Folly fixed at Macau’s Asian Tapas

The new restaurant in a familiar South St. Pete space is worth a visit.

click to enlarge UNCOMMONLY GOOD: Where Macau’s really shines is in its less familiar dishes, like this cold crispy duck salad. - Arielle Stevenson
Arielle Stevenson
UNCOMMONLY GOOD: Where Macau’s really shines is in its less familiar dishes, like this cold crispy duck salad.

When Dan Soronen announced he would open Shackleton’s Folly in South St. Pete, many people thought that the future of the bar and restaurant was embedded in the name. The haters (or realists) were correct, although the questionable location was only part of that drama.

After Folly came The Yard, a reference to the strip-mall pub’s odd back deck, sand-pit volleyball court and grassy area built up by Soronen.

Now, a new concept has taken over, back yard and all, with a vastly different concept that also seems eerily familiar — Macau’s Asian Tapas. Walk into the place and you’d be hard-pressed to see any major changes, even after three months under the new regime.

There’s still a whole lot of wood built into the long bar and plentiful booths. There are still plenty of televisions broadcasting the latest action from ESPN and regional sports stations. The walls behind the bar are still covered in beer art to go along with the decent selection on draft and in the bottle. Look closer and you’ll see a few discordant international touches scattered among Guinness mirrors and the like, but it isn’t until you ask for a menu that the international shift is apparent.

Asian tapas? Sure, in the way that many pan-Asian appetizers are served on small plates, these days that qualifies as tapas-y. Scan the menu and you’ll see dozens of small and big plates that range across Southeast Asian cuisine, like Vietnamese pho, sausage from Laos, noodles from Thailand.

The pan-Asian standards are hit-and-miss at Macau’s, the pho broth bland and devoid of the heady scent of star anise, making a sad base for the otherwise fresh veggies, noodles and herbs served alongside. Pad thai, however, is some of the best in the area, the elastic noodles accented with bright tamarind and a dose of fish sauce, the meat tender and incorporated into the flavors. Stir fries like phad pak are largely typical stuff, no worse or better than what you’d find just about anywhere.

Where Macau’s really shines is in its less-common dishes, like the cold crispy duck salad. The hunks of chopped duck have been cooked until the skin is crispy but not all the fat has rendered, making each bite an odd mélange of crunch, meat and chewy fat that works thanks to a hefty dose of garlic and onion, as well as a blast of citrus from the salad’s dressing.

Paradise beef is another winner, and simple in the extreme. Take strips of dried beef, deep fry until somewhat crisp, then serve with a sweet and spicy sauce that helps moisten the otherwise dessicated — but very tasty — flesh. A plate of spicy Lao sausage is another simple dish, and very tapas-y, with thick slices of gamey pork sausage laced with a serious amount of garlic and a hint of chile heat.

Papaya salad is the one down note among Macau’s less-common dishes. The massive pile of shredded green papaya hangs limp on the fork, with a lackluster dressing that has all the heat, but none of the sweet, salty or sour that usually enlivens this salad.

Macau’s angel wings show that Asian cuisines know the secrets behind boneless chicken. They’re less wings and more a stuffed chicken roll, the interior packed with ground chicken, herbs and minced vegetables, the exterior fried to a crisp, with a side of sweet chile garlic sauce to cut through the mishmash of textures and add some heat.

What makes Macau’s such an exciting place really isn’t the food, although that’s a part of it. The beauty of the experience lies both in what’s been added and what was already in place. Macau’s is now a sports bar with a sand-pit volleyball court, outdoor deck, grassy yard, craft beer, pubby atmosphere and largely tasty Asian cuisine.

Sometimes, a folly can be turned to a success, if you just keep adding on until it clicks.