Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 31 August 2014

Joris Minne: Macau

SIMPLICITY: Macau eschews fancy decor and lets the fabulous food do the talking

How the rumour mill got it all wrong when the gossip spread that standards had slipped at one of Belfast’s finest Oriental restaurants

There’s nothing to warm the shrivelled heart of a food critic like news of the downfall of a restaurant renowned for its smugness. We see this happen occasionally in places like London and Dublin. It’s called the Curse of the Seven Stations of the Restaurant: 1. restaurant opens; 2. restaurant does everything in its power to attract customers; 3. restaurant holds on to them by being extra nice to them; 4. restaurant gets cocky and picks and chooses bookings; 5. restaurant enters the GFY (check with your texting offspring for meaning) stage in which shifts are implemented and you have 25 minutes to eat your three courses and drink your wine; 6. restaurant matches the smug service with indifferent food; 7. nobody goes any more and restaurant closes. As Rafiki might say, it’s the circle of life.

In Belfast, no such curse has been inflicted on any restaurant I know of. What happens here instead is the curse of the vicious little whispering campaigns.

How many times have I heard that Cayenne had gone downhill only to find that the renowned restaurant still serves some of the most spectacular food in Ireland?

Similar things have been said on and off about other excellent restaurants forever. Even the sainted Robbie Millar and his fabulous Shanks restaurant didn't escape the occasional poisoned whispers.

Restaurant standards in Northern Ireland are generally excellent and if there’s an occasional wobble because somebody was off sick that day, then you have to make allowances.

It would be unforgiveable for a Michelin-starred restaurant to be anything less than perfect all of the time. But for everyone else, a bit of flexibility and open-minded generosity of spirit should be applied.

Take Macau on the Ormeau Road. Shortly after opening three or four years ago, the cognoscenti raved about the place. It was authentic, unusually friendly, simple, unpretentious, excellent and inexpensive. Just what all the media luvvies and precious civil servants around Rosetta had aspired to. A proper local Chinese you could bring your cousins from Manchester, Birmingham and Leicester to when they came over for the weekend and not be embarrassed. For three years Macau was the darling of the equality impact assessment set.

But the guns turned on Macau without warning. A few months ago, reports started to filter through from behind the Rosetta front garden magnolias that the restaurant had lost its edge. At first sign it looked like the Seven Stations had been completed and Macau was already at station 6 (service too smug and food indifferent).

Naturally, the adviser and I (we had never been) plus two Chinese food experts went down to determine the truth. How mistaken the rumour mill was.

Within minutes of the starters arriving we knew the Macau magic, of which so much had been made in its early days, was very much still alive.

Quantities of fried squid, sweet and sour monkfish and soft-shell crabs with cumin in their dainty Chinese serving dishes were

equally brilliant, full of tangy Asian flavours and deep ocean saltiness and crispy light|batters.

Accompanied by generous little mounds of finely chopped scallions and chillies with rich soy sauces, the starters filled the mouth with almost masochistic overloads of spiciness and sting.

Tidy piles of mini spring rolls tried to make an impact among all these culinary fireworks but failed because they were overdone. The dumplings, on the other hand, made their presence felt through their homely, cuddly, squelchy softness, offering a kind of escape, a temporary break from all the excitement and providing enough fortitude to return to the delicious but fiery challenges.

The most memorable and lingering flavour was that of the deep-fried mackerel fillet served with ‘double hot’ chilli sauce. It’s not that the sauce was very hot, it’s just that a bit of chilli with such a potent fish as mackerel provides the kind of flavour to make a committed 60-a-day man with his tongue cut out scream in ecstasy at the sensory explosion.

After the fire-starter openers, the bring-your-own bottle (corkage: £4 for four pops of the opener) started disappearing at an alarming rate. In no time, however, the duck with pak choi, prawns in chilli honey sauce and a small mountain of pan-fried bean sprouts was tucked around the centre of the table for us all to fight over. And then the rice and noodles arrived.

For the next two hours we dipped in and out of this feast, long after it had gone cold, making it last forever. The drink had long been drained by the time we got the bill.

At which point I noticed for the first time a giant oil painting — it must have been 12ft by 4ft — that had hung before us the entire night. An early 20th century Chinese urban scene oddly featuring the Duomo of Milan. Was this some tribute to Italy’s Marco Polo, the first European to bring back a Chinese take away?

Or was it a representation of Macau which lies across the mouth of the Zhiujang River from Hong Kong? Whatever it was, it provided exactly the right kind of quirk to an untypical Chinese restaurant where staff are smart and knowledgeable and in which there is little else to distract the diner from his company or from the delights in front of him.

The Bill

Four meals £89

Corkage £4

Mineral water £2.80

Coffee £2.80

Total £98.60

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