Little Island, Big Wine List
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Suppose the day comes when you’re ready to throw cash and caution to the winds and partake of the ultimate wine dinner. Superb food is a given. Harder to find will be a restaurant where the wine list is so filled with the rarest treasures that you’ll page through it with the sort of awe usually reserved for gazing up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Where to seek out such a wine list? New York? Paris? London?
I recommend grabbing a flight to Hong Kong, preferably on passenger friendly Cathay Pacific. Directly from the airport, I’d board a turbojet ferry that speeds westward for an hour through the Pearl River Estuary of the South China Sea to Macao, a steamy, 17 square-mile island off the Chinese mainland. There, I’d check into the 1,000-room Hotel Lisboa, owned by Stanley Ho, longtime gambling kingpin of Macao, once a Portugese trading colony but now the Las Vegas of Southeast Asia. At the dinner hour, ignore the many other restaurants in the Lisboa (though some of them are quite good), and make your way past the smoky gambling halls to Robuchon a Galera (Hotel Lisboa, no. 2-4 Ave. de Lisboa, Macao, 011-853-377-666, hotelisboa.com), an outpost of Paris-based superchef Joel Robuchon.
You’ll only have to get as far as the vestibule of this richly appointed restaurant to know that somebody here is not only passionate about great and rare wine, but has scads of money to invest in it.A set of onyx and brass refrigerated display cases hold a profusion of trophy wines from great vintages. They include magnums (double sized bottles) of Chateau Petrus 1961 and Chateau Cheval Blanc 1947. From Napa Valley, there’s a complete “vertical” of all vintages of Screaming Eagle, currently the most sought after Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon.
Robuchon a Galera’s leather-bound but unadorned wine list runs to 100 pages and an astonishing 3,200 selections, heavily tilted toward the classics of France and Italy. The rarer the wine, it seems, the broader the selection. Got a thing for Chateau Lafite-Rothschild? Be prepared to choose from among 43 selections beginning with 1953. From the great Italian producer Angelo Gaja, there are 35 barbarescos, including a dozen vintages from the extraordinary Sori Tilden vineyard. The priciest wine at Robuchon a Galera, at $20,250, is the most esteemed of Sauternes, Chateau d’Yquem, made in 1847.
Even the most exalted wine, if stored improperly, is worthless. And the tropical heat of Macao is no place to take chances. Robuchon a Galera’s 100,000-bottle inventory is hidden away in seven specially fortified and insulated “cellars,” converted from hotel rooms. All are kept at an ideal 54 degrees and 75% humidity. Back-up generators stand at the ready in case of power failure.
The man behind Robuchon a Galera’s wine trove is soft-spoken Alan Ho, 59, who oversees the Hotel Lisboa as well as several other businesses in the empire of his octogenarian uncle, Stanley Ho. Well aware that Macao’s image, which in the past has been rather seedy, could use some buffing, the younger Mr. Ho persuaded Mr. Robuchon to create a “destination” restaurant at the Lisboa five years ago. The great chef now arrives four times a year to refresh the restaurant’s seasonal menu. He also sends twice-weekly air shipments of fresh ingredients ranging from fois gras to wild mushrooms. Francky Semblatt, trained by Mr. Robuchon in France, is the resident chef.
That stupendous wine list is in the hands of Alan Ho, who first caught the trophy wine bug as a student in Paris. “I’d noticed in the Fauchon wine shop that you could buy unlimited quantities of first growths from great vintages,” he said recently. “But you were limited to one bottle of Romanee-Conti 1971 and it cost far more than the others. So I decided that there must be a reason for that. And after I tasted it, I wasn’t sorry.”
A bottle of that same wine that inspired Mr. Ho can be yours at Robuchon a Galera for $8,375. Nine other vintages of Romanee-Conti are also available, the most expensive being the 1959 at $11,875. These prices, astronomical as they are, are in many cases no higher than auction prices for wines that are more rare art than beverage. And, Mr. Ho said, “Many of our customers come over from Hong Kong because the tax on wine is lower here.”
Sensible luxury is the order of the day at the restaurant. The carpet is deep, the upholstered dining chairs preposterously comfortable, the tables widely spaced. Overhead, a galaxy of fiber optic lights tipped with Swarovski crystal twinkles. For a wine buff, it’s the crystal on the table that counts: Riedel’s top of the line, hand-blown and oversized Sommelier series of stemware. No glassware is its equal in capturing the aromas of a wine. I savored a Brane-Cantenac 1999 from Margaux in a Sommelier Bordeaux glass at the restaurant. It was so good that I bought a bottle upon my return to New York. But, in a lesser glass – and, I suppose, a lesser setting – the wine failed to sing as it had in Macao.
As I sipped that Brane-Cantenac that evening in Macao, a man hosting a party at the adjacent table was on his mobile phone. “Two of my horses won at the track today,” he was saying. “So we’re celebrating big.” I don’t have any horses, but right then, I made a promise to myself: If the doctor ever sits me down and says that my time is short and I’d better put my affairs in order, the first thing I’ll do is jet off to Macao with my family for a grand dinner at Robuchon a Galera. I may not be immortal, but the wines on the table will be.