In pursuit of the Michelin star, I find that sometimes, the best things in life can come from anywhere.
The rather large cup of Hong Kong style milk tea I had at Australian Diary Company had unexpectedly thrown a spanner into my plans. Imagine my shock horror when I realized I was beyond full. I wondered if I would continue with my food trail – any attempt to think of eating only induced a gag reflex. It was still a good three hours until my next venture opens for business, and I didn’t want to make any rash decisions, but I decide to walk there – roughly three stations length from Jordon to Yau Ma Tei. In between, I stumble into Ladies’ Market, or what was left of it – the only hint that the site was once a hive of activity was the immense trash. There was a certain Resident Evil vibe going on, with hardly anybody still along the streets. I move on, northwards closer to my next stop.
When You Wish Upon A Star
The Michelin star.
What started out as a guide for French drivers cruising through the beautiful French countryside for rest stops and restaurants, has become one the definitive act of judgement of culinary excellence today. Ever since Michelin unveiled the Hong Kong-Macau guide a few years ago, and casually slipped that Singapore was on course for its own guide, the island nation has become a beacon for international chefs. In a span of just two years, everyone from Gordon Ramsey to Jason Atherton, Joel Roubuchon to Hide Yamamoto, have all set up outposts. Not to be outdone, Singapore chefs have seemingly become more entrepreneurial; becoming proprietors instead of just being a hired gun. In the course of my professional career, all but one chef claim that they’re here “just to make people happy”. But beyond that calm posterior is an undeniable sense of anticipation and anxiety – the stars (pun intended) are aligning, it’s the calm before the storm, everybody is obviously waiting. Of course, time will tell if that wait is futile or not, but hey, I’m not complaining. Every single day, more so than the day before, are new dining concepts being made available and presented. There’s such a hive of creativity, it’s insane.
If there was any indication that the Michelin guide was all about fine dining establishments and French haute cuisine, that misconception was certainly busted when the Hong Kong guide was unveiled. It demonstrated not only that a really good dining experience can come from any cuisine, it can come from anywhere. In the list lay a small, quaint dim sum parlor sitting no more than thirty in a single service. In Hong Kong, Tim Ho Wan stood out not as a sore thumb, but a lone reed – serving Cantonese dim sum as they still do in Shunde (now part of the city of Guangzhou) – believed to be the origin of Cantonese cuisine – instead of Hong Kong dim sum. Located some way off Mongkok MTR station along Kwong Wa Street, Tim Ho Wan is better known for being the world’s cheapest Michelin star restaurant. But the quality is anything but cheap.
There are four branches: one at the IFC Mall in Central, and another at Causeway Bay, but the one at Mongkok is the one that has earned the star. According to TripAdvisor, the first start queuing at around 9am, but when I reached the place at 8.30am, there were already two people in front of me. I’ve to admit that I was delirious at points: wondering if queuing at 8.30am for a 10am opening was really worth it, but I stood on, with my earphones blasting the then newly released Will.I.Am. and Britney Spears’ single, Scream & Shout on repeat. As the infamous line materialized and lengthened, I became convinced that when I die, I’d realize I made the right decision to stand in queue for two hours on that cold Saturday morning. It’s crucial you make the first batch, because at 10am sharp, the first twenty-five are escorted in, while the staff begin dispersing the long queues by handing out queue numbers. The restaurant team is small, and they don’t have a lot of patience, so they call out a number a total of twice before striking it down and calling the subsequent digit. You’re better off just sticking around, and fanning off to whichever direction the staff want to shoo you from, and waiting for your queue number to be called. If you miss it, you’re guaranteed to miss lunch service, and your number doesn’t get passed down to dinner. For dinner, you’ve to queue all over again.
The team at Tim Ho Wan have got the whole dining experience down to a science. It’s not even a restaurant. I’d say it’s a really small, cramped room. The place is puny, so there’s a lot of shifting of tables to slot customers into their seats, so the meal service for the entire batch doesn’t begin until the twenty-fifth individual is settled down. It sounds really tedious and time-consuming, but I assure you all of this happens within two or so minutes, and the service staff, while not overly friendly or talkative, are still nevertheless passionate, enthusiastic about what they do, and do go the extra mile to make sure you’re comfortable. Then the food arrives…
I’m presented with a serving of three Baked Bun with BBQ Pork, a take on the Cantonese dim sum classic, Char Siew Pau. It differs from what I’m previously familiar with, with an immaculate pock faced white crusted pastry. The image isn’t totally unfamiliar – I was served a similar iteration at a media tasting at Singapore’s Canton Paradise nearly a year ago. I bite into the surprisingly brittle yet firm case, and immediately catch onto the sensuous sweetness of the barbecue sauce and finely diced chunks of rotisserie pork – a fine combination. The whole experience is light, and even after the first, second, and even third bun, it’s consistently light and never unnecessarily filling like its more contemporary counterparts. Paired with Chinese tea, it went down really easily.
This next one is one of my notable mentions simply because it’s so difficult to find the Cantonese version in Singapore. Like so many dishes that we take for granted, dim sum too has gone through a little evolution within the local community, and while most aspects have remained unchanged, the areas that have changed, have evolved completely into something else. One of those, is Chee Cheong Fun. In the little red dot, this classic has shifted from the savory to a sweet snack – something that I don’t quite fancy. But when I placed my order, I almost missed this because at Tim Ho Wan, it’s translated as “rice dumpling”. This detail is made known to me, and I order the Shrimp Cheong Fun. This simple course is simple enough. Made from flattened out rice flour cakes encasing usually either small strips of savory steamed meat, be it barbecued pork, pig liver or shrimp, the only form of garnish or seasoning is a splash of sesame sauce drizzled in a shallow pool of a delicious soy sauce. The trick to mastering this dish is the rice flour – it shouldn’t be opaque. Instead, it should be translucent but not too weak that it comes apart when one picks it up with chopsticks. It was just, perfect – runny, it melted in the mouth perfectly.
It has been a long time since I was last impressed by Steamed Fresh Shrimp Dumplings, or Har Kau, in Hong Kong. The last time I heard, there was an exodus of dim sum chefs ever since the handover and continuing into the early 21st Century, seduced by better opportunities and prospects overseas, particularly places like Canada, Australia, the US and Singapore. Tim Ho Wan reinforces Hong Kong as the dim sum capital. The Har Kau here might not possess the precision or beauty of elegantly presented baskets like those one might find at Singapore’s Peony Jade, but it makes up for presentation and consistency in heart and undeniable freshness. Likewise with the Pork Dumpling With Shrimp, or Siew Mai. The flavors were just, mind-blowing. You might read all this, and go, is he for real? Can dim sum get any better than it currently is. And to you, I’ll answer, “Yes”, and I don’t think I’ll ever convince you unless you too, have it yourself.
Mind blown, socks off, I wanted to order more… but I simply couldn’t stomach anymore. The reality of having two breakfasts had now hit me, so despite it all, I had to leave. But at least, I can say that Tim Ho Wan’s Michelin star is in every sense of the word, worth every pointy end.