MACAO — The frenetic pace that makes Hong Kong so addictive is reason enough for the visitor to escape, even for a day, to the fascinating settlement of Macao.
The Chinese territory, under Portuguese administration (until December 1999, when it returns to Chinese rule), is 40 miles west of Hong Kong and consists of a small, fat peninsula (about 6.1 square miles), where most business is conducted, and two small islands (Colo^ane and Taipa), all connected by bridges.
For decades, Hong Kong locals as well as tourists and Chinese from Taiwan and mainland China have regarded Macao as a haven of pleasure where gambling, racing (dog and horse) and nightclubs invite.
All that still exists. But so does excellent dining, antique shopping and colonial architecture, amid gleaming skyscrapers and Portuguese ambience.
A 50-minute hydrofoil ride from Hong Kong, the Portuguese enclave is home to a laid-back style of hospitality, as well as restaurants specializing in Portuguese and Macanese (a blend of Chinese and Portuguese) cooking.
About 40 of Macao's 120 restaurants serve Portuguese or Macanese food, which evolved from the Portuguese traders who arrived around 1557 and established trading posts here. They married Asian women who, unable to find European ingredients, substituted Chinese ingredients in the Portuguese dishes and created a new cuisine.
I lived in Hong Kong for seven years until spring 1996, and a day or a weekend in Macao meant three-hour lunches and long-simmered stews with spicy sausages and crusty rolls to sop up the sauce or dark green olive oil. It also meant endless variations on codfish, great tomato salads and eggy desserts that enrich cardiologists and leave the rest of us feeling guilty.
Service is never rushed, although it is often uneven, but always with a smile. Whether arriving or leaving, Macao always gave us reasons to order another glass of vinho verde (young fruity wine) and linger through the sunset.
It also meant dining at favorite spots such as Fernando's, A Lorcha, Clube Militar de Macao (the Military Club) and Restaurante Litoral, and never leaving without a heavenly egg tart (called nata) from Lord Stow's Bakery. These were the rewards for surviving another week in harried Hong Kong. Or the antidote for nearly anything.
To refresh my culinary memory, I recently returned for a week in Macao, where I found I still adore the places that follow, where we ate once again. But be advised: Macao on weekends is a magnet for tourists and gamblers (there are 12 casinos and a racetrack), making restaurant and hydrofoil reservations necessary. Monday through Thursday, Macao is easier to manage, with fewer lines and people.
Fernando Gomes didn't know how to cook when he opened Fernando's on Hac Sa Beach in 1986. A native of the Azores, he is as much a personality and storyteller as he is one of Macao's most successful and outspoken restaurateurs.
The atmosphere at his haphazard 170-seat restaurant on the island of Colo^ane is something like a picnic with a roof overhead. Windows are flung open year-round, the open kitchen is hardly designer-handsome. But simple, grilled, wine-washed meals of Portuguese derivation are the drawing cards.
The lanky Gomes is usually there, holding court at the outdoor bar. Among my favorite dishes are caldo verde (potato-thickened kale soup); clams in a piquant tomato, garlic, coriander and olive oil sauce; succulent fried crab; crispy grilled sardines and a chicken that's dry-basted in spices, grilled and served on a plateful of perfect French fries. The basket of crusty rolls has no bottom. The house salad of lettuce, sweet onion and tomato is so fresh it needs little more than a drizzle of olive oil and coarse salt. Rarely is there room for dessert, but several diners can usually manage a pudim (dense burnt-milk custard) and coffee. The beach is the next stop for a siesta. Lunch for three with wine and coffee was $65.
Before she opened Restaurante Litoral in 1995, Manuela Ferreira was a civil servant. The mother of three and native of Macao also was known as a terrific cook with a stash of recipes from four generations. She retired early to pursue her cooking passions and the result is her two-story restaurant, which is considered upscale by locals, with its polished stone floors, Portuguese blue tile, dark wood trim and creamy stucco walls decorated with European and Macanese artifacts.
Government officials frequent Litoral for business lunches and special dinners. Despite the 90-minute lunch hour observed by most office workers, it is not uncommon to see politicians sally down the stairs of the 140-seat restaurant after three-hour lunches. Ferreira seems to know everyone by their first names.