It could’ve been better.
There are places which exist to fill the stomach. These places aren’t necessarily bad, but there’s a soulless embodiment that seeks to do nothing but to cure hunger pangs. There’s that, and there are those which offer something beyond the face of the ordinary. It’s in these grand temples that every bite, every moment, every emotion is one to savour and to celebrate – the stuff of dreams and legends are made of. In a lifetime, you might only come across such heaven on Earth perhaps once, or twice. The Michelin guide’s a good place to start, but you’ll only resonate with a handful. It was on a late November’s autumn last year where I found myself enchanted by the magic of Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong. This was me, still full from one of the most amazing breakfast sets at Australia Diary Company just an hour and a half before, completely hyped up by the Michelin star, going in with very high expectations, and still coming out completely mind-blown and awed by the whole experience. Understandably, you might imagine that I was more than ecstatic to hear it was opening in Singapore.
Tim Ho Wan sits cosy on the ground level between Plaza Singapura, and the new extension. According to food bloggers, a high-tech queue system with SMS notification is supposed to reduce the hassle of lines but as of today, it was still not in place. Instead, diners have to queue for more than two hours, the equivalent of a flight to Bangkok, without any relief but a bottle of water. The slow-moving queue can be very dreary, and many patrons will gladly join the lines, but come what may, make sure you’re firmly within the lines before 5.30pm. To make sure there’s enough food and adequate dining time (which Tim Ho Wan guesstimates about 2 hours), the line is closed after 5.30pm.
Despite reassurance of quality and authenticity from chef-proprietor Mak Kwai Pui as reported on local media channels, even going as far as importing the flour used for the restaurant’s famed char siew buns from Hong Kong, it is very clear from the offset that some degree of quality and authenticity has been compromised. While there is no denying that Tim Ho Wan’s presence is a competitive addition to the dim sum scene here in Singapore, I should say that the local incumbents have nothing to fear. There was absolutely nothing that remotely resembled the quality and impression of the Tim Ho Wan’s Michelin starred outlet in Mong Kok, at least for the four I tried over there. You don’t just forget a great meal, and despite a 6 month gap, the memories of that meal in Hong Kong still remain staggeringly fresh. At least for the four classics I tried, the differences were shockingly startling.
Prices here are about ten-percent more than the ones back on the Fragrant Harbor, and the restaurant attempts to compensate that with size, and presentation in aesthetics, which is fair, on the whole. However, this scale, in my opinion, doesn’t translate well. This is most evident with the iconic Baked Bun with BBQ Pork, where the upsize seems to upset the subtle balance between the immaculately buttery brittle pastry and the intoxicating richness of the barbecue sauce and rotisserie pork chunks. The latter feels somewhat weak and diluted while the case degenerates into a contraception that isn’t dissimilar to the Malaysian classic, Rotiboy, or the ubiquitous Hong Kong favorite, the Bo Lo Bun. The famed dish never really achieves the sound contrast between sweet and savory that it’s infamous for, precisely because the buttery cask also skews towards the sweet. Whatever goodwill of savory that might have been intended in the concoction was certainly overwhelmed. It was disappointing, because your mind can’t reconcile with the impression of the late November’s autumn morning, “weird, this doesn’t taste at all like what I had”. If you, like me, feel that Singapore’s Tim Ho Wan has jumped the shark a little bit, then look to Canton Paradise’ iteration of the bun – it’s closer to Tim Ho Wan’s Hong Kong version.
Steamed Fresh Shrimp Dumplings, Har Kau
Tim Ho Wan Singapore adds a single wolfberry atop the Pork Dumplings with Shrimps, which adds absolutely nothing to the composition except aesthetics.
Similarly, the Steamed Fresh Shrimp Dumplings and the Pork Dumpling with Shrimps were alright – good, nothing fancy. For sure, it’s nothing you want to queue up two hours for, especially since there are many places like Crystal Jade, which match or exceed Tim Ho Wan’s Plaza Singapura joint in terms of quality. Certainly, it looks nicer than the ones I had in Hong Kong, but it never goes beyond the extra mile. At this point, I wondered if the quality of the pork might be an issue. It’s not just an issue here, but in many of my experiences from the household to many restaurants. There’s a certain dullness, sterility and unrefined aspect to the pork that lacks a degree of concentration or richness. Once again, the difference is jarring. The only dish that seemed to taste more familiar than the others was the Shrimp Cheong Fun. While the sesame soy combination was clearly lighter and more diluted than the Hong Kong rendition, I still enjoyed it.
Shrimp Cheong Fun
Steamed Egg Cake is soft, light and fluffy.
I’ve never been a fan of the Pan Fried Carrot Cake, and Tim Ho Wan gave me no reason to start. Darren enjoyed it, however.
Steamed Pork Ribs is nothing to write about. I could appreciate some actual edible meat, if you know what I mean.
This Glutinous Rice with Chicken was a little wetter, and more gooey than I’d usually like. Again, I don’t fancy glutinous rice, so I didn’t quite like it.
So, no, not worth the two-hour wait.