Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Michelin-starred Dim Sum (Yes, you read it right.)

For me, the appeal of dim sum has always been two-fold: it's part sentimentality and part taste. When I was growing up, dim sum outings were occasional but reliably enjoyable treats. It meant having the whole family sit at a large round table, the lazy Susan in the middle of the table completely covered with small plates and small bamboo steamers (sometimes stacked on top of each other when there wasn’t enough space) containing pieces of delectable dim sum, exchange of friendly banter as well as critiques on the aforesaid pieces of dim sum (especially when they were not so delectable) and lovely Chinese desserts to sweeten the deal at the end of the meal. Indeed, few things can beat a noisy family get-together centred around food.
Taste-wise, there’s something about good dim sum that inspires delight when you bite into a delicious and delicately crafted bite-sized morsel of food. You see, “dim sum”, a Cantonese term, literally translates into "touch the heart". And there is no doubt that “touch the heart” is the guiding philosophy in the craft of dim sum making. When you get to savour good dim sum, you can definitely feel the chef touching your heart with his sincerity, creativity, and dedication through his creations.
Dim sum may have originated in the Guangdong province of China, but it is Hong Kong which appears to have a stranglehold on the synonym for dim sum. Dim sum is so much a part of a Hong Konger's regular diet that when an English daily in Hong Kong recently ran a report on Hong Kongers' diet, "dim sum" was identified as a category of food separate from vegetables, fruits and meats!  So, to prepare myself for a trip to Hong Kong earlier this month, I did some research in a bid to identify great dim sum eateries/restaurants that I can visit for some proper epicurean epiphanies in the heart-warming world of dim sum.
I was most tickled when I found out that Michelin stars have been awarded to dim sum restaurants in the latest edition of the Michelin Guide for Hong Kong and Macau. Oh, wait, correction: I was even more tickled by the fact that Michelin-starred food, in this case dim sum, can be had for as little as HK$10 (that’s approximately S$1.80 or US$1.30)! The place that holds the distinction for serving the cheapest Michelin-starred food in the world is a hole-in-the-wall eatery known as Tim Ho Wan in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong.
Michelin stars usually conjure images of chi-chi fine dining restaurants complete with mildly disinterested European maitre-d’s, high ceilings, hushed tones, voluminous wine lists and jackets-for-gentlemen requirements, amongst others. The only thing Tim Ho Wan has in common with those images is that it has a disinterested maitre-d. Well, sort of. 

A very disinterested and impatient lady (not in this picture) at the rostrum in front of Tim Ho Wan is in charge of handing out queue numbers which are hastily scribbled on the back of old checks to locals and tourists alike who hunger for a taste of Michelin-starred dim sum at incredibly affordable prices. A note written in Chinese and stuck onto the glass door of Tim Ho Wan explains the drill: Tim Ho Wan hands out 130 queue tickets (i.e., the said hastily scribbled upon old bills) every morning until they are all given out. If you happen to be dining group no. 131, then sorry, you have to come back at 4 P.M. to get your no. 131 queue ticket. That is, if there isn’t already a big group of people queuing ahead of you to beat you to queue ticket no. 131. OK, the preceding two lines weren’t actually in the note. The second part of the note just stated that new queue numbers will be given out at 4 P.M. I found out about this when I visited Tim Ho Wan at 1 P.M., hoping that I won’t have to queue more than 2 hours to have my dim sum and tea at 3 P.M.. Well, I had no such luck because all 130 queue tickets were already handed out.
So I wandered around the Mong Kok district and returned to Tim Ho Wan at 3:40 P.M. (oh, the foolishness!) only to discover that 27 other persons were ahead of me. That left me with a queue ticket numbered "158" which I grasped so tightly in my hand (lest I drop it) that people might mistake it for a winning lottery ticket. I did feel like I won the lottery over an hour later when the disinterested lady at the rostrum barked "158" in Cantonese in search for next lucky group of diners to grace the tiny but hallowed hall of Tim Ho Wan. 

Eight orders of dim sum and 30 minutes later, my verdict on Tim Ho Wan is this: The quality of the dim sum at Tim Ho Wan is very good. I am not as fond of the crisp “char siew” pork bun that Tim Ho Wan is famous for as much as the rest of Hong Kong because I find it too sweet. But I recognise that it is an excellent version of this Hong Kong dim sum staple. The value that Tim Ho Wan offers is extremely hard to beat but the unfortunate and inordinately long wait for a table just manages to offset the said great value. I have difficulty making a strong recommendation for Tim Ho Wan almost solely because of the almost-frustrating wait and awkward queueing system. But if I am to judge Tim Ho Wan just for its dim sum and nothing else, then I would say that the Michelin inspectors knew what they were doing.

I did not specifically plan to visit Fook Lam Moon in the Wan Chai district but happened to walk past it on a late morning and decided to pop in for a quick dim sum snack before a lunch appointment. Fook Lam Moon is fondly known in Hong Kong as the “tycoon’s canteen” and the Wan Chai branch was awarded 2 Michelin stars in the 2010 Michelin Guide. I tried 4 random dim sum items at Fook Lam Moon (sorry, no pictures because I didn't bring the camera out that morning) and left feeling very underwhelmed. The dim sum was good, yes, but not spectacular. Does it deserve 2 Michelin stars? I dare say no just because the dim sum at 1-star Tim Ho Wan was just as good the ones I tried in this 2-star Fook Lam Moon. And frankly, the dim sum at this 2-star Fook Lam Moon didn’t even taste as special as the dim sum starter I had at Bo Innovation (a restaurant that serves “extreme Chinese” food and has also been awarded 2 Michelin stars, see pic below) the day before. Nope, I definitely do not belong in a tycoon’s canteen.

Compared to Tim Ho Wan, the atmosphere, level of service and pricing cannot be more different at Lung King Heen (Four Seasons Hotel), apparently the only Chinese restaurant in the world to be awarded 3 Michelin stars. Lung King Heen is known for its dim sum and as far as Chinese restaurants go, it comes across as posh and modern with a great habour view to boot. It is as spacious as Tim Ho Wan was cramped. The service is excellent and I love that the pot of Longjing (or Dragon Well tea) that I ordered was kept hot on a pot warmer throughout the meal. The quality of the dim sum here was top notch, definitely more refined than the ones I have had in Singapore and the flavours were very delicate and well-balanced. 

I have no hesitation recommending Lung King Heen although it is definitely a pricey place at around HK$40 (approximately S$7.20 or US$5.20) per dim sum order. Do make it a point to bring your special loved ones to Lung King Heen when you visit Hong Kong because the splurge is worth it.


  1. Wow, what a post! I live in Hong Kong as well, as an expat. I love dim sum although I only tried the ones in HK island side. Maybe I would like to try that place "Tim Ho Wan" in Mongkok. I am not so familiar in Kowloon side though. Thanks for the information on dim sum.

  2. I am so glad to come across this blog. It was a delight to read. Thank you

  3. beyondkimchee, I believe Tim Ho Wan is opening a branch very soon. I remember reading a notice about this outside the shop but can't remember which district the branch will be in. Hopefully, the branch will help ease the long queues at the Mong Kok outlet.

    Tiff, I'm glad you enjoyed reading my blog. Thanks for your kind words!