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Simple delights in Macao cafe

By Rebecca Lo ( China Daily ) Updated: 2013-08-31 02:49:35

Macao's breakneck development over the past 10 years has had its pros and cons. There is a plethora of dining options in plush five-star surrounds, yet independent restaurants struggle to compete, unable to offer the same salaries and benefits to lure a limited pool of staff. It means that smaller establishments not up to snuff have fallen off the foodies' radar or faded away altogether into distant memory.

That was why I was so excited to have reservations at Cafe Litoral on a recent trip to Macao. I first frequented its sister restaurant, Restaurante Litoral, about five years ago and really enjoyed its combination of convivial setting, homey service and hearty fare.

Simple delights in Macao cafe

Galinha a Portuguese arroz or baked Portuguese chicken with rice served at Cafe Litoral in Macao is a rich tomato-and-curry-based dish. [Photos by Rebecca Lo / for China Daily]

Independent Macanese restaurants are a relative novelty in the centuries-old town, as everyone dines at home, at clubs or in hotels. A few independent Portuguese restaurants were opened by retired civil servants, yet their quality was questionable. Then, a number of Macanese ladies decided to take matters into their own hands.

One was Manuela Ferreira, a cook and hostess who loved entertaining. She opened Restaurante Litoral in 1995 and styled it like a charming Portuguese two-story house complete with wrought iron grills decorating narrow windows, blue tiles and delicate wall sconces.

Its runaway success with locals and large groups of visitors spawned Cafe Litoral, a smaller version of the original, which opened in 2008. Located within a stone's throw of Taipa's food street Rua do Cunha, it has the same whitewashed stucco exterior embellished with leafy green vines.

Inside, the main dining room is cheerfully lit to highlight the dark wood furnishings and walls, while white stucco sits above the dado line. There is a private dining room to one side that can be closed off with sliding wooden doors for functions and easily accommodates up to 50 people.

My friends and I were famished after a morning of sightseeing when we sat down. The menu conveniently offered daily lunch specials priced at MOP85 ($11) that include soup and coffee, but we wanted to try as many dishes as possible that caught our fancy.

Scanning the wine list, I noticed that sangria was reasonably priced at MOP110 for a small pitcher, and the house red or white was a bargain at MOP35 per glass. There were also four Taylor ports with different vintages to finish off a meal.

We started off with caldo verde, a rich Portuguese green vegetable soup. It was the perfect combination of cream and leafy collard greens, with potato to thicken it and drizzled with olive oil. Some versions I've had included chunks of chorizo, but I liked this one since there was nothing to distract from the greens' freshness.

The dishes began coming to our table thick and fast afterwards. All were manageable portions so that everyone could try a taste and go back for seconds if they still have room. The saucy dishes were served in clay pots, a lovely touch that reminded me of the homey nature of the restaurant.

I saw a lot of raw onions in the salada mistral a Litoral or seafood salad with squid, and was anxious that it would be too pungent. But after tasting it, I realized that its look was misleading. Tart and refreshing, the chili-flecked onions were tempered with vinegar to allow the seafood flavors to dominate.

Pasteis de bacalhau or codfish cakes were deliciously crunchy on the outside and moist on the inside. I dipped them into the sauce in galinha a Portuguese arroz or baked Portuguese chicken with rice. The rich tomato-and-curry-based dish was dotted with plump chorizo, hard-boiled eggs and black olives to enliven the thick pieces of chicken.

The meaty entrecosio de vaca grelhado or grilled short ribs was peppery and tender, served with a side salad and perfectly crispy French fries. We had that with arroz de marisco or seafood rice, another robust tomato-based dish with green bell peppers.

Dessert was a round of Cafe Litoral's puddings including mango pudding and coconut milk custard. I grabbed the serradura before any of my friends had a chance to do the same, as the biscuit and cream sweet is my favorite Macanese dessert. It was a soothing treat after the somewhat salty dishes we enjoyed, and I marveled once again at how such a simple concoction could bring so much pleasure to my taste buds.

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