The year was 2010. The city was Hong Kong. People went about their day like it was any other, but foodies were waiting with bated breath to see what restaurants would take out stars in the 2010 Hong Kong/Macau Michelin Guide. Most expected 2009 winners like Amber and Lung King Heen to return with their stars. But then again, that wouldn’t be surprising – those restaurants are incredibly expensive, with impeccable service and you’d hope, exceptional food. They are far out of reach of the layman’s budget, to be saved for the most special of occasions.
And then, out of the blue, a bombshell. Chef Mak Kwai Pui’s Tim Ho Wan in Mong Kok, only opened in the previous year of 2009, scored itself a Michelin star. This is a yum cha restaurant where the most expensive of dishes come out to less than $5AUD, where a meal for two comes in at less than $15AUD PP. Almost overnight, the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant took Hong Kong by storm. Soon after, foodies around world have all contributed to the queues that Tim Ho Wan is famous for, perhaps as famous as its dim sum.
And now, the world’s cheapest Michelin starred restaurant is open in Sydney. Tim Ho Wan, say hi to Sydney. Sydney, say hi to queues longer than the Great Wall of China!
Date Last Visited: 25/4/15
Address: The District 436 Victoria Ave Chatswood, NSW 2067
Recommended Dish(es): baked BBQ pork bun, beancurd w/pork & shrimp, mango sago pomelo, osmanthus cake
Minor Update – Price Increase
I hadn’t noticed this, but Tim Ho Wan has raised their prices. For example, a plate of pork buns used to cost $6.8; it now costs $7.8. I don’t know the full extent of price rises, and so I’m unable to comprehensively change every price point in this post. Prices were correct at time of visit.
List of Updates (Chronological Ascending)
The Original Tim Ho Wan Australia Post
Make no mistake, Mak Kwai Pui is no stranger to dim sum. While foodies can argue back and forth about whether high-end Cantonese restaurant Lung King Heen is truly deserving of Michelin’s highest accolade, the fact is Pui is an alumnus from this institution. He has been making dim sum since the age of 16, so he knows a thing or two about these little parcels of glory.
While he isn’t personally overseeing the dim sum at Tim Ho Wan Sydney, we shouldn’t be too worried – Tim Ho Wan has poached Mr Wong’s head chef Eric Koh to take care of the Chatswood operation. You can say the place is in good hands.
Speaking of the Chatswood store, Tim Ho Wan eventually intends to open an outlet in the CBD, as well as Burwood. If you’re not willing to queue up (and by looking at the pictures, I completely understand), you can hold out till then!
I’m not kidding about the queues, by the way. I use an ultra-wide lens, and not even that could capture the queue in its entirety. So, what’s the wait like when you join the queue past those phone booths?
Try 150 minutes?
Is it even worth that kind of a wait? My opinion is that unless something is a limited-time offer, nothing is worth waiting such a long time for, unless you’re doing it for the company.
So short answer: no. Was that a spoiler alert for how good/bad Tim Ho Wan Chatswood would be? Not so. Read on.
Can you make reservations? The answer is yes: with a big but. The only table you can book is Tim Ho Wan’s private room, of which there is only one. That room seats 12 people, and you can freely book as long it’s available…
…as long as you agree to abide by a $300 minimum spend policy. Bring your jaw back up – $300 between 12 is only $25 per person. It’s completely possible.
We booked the private room…with only seven people. Heh, we’re not your average folk, our avengers lineup was as follows:
We know how to eat.
Should you decide to queue up, you will be issued a double-sided order form (two pics above). Simply fill out the quantity you desire and hand it to staff when you’re given a table. This ensures the quickest possible service. I have heard many horror stories about teething issues – dropped/incorrect orders, a generally rushed resulting in spills and dropped food etc.
Honestly, if you’re going to review a place, give it a bit of time. Early adopters are like beta testers, especially places like yum cha, where service isn’t exactly their strongest virtue. In fact, it’s almost traditional to expect substandard service.
That said, apart from an order of tea which had to be repeated three times, service was fast, efficient and genuinely helpful.
Speaking of which, this is the grand private room table. It’s the only round table in the restaurant, and from a foodie’s perspective, has the worst possible lighting you could wish for. If you’re going to be taking photos, the queue for a public table might actually be worth it. Just saying.
When you’ve got 7 #foodiepigs going hard at it, you kind of want to order a bit of everything.
So that’s exactly what we did. Actually, this receipt could have been a little bit longer. You see, several dishes – the steamed egg cake and the spinach dumplings, were unavailable. Unfortunately, one of the machines that supports the making of cheong fun (these things – you know you’ve had them) was broken on the day. Thus all four cheong fun dishes were also unavailable.
It’s somewhat disappointing, because the egg cake and one of the cheong fun are part of Tim Ho Wan’s “Four Heavenly Kings”. These are the dishes that they are most known for, so losing half of them is a big blow. Good thing I’m going again in two weeks, under another private room booking; Eyyyyyyyyy.
Other than those missing elements, we managed to order every other dish on the menu. It’s just how we do it. Want to know what that looks like? Sorry, you can’t. One picture just cannot contain them all.
But I can try.
Since I’m revisiting Tim Ho Wan soon, I’ll add a concluding remark to each dish I talk about in this review – would I reorder this dish?
If you’ve been to Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong before, you will feel my pain when I say “DEM AUSTRALIAN PRICES”. Indeed, it’s fully understandable why it is the way it is, but paying a 200%+ markup on HK prices is still a bitter pill to swallow if you’ve experienced the sweetness of non-Australian pricing. Ahhh…one can but dream.
Anywho, the first dish that I managed to actually eat (after about 10 minutes of photo taking) was the glutinous rice in lotus leaf w/chicken. This is a pretty big portion and should be shared. Within this lotus leaf lies a pile of rice cooked from the inside, mixed with braised chicken, the sauces of which seep throughout the rice.
This stuff is delicious when made well, as it’s incredibly aromatic. When street vendors sell this stuff on the street on a cold day in winter…you know that day is not a day to resist temptation.
Tim Ho Wan’s rendition is also quite delicious – but you must eat it before it becomes cold. While still hot, the rice is sticky and soft at the same time, but never mushy. The chicken is firm and fragrant. I think the rice could have been more evenly seasoned (some parts were just clumps of rice, others full of flavour). Other than that, a solid way to kick things off, even if you are meant to start with dim sum.
Would I reorder: yes.
A quintessential dim sum of any yum cha spread, prawn dumplings (or har gau as many have learned to call them) are a must order every time.
But then again, I may have to rethink that about Tim Ho Wan’s har gau.
There’s nothing wrong with them. Glutinous skin that doesn’t break, ample amounts of shrimp with plenty of umami. I just don’t think I can order them again because they cost nearly $8 for four. I’ve talked about pricing already and that I understand the logic, I would still personally skip this and fill my stomach with better, cheaper dishes. Lucky, Tim Ho Wan is full of those – moving along!
Would I reorder: no (but I would definitely re-eat if others wanted to order this)
Pork dumplings (or siu mai) are, like har gau, another fundamental element of any yum cha. Once again, Tim Ho Wan delivers the goods on flavour and texture – the pork was fragrant as the wonton-like skins were chewy & tender. The inclusion of a goji berry on top is a nice touch. Make sure to get an extra dollop of chilli sauce to really sweeten the deal.
Would I order again: yes
Next up is a personal favourite of mine – beancurd skin ‘rolls’ w/pork & shrimp filling. These are so unhealthy, but so delicious. It’s well-known that I love all things soybean (particularly tofu), so this kind of dish is right up my alley. I’m pretty sure I ate three just by myself. I’m particularly fond of how chewy the skin is, and when you do get through that flavoursome skin, you reach the juicy pork & shrimp on the inside. No condiments needed – it’s #sojuicy all by itself.
Would I reorder: yes.
By now, you may be wondering how does Tim Ho Wan’s standard dim sum dishes compare to those of other well-known yum cha restaurants in Sydney. Verdict? It’s about par. THW isn’t exceptionally better, but nor is it lagging behind. You will get quality dim sum if you visit, but don’t expect your world to be blown away if you’re a yum cha aficionado.
So why queue up for hours then? Surely there’s something to be said of the four heavenly kings? Let me introduce you to the only King, as far as I’m concerned. Say hello to spread #2.
This is where it’s at. Those 9 buns of glory in the centre? Oh, just you wait – hey, are you scrolling down already? GET BACK HERE.
Sorry, going to keep you in suspense for just a little longer!
A dish that’s not as commonly seen in yum cha is a dish that involves rice. Tim Ho Wan has three types (one of which was the first dish). Here, we have a small pot of rice w/beef & fried egg. A fried egg sits atop a bed of egg white-soaked beef in a soy-based sauce, which seeps through to a bed of rice cooked underneath. Don’t be fooled, the majority of this dish is actually rice. Best shared between 2-3 as well.
The dish is surprisingly tasty, though only the top part. The rice is well-cooked, but there simply isn’t enough beef to go around to make the entire thing a wholesome experience. On an averaging basis, the dish could have used more flavour.
Would I reorder: no.
The third rice dish on Tim Ho Wan’s 25-item menu is rice w/chicken, Chinese sausage & mushroom. Yes, it’s that Chinese sausage and it’s delicious. A shame only two halves are provided – implying this is to share between two. It’s a similar story to the previous rice dish – the sausage and a decent piece of shiitake sits on top a pile of poached chicken, which itself sits on top another bed of rice.
That chicken is freaking amazing. It’s the best chicken I’ve had at yum cha – fragrant almost to the point of ambrosial, tender to the point of being dainty. This was chicken that left a surprisingly strong impression on me, and for that reason alone, I would reorder.
Would I reorder: well…yeah.
I usually have a rule not to order any fried goods at yum cha, for health reasons and because most Chinese people actually avoid the fried stuff as well. You guessed it, frying up was popularised as a way of getting Westerners into yum cha. I daresay it worked, though.
Still, in the interests of sampling that spice of life we call variety, we called up three plates of deep-fried wasabi prawn dumplings. This is somewhat unique, as I haven’t had a similar dish. You definitely know the wasabi sauce is wasabi, but it doesn’t burn you in the same way as pure wasabi does. Rest assured – the sauce is a bit like a runny mayo, and is quite delicious when crunching through the dumplings. As for that part of the equation, think of har gau fillings with a crispy exterior. Good stuff. I would not reorder it due to health considerations outweighing its taste, but it is definitely worth a first try.
Would I reorder: no (but try it once)
One of Tim Ho Wan’s four heavenly kings is the pan-fried turnip/carrot cake. If you have never had this before, you might be surprised to know the texture is actually more akin to a very firm jelly, instead of the actual crunchiness of turnip. When pan-fried and enjoyed with soy sauce, it’s highly addictive.
Tim Ho Wan’s turnip cakes are great – highly consistent texture (though perhaps a bit too smooth – I expected bits of turnip strewn about) and a good amount of charring (though I always like more char). I’m not sure why they’re heavenly king status though – they’re not that good, and the best of the rest of Sydney’s yum cha easily equal it. I’d still get it again though. The general gist of Tim Ho Wan’s dim sum is that they are competitive with Sydney’s rest, rest assured.
Would I reorder: yes
Ok, I’ll stop teasing you. The pork buns. Our table was lit in such a way that the centre gets about 5x the light as the rest of the table, so it made sense to put these buns into the…uhh…spotlight.
These buns are what catapulted Tim Ho Wan into everyone’s yum cha spotlight. Well, actually it was the Michelin star, but the buns no doubt have had a huge weighting into the final decision.
Indeed, Tim Ho Wan only has these buns in lieu of traditional char steamed siu pork buns. If you prefer steamed, then this isn’t for you. But I absolutely implore you to try anyway.
Ok, so what’s so good about them? It starts with the crust. Warm, fluffy but also crumbly. There’s no hardness or unevenness in the bun at all, you go through the exterior with ease. The “ava-like shapes that are on top of each bun is a secret recipe of Tim Ho Wan, piped onto each bun which gives it an added layer of crispiness that’s unmistakably sweet. That’s right, this is one of those sweet & savoury dishes, which plays well to char siu’s strengths.
The bun itself is so good, it can be fully enjoyed on its own without any pork inside it. It is what makes these pork buns special, after all. Some friends remarked that they’re a bit too sweet. This is a personal preference, but I relish that sweetness. A guilt trip I’m more than happy to indulge in.
But the in case the fun of the bun isn’t enough for you, there’s the char siu inside as well. This is more standard stuff, with a dicier char siu which is gooey and full of a sweet-BBQ flavour.
This is heaven. Some things transcend words, and the taste of these buns is one of them.
Some people will prefer the steamed fluffiness of a standard char siu bun, others will find this too sweet. To each their own – I would be happy to be served either. My one piece of negative feedback? They’re smaller than the buns from Tim Ho Wan’s Hong Kong branches. But don’t worry, if you haven’t visited THW in HK, you’re not really going to comprehend that!
No, I still would not queue up for these, but I will if I found out I could never have them again.
Would I reorder: every damn time.
For the rest of the meal, no matter what I ate, I was craving those pork buns. I regretted not ordering more, but in doing so would mean I couldn’t taste everything else on the menu. For example, I wouldn’t have found out how mediocre the spring rolls w/shrimp & egg were. These were…decidedly average, with agreement from the group. We vote with our mouths – we left most of these untouched (they did get taken home in the end). They are crunchy, but quite a tough crunch (you could cut your tongue on these), and the filling needed a heavy dose of sauce to bring out any flavour. A pass from us.
Would I reorder: no.
The deep fried beancurd roll w/shrimp on the other hand is a dish I’m far more partial to. Once again, it’s due to the beancurd, which I cannot get enough of. Crispy but also chewy, these are fun to eat purely for the texture. Fortunately, they’re well-seasoned. I don’t think I would reorder these again because they’re not good enough to take up valuable stomach space, but once again they’re worth a first try.
Would I reorder: no.
I honestly can’t believe I ordered what is essentially lettuce. I also can’t believe I ordered two servings.
I also can’t believe they are a stunning eight dollars eighty each. With that kind of money, I could get another 3 pork buns with change to spare. Or I could buy three full heads of lettuce and drizzle my own soy sauce over them.
I know greens are important, and these do actually do a decent job of “cancelling out” a lot of the guilty stuff in the other oil-laden dishes but…
…sorry guys, I promise I won’t make that mistake again.
Would I reorder: no.
The order of the dishes was bizarre enough such that we got our desserts before even more savouries. Lesson: in yum cha, there is no definition of pacing. On the plus side, since Chinese desserts do not involve things that melt, so you can comfortably leave these till last. Or you could just eat them immediately, like I did with the tonic medlar & osmanthus cake.
These are basically jellies with an osmanthus (a type of tea) flavouring. Do you like jellies? You will love this dish, I know I do. It’s a great-tasting jelly, pure and simple. The texture is exactly like jelly, perhaps a bit more solid. There’s a bit of chewiness here and there from little bits of goji and osmanthus in random distribution throughout the structure, a welcome move. It’s not too sweet, nor is it too lacking in sweetness. A surprisingly delectable signature I am most keen to try again.
Would I reorder: yes.
The other dessert on Tim Ho Wan’s menu is the mango sago pomelo ‘pudding’. I call it a ‘pudding’ even though it’s really like a thick liquid that you drink. I’m not sure what else to call it, to be honest. This is a very refreshing, not-too-sweet drink with texture of mango bits, pomelo bits and sago. It’s a very simple dessert, served cold, and everybody at the table liked it.
Would I reorder: yes.
So after dessert we have post-dessert, which is to say more savoury dishes! Fish maw w/prawn paste is one of the more expensive dishes, ratio-wise, you can order from the menu. This makes sense, as fish maw is a fairly expensive item. Some of my dining companions remarked that the fish maw isn’t really fish maw, as it tasted different to what their expectations of fish maw is. I personally did not have these reservations – I quite enjoyed the chewy fish (or whatever it is) on top, but also surprisingly digged the gelatinous mess of a ‘paste’ underneath it.
Some of you are going to hate that kind of texture, but I found it rather addictive!
Would I reorder: yes.
Beef balls are, like har gau & siu mai, a common staple of most yum cha repertoires. It was inevitable I would face these globes of protein, an inexorable conclusion that I’m more than happy to accept.
The first thing that surprised me was the texture of these things. Instead of the chunky beef I was expecting, what I ate was actually reminiscent of that gelatinous prawn paste underneath the fish maw above. It hardly tasted like beef at all in terms of texture, though there was a beefy flavour in the aftertaste. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy it…it simply surprised me in a way I wouldn’t altogether call pleasant.
Would I reorder: no.
Of the few things I don’t eat, chicken feet is one of them. I was not game to try them this time, though I may do so on my second visit. Initial feedback from my dining companions was that it’s a mediocre dish – the sauce is nice, but the chicken itself is flavourless. Take from that what you will!
reorder: yes, to try for the first time.
And that is Tim Ho Wan for you, ladies and gentleman. In the end, we spent around $315 at $45pp. Admittedly, we couldn’t finish all the food (without stuffing ourselves to the point of self-loathing), so the realistic spend for a satisfactory lunch would have been around $35pp.
You know how they say a rule of yum cha is that no matter how much is ordered, it never costs more than $25pp? Not so at Tim Ho Wan. There’s no doubt you’re paying a bit extra here. That, coupled with the prospects of up to two hours queuing in the cold, can easily put the majority of people off. The food in general is well-cooked, tasty and quality is evident. However, it is not necessarily not superior to other yum cha in Sydney. You’re not missing out on too much.
So is there any reason for this hype? Are Sydneysiders not buying into Mak Kwai Pui’s dim sum, which is good enough that even Michelin awarded a star?
Well…you’re really coming for this. It just so happens that the rest of the yum cha is also pretty good.
Update 1: Tim Ho Wan Australia (Chatswood) – The Rest of the Dishes
In the original post on Tim Ho Wan Sydney, I lamented the fact that I wasn’t able to try out the entire menu, but got so, so close. Well, never let it be said that I’m a lazy blogger. With another private room booked for two weeks later, I was back with a vengeance. This time, I had twelve warriors with me, as opposed to the six from my last visit. You can be sure that I reordered everything I said is worth reordering, and them some. But first, onto the goodies I wasn’t able to cover last time!
The steamed egg cake is one of Tim Ho Wan’s ‘Four Heavenly King’ dishes. The best way to describe it would be to think of a hot chiffon cake. It’s very light, airy and fluffy, with a slightly sweetish and ‘heartiness’ that’s heavily redolent of eggs. That kind of makes sense.
The general table consensus is that this is a great dish, and I agree. We’re glad it was available this time around, because we ended ordering this dish seven times.
Would I reorder: done, done and done.
The only dumplings I did not manage to try out last time were the spinach dumplings w/shrimp. I always like the look of these dumplings – that you can see through the clear skin into the greenery inside is something that’s more or less unique to yum cha.
Where I am taken by sight, I am not taken by taste. These weren’t all that good – there was too much spinach, which only has a mushy texture to it. There was not enough shrimp to counterbalance this, and thus the whole thing was a textural flop. My best tactic for getting this down was to heavily douse it in chilli.
Would I reorder: no.
Ahh, the cheong fun. Tim Ho Wan has four types of this stuff, three with fillings of shrimp, pig’s liver, BBQ pork (the same stuff in the pork buns), or just plain with sesame & sauce drizzled on top. We ended up having the first three because I don’t want to eat pure rice noodle sheets. The only picture I took was of the pig’s liver (above), but they all look like you’d expect them to (shrimp looks like pink…shrimp, BBQ pork looks like BBQ pork, etc.)
The pig’s liver variant is special as it’s the one that Tim Ho Wan considers one of its Four Heavenly Kings, so my chopsticks headed there first.
It…really wasn’t much to write home about, though I am writing about it. The rice noodle is quite nice, smooth, soft and chewy, no better or worse than a decent cheong fun in other yum cha restaurants. The pig’s liver was fairly bland by itself, and needed a good dose of the rather lightly-flavoured soy sauce to bring it out. Then again, I can’t say I’ve always been the biggest proponent of liver.
All in all, it’s worth a try, but I wouldn’t say it’s an absolute must. Having said that, cheong fun is pretty much a standard dish to be ordered at yum cha, so if you must get it, I’d recommend opting for the BBQ pork or shrimp versions instead. There’s a bit more flavour and texture going on in both of those.
Would I order again: no.
And finally, that rounds it up. Every dish at Tim Ho Wan. Even the lettuce. To make up for my folly, I did this:
So how much did our 13 conquerers spend? Try $826 for size.
So, do my conclusions made in the original post change? Not really. The other dishes are still the same, with good pork buns and good desserts, and average dishes elsewhere. We still appear to be getting exceptional service, which is something that 85% of Urbanspoon reviewers apparently disagree with. Private rooms really are the bees knees, it would seem.
Tim Ho Wan’s not going anywhere, let me tell you that. For every person that hates on it because of the service, there’s five more Chinese who couldn’t care less, and will take home 12 plates of pork buns, like we did. Viva la pork bun!
This post is based on two independent visits to Tim Ho Wan Chatswood
Have you been to Tim Ho Wan in Chatswood yet? Have you visited any of the branches in Hong Kong? What do you think of all this hype over what is essentially a yum cha joint? Let me know in the comments below!
- The pork bun. It is happiness in a bun.
- Most yum cha dishes are up to scratch – competitive with the rest of what Sydney has to offer
- You can skip the queue if you pony up >$300 for the private room
- The food comes reasonably quick
- Service is quite decent for a yum cha restaurant
- If the pork bun were not on the menu Tim Ho Wan would be ‘Yet Another Yum Cha Joint’
- Several dishes miss the mark
- Still teething issues to be sorted out
- The queueing is pure insanity
- Tim Ho Wan is so overhyped that despite the fact that it’s actually a nice place, people will ultimately be disappointed because the reality (it’s good) will not live up to their expectations (this will change my life)
I have a new scoring system! Read all about it here.
Most important takeaway – three separate scores for food, service and ambiance to give the final score. The new system is not compatible with any score given prior to 11/11/2014.
F6 | S3.5 | A2