite timbale of custard with various textures of lemon that refreshes the palate and brings me back from the brink of a food coma.  I fleetingly think I might be able to go another round but wisely opt instead for a cortado and a glass of muscadet, the lighter, honeyed cousin of port.  Fresh off the plane, I am sated.  And I know I am going to love it here.

 

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