There are few places that are the epicenter of such a dramatic global diversity of culinary influences as the island of Macau. As flavors meld in the pot over time, so too did influences meld in Macau over the 1,500 years the island was governed as an annex of the Chinese Panyu county and the four centuries of Portuguese colonial rule under which the island functioned as a major regional seaport. Over time, a modified Portuguese peasant cuisine developed on the island, with the wives of Portuguese seamen evolving a native cuisine that attempted to approximate familiar European dishes with local ingredients and modifying those dishes to incorporate local Cantonese-driven flavors. Furthermore, as a seaport, many other cuisines influenced Macanese cooking including those from East Africa, South America and India. What resulted was a very dynamic and appealing cuisine in which a true fusion of flavors has developed literally over millenia. During my travels in Macau, I was profoundly influenced by the cooking techniques and flavors. I count Macau as among the best culinary trips of my life.
Enter then, the new and ambitious Chicago restaurant, Fat Rice, which endeavors to replicate Macanese cuisine, but with a contemporary American take. This is, no doubt, a tall order and with two hour table waiting times, no reservations and the recent nod from Bon Appetít Magazine–naming the restaurant among the 10 best new eateries in the United States–you might think you were in for something quite extraordinary. Although Chef Abraham Conlon’s take on this bold culinary style is an honorable one, producing a number of excellent and authentic dishes, overall it comes somewhat short of the source material, much like a copy of a copy. The execution is simply too imperfect to deliver one of this author’s most prized culinary traditions. Nonetheless, the food is quite good and Chef Conlon obviously quite capable.
A journey to Fat Rice is best explained as an immersive experience, one that spans at least two environments and four hours. The experience begins upon initially walking into the dining room to add your name to the waiting list. You see and hear a moderately loud dining area, an exposed kitchen, no shortage of servers and tables filled to the brim with diners. As enticing as this is upon an initial encounter, you’re immediately cast off to either the outside waiting area or a dark and secluded indoor waiting area two doors down. Each waiting area offers a limited menu of bites and a complete menu of alcohol. Oddly enough, you’ll likely spend as much time here as in the dining room itself.
While in waiting, I sampled several of their wine selections which focused on the old world, but none were particularly interesting either because they were overpriced or simply boring. The best wine I sampled was the “Reserva de la Musica” from Jané Ventura, a brut cava of classic composition with roughly equal parts macabeo, xarel-lo and parellada. Fortunately, this can conceivably pair with just about everything on the menu, so take it from me, stick to it.
For food, we ordered pork rinds spiced with white pepper, garlic and salt. Along with the rinds we were given a squeeze bottle filled with red chili-pineapple vinegar. The rinds were perfectly prepared and seasoned, airy and not too greasy.
Our second bite was a plate of house made prawn crackers served with lime wedges and a spicy ketchup. The flavor of the crackers was spot on and the texture impeccable. That said, all we had access to in the waiting area was pork rinds, prawn crackers and what seemed to be a rather large plate of charcuterie. For my guest and I, this presented an unfortunate and potentially appetite restricting dilemma. We opted to conserve our appetite and order the lighter bites. I don’t quite understand why they can’t expand the offerings to all the bites on their full menu as well as the enticing deal of three bites for $10 which they offered in the main dining room but not in the waiting room. Separately, although the service was somewhat inattentive and stoic in the waiting room, the room itself was comfortable enough.
After our mandatory two hour wait, we were seated in the dining room where the service markedly improved. We ordered the Atlantic cod collar on special which was partially cured, basted in a tamarind-vinegar sauce, grilled and served along with a highly acidic salad of Thai eggplant, radish, cabbage and cilantro. The salad was extremely fresh and balanced the heavily salted cod. The cook on the cod was appropriate enough at about medium, but the flavor was more reminiscent of Carolina barbecue. Although it was well-prepared and balanced, the whole endeavor seemed ill-conceived and poorly executed.
Next came our arroz gordo–the house’s signature fat rice. The dish is storied for its elaborate preparation in earthenware. First, the earthenware is soaked in water over night, then the inside coated in oil. Sofrito-scented rice, lap cheong, green grapes, assorted cured olives, various pickled hot peppers and a litany of seasonings are added and slow cooked. During the course of slow cooking, the rice richly caramelizes and proteins are added and finished with the rice. These proteins impressively include Chinese barbecued pork and duck, a classic Portuguese smoked pork sausage called linguiça, whole prawns, whole littleneck clams, Portuguese-style braised chicken and tea eggs (a hardboiled egg finished in green tea, in this case). The dish was finished with pickled vegetables, fresh greens and lemon wedges coated in chili seasoning. On the side was also a shiitake soy sauce, cilantro, fresh sliced jalapeño peppers and a “ghost pepper-habanero hot sauce” which we combined to taste with our rice. The presentation was impressive to say the least and the flavor of the rice was excellent combining sweet, heat and savory in a single dish. The proteins included in cooking gave the rice a robust umami flavor that was delightful. Nonetheless, we were slightly underwhelmed. The dish seemed insufficiently refined for a two hour wait and a $42 price tag. This was nothing much more than slightly refined peasant cuisine, in other words.
As an accompaniment to our arroz gordo, we ordered a special mixed garden stir fry, which was extremely fresh, but eminently vapid.
After all that food, we opted for a classic and light Macau dessert, the serradura, served with seasonal fruit (in our case, fresh peaches). The dessert, which translates as “sawdust,” is simply composed of ground tea cookies (in this case, “almond brittle cookies”) atop sweet cream pudding and the fruit. I’ve never seen a serradura with fresh fruit and it was a welcomed addition.
Overall, I must call my trip to Fat Rice somewhat anticlimactic (which may be expected given my personal experience with Macanese food and all the hype). Nonetheless, Fat Rice offers very good food and, again, that Fat Rice experience that cannot be had elsewhere in Chicago (for better or worse).
2957 W Diversey Ave
Chicago, IL 60647