An Opium Dream at the Macao Trading Company
Sticky Peking ribs, clams in black bean and Portuguese fried goat cheese to start. Photo: Steven Richter
Hardline nocturnal moths flinging themselves at the latest cocktail bar or lounge will surely already have dipped their wings into Macao Trading Company, offspring of Employees Only, the popular West Village tippling spot. But we’re here joining other non-lounging lizards to check out Chanterelle chef David Waltuck’s consulting vision of what Macao eats.
“Have you been to Macao?” I ask Waltuck over the phone.
“Twenty years ago,” he replies. “But I doubt the food has changed that much.”
I think about our long weekend in Macao in 1997, just before the Portuguese signed it over to China ending a never-quite-official occupation. How there just didn’t seem enough time to do justice to the unique multicultural cuisine evolved from a mix of Cantonese openness to experiment and the easy global imports of Portugal’s sailing ships to this trading settlement. “The first East-West cuisine,” Ken Hom calls it in his forward to Annabel Doling’s Macau on a Plate: A Culinary Journey. The author signed the book for us at lunch in Caçarola on the island’s southern most point, so we could understand what we’d eaten and know what we were going to miss by dashing back to Hong Kong. It did seem like an unfinished mission, forgotten till now.
If you’ve cared about food long enough, you know how Chanterelle emerged in 1979 from Karen and David Waltuck’s passion for France, know how it glowed in still shadowy Soho with telltale signs of Michelin ambition like giant balloon glasses, chewy designer bread, a ramekin of sweet butter and fricassee of seafood in delicate sea urchin cream. I had no idea David Waltuck loves to cook Chinese. Apparently the regulars invited to his annual Chinese New Year’s dinner know, and that is how he came to dream up the menu for Macao Trading.
“It’s a fun place and I wanted to do tasty food that has the feel of Chinese and Portuguese. Loosely translated.” It is. He did. And it is. We’re surprised how tasty.
I’ve never been to Employees Only. They say the bar there is a predictable rerun of the Village. And the rest is theater. I can’t imagine someone spent a million dollars to create this grime and decay. Some of it certainly looks real. The funky flea market finds on the catwalk balcony that hugs the soaring space – just 82 seats at booths and bare wooden tables – satisfies a Ye Old Trading Company allusion. And inevitably, this Macanese portside warehouse hides the bordello lounge below.
A savvy crowd fills the shadowy faux wharf-side trading house. Photo: Steven Richter
Noisy but charming, I think. And then, as the wait for our reserved table stretches toward 45 minutes, not so amusing. With apologies, the host offers drinks to the four of us. And then, at last, what feels like a VIP booth – roomy enough for six. Our new friend Barrat needs a serious Scotch. Gretchen and I are primed for a $14 cocktail: she by her Blood Peach Bellini while waiting, I by my abstinence. My Dr. Funk – Mekhong Thai Rum served tall with Grenadine, ginger beer, fresh fruit and mint – topped with a drizzle of Absinthe – seems sufficiently lethal but too weedy for me.
Gretchen loves her second slurp, the Bashful Maiden – gin with elderflower liqueur and melon. Despite its blush pink innocence it was originally called Lovee Long Time, renamed when customers complained, rumor has it. But the cynics at eater.com think it was because it had been singled out as The Most Ridiculous Cocktail Name in New York on NYBarfly. How do I know all this? Our twentyish companions have scoured the internet before venturing downtown. We are all better citizens and critics because we know these things. How did we survive before Blogpatch?
Long beans, scallop dumplings and the Blushing Maiden are favorites. Photo: Steven Richter
In the current climate – we’re all in this together – plates are meant to share, our waiter informs us, whether it works that way or not. The sticky-rice stuffed squab must go back to the kitchen for a sharp knife to carve it in quarters. Even the easily cracked fried goat cheese round on onions and peppers emerges an unappealing mess despite my careful carving. Yet both are pretty good. A duo of plumpish Portuguese-style mushroom and truffle croquettes means one for each couple to split. Lush and scrumptious. The two diehard clams-with-black-beans fans at the table find tonight’s as good or better than any around. A quartet of delicate scallop and snow pea leaf potstickers are splendid though awfully meager for $13. But Chinese-style Peking ribs, hacked into odd little pieces and intensely sauced, are more shareable.
Sirloin with bleu cheese butter thrills our carnivores. Photo: Steven Richter
It’s not that challenging to navigate the menu – shrimp, mushrooms, meatballs, prawns, whole black bass come in “two flavors,” Portuguese-style and Chinese. African chicken is simply Portuguese; Ants Climbing Trees, a Chinatown familiar. Sirloin painted with blue cheese butter in a salty intense glaze pleases the meat lovers enough to pledge they’ll be back. But no one is all that happy with the feeble broth and utilitarian carrots and snow peas in Macanese vegetable curry. Its marvelous udon noodles deserve better. Once past the surprise of room temperature dry fried long beans with preserved daikon, ginger, black vinegar and hot sesame oil, we agree they’re delicious, the evening a triumph, inciting a need to try more. Both generations agree. And we find appetite for a single dessert: an elegant chocolate almond torte with a puddle of Madeira sabayon, definitely not needing sugary crushed almond brittle.
Macao Trading’s small and savoury scallop dumplings quickly disappear. Photo: Steven Richter
For our companions, the evening is just beginning. They linger behind to wait for friends in the lounge below. I asked Barrat to report: “We really enjoyed it,” he writes. “Upon walking down a dark staircase, the first thing that greeted us was an antique dildo display. I think they are going for a hybrid of an opium den and an Asian whorehouse, but it works, a lot of old wood and nice mellow music. The art in the bathroom was graphic antique Chinese pornography. We sat on a Chinese wedding bed. It was a tight booth that was romantic rather than uncomfortable. The crowd was young but not particularly beautiful, other than Gretchen. What they need is a tougher door policy and some press.” So much for Bashful Maidens.
The Road Food Warrior said he’d love to go back and taste more of Waltuck’s delicious musings. But if they do change the door policy, there’s no way we’ll ever get in again.
311 Church Street between Lispenard and Walker. 212 431 8750.
For a vision of Macao and it’s history through food, try to find a copy of Macau on a Plate: A Culinary Journey by Annabel Doling, alas now out-of-print but still popping up on the web. I cannot imagine a better initiation to Macao.
Source by Gael Greene