Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Tim Ho Wan, Chatswood, New South Wales (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

Okay, something that I've just got to get out of the way first - just because a certain restaurant in a chain has a Michelin star does not mean that by extension all branches of that restaurant are Michelin Starred. Some branches will invariable be better than others and even a chef as illustrious as Joel Robuchon - who has more Michelin Stars than any other chef in the world - cannot claim to have consistent 3 Star level restaurants in every territory with a Michelin Guide. Likewise, if a restaurant with Michelin stars has a branch in a territory without a Guide , it may well be Michelin Star quality cooking, but it is not by definition Michelin Starred cooking.

While Tim Ho Wan's ventures out of Hong Kong never outright claim to have stars for each outlet, they push the Michelin angle very, very hard as a selling point. However when not even all the branches in Hong Kong can claim stars, there is something disingenuous about people referring to it as Michelin Starred Dim Sum. Still, having actually eaten at the impressive Michelin starred branch in Sham Shui Po as well as the less incredible but still good Orchard Rd branch in Singapore, the idea of a Tim Ho Wan in Australia really excited Alissa and I, and we were very interested to see if the recently opened Tim Ho Wan in Chatswood would live up to the standard to which its marketing aspires.

Having seen queues in the early days of the restaurant's opening, Alissa and I arrived fairly early to find we were the first people waiting outside before the restaurant opened. Once inside, we found the layout very similar to the Tim Ho Wan in Singapore, and I wouldn't be surprised if the people behind the Singapore expansion were also involved in this Australian venture. The seating is a lot more comfortable and stylish than the very spartan look of the Sham Shui Po store, and the staff wear the Singapore style uniform instead of the bright fluoro style worn in the Hong Kong branches. Just in case you forgot or hadn't heard about the Tim Ho Wan story, the Michelin Star-related headlines from newspapers are reproduced and framed all over the walls with picture of their famous Char Siu Bao a major focus.

Things did not start well with the Braised Chicken Feet with Abalone Sauce. The Chicken Feet we had in Hong Kong were definitely made with a Black Bean Sauce, and the use of an Abalone Sauce was not an improvement at all. Visually, they were chalk and cheese, with the sauce runny and thin instead of providing the rich, dark glaze that made the Tim Ho Wan Chicken Feet so delicious. Things got even worse when we actually tasted them as disappointment really set in; these were without a doubt the most bland Chicken Feet either Alissa or I have eaten, and I'm pretty sure we didn't even bother finishing it.

Next up was one of Tim Ho Wan's signature 'Four Heavenly Kings' - Fried Carrot Cake (actually Turnip), a dish that we really enjoyed when were ordered it in Singapore. With a picture menu on the table, it was hilarious how obvious the difference between what was on our plate versus the photograph; where the photograph featured a nicely charred exterior, these seemed to have been cooked on a pan that had not gotten up to temperature, with a very light toasting instead. The more crispy exterior had been a feature of the version we had in Singapore and it made all the difference - while the actually flavour of the Carrot Cake seemed right for what we remembered, the lack of crispiness meant it lacked any really textural interest. The result was a dish that was very flat and very ordinary.

Surely the famous Char Siu Bao would not be a let down, and they were the second closest that the Chatswood branch ever came to the standards of Sham Shui Po (thank goodness!). The filling was fairly close to the original and did not have the problems of being overly saucy that were a big issue at the Singapore branch. There were some issues with the dough of the buns themselves however, as I felt they were not quite as soft and elastic as they were at Sham Shui Po. There are of course differences in flour from country to country, so this is slightly understandable. However, the worst thing about these buns was that they were noticeably smaller than either the Hong Kong or Singapore versions - a point noticed by others online, and really highlighted by the fact that the photos on the wall feature the buns so heavily the size difference is blatantly obvious. Considering the $7.80 price of the buns are hardly as cheap as they are in Hong Kong, it seemed like a really stingy thing to do, however beyond size it also meant the ratios of filling to bun to sugary crust were not quite as they should be. Still, these were decent enough, and if I had not ever eaten them in Hong Kong I would probably have been happy enough.

Har Gao are one the staples that a good Dim Sum place is judged by, and thankfully these were not an outright disaster. They were however merely okay, with a decent enough prawn filling that never reached the heights of some of the best Har Gao I've had.

Tim Ho Wan's Siu Mei never look that impressive as they are fairly small, however the flavour of the Siu Mei at Sham Shui Po was so good that it was really a case of looks being deceiving. These however were just not as good - while they had a similarly higher prawn to pork ratio as what we had in Hong Kong, the Pork and Prawn were not so perfectly mixed together, with splits in the mixture quite obvious within. What a shame.

We ordered the Spinach Dumpling with Shrimp, thinking it was perhaps an Anglicised name for the Teochew-style dumplings we've had in Hong Kong and Singapore branches. Sadly, these were a poor substitute for the Teochew-style Dumpling, especially lacking the peanut that gives them such a nice crunch. The high Spinach content meant that these were a lot wetter than Teochew-style dumplings usually are, and were riddled with structural integrity issues. With the filling basically falling apart on the inside instead of being one homogenous whole and the skin overly wet and sticky, getting them out in one piece was irritatingly difficult. The lack of interesting flavour meant it was not worth the effort either.

Our final savoury dish was the Pig's Liver Chee Cheong Fun - here photographed after we'd already eaten two of the three pieces in the serve. This is another of the restaurant's Four Heavenly Kings, and another dish that was different to what we had at Sham Shui Po. The Cheong Fun itself was actually quite good, but the Pig's Liver filling just did not taste right. When we tried this in Hong Kong and Singapore, I found the Pig's Liver to be very rich with a strong livery iron flavour. This flavour was largely absent. Confirmation of this difference came from Alissa - on both other occasions when we've order this dish, she found the flavour too intense for her liking, while she found the Chatwsood version a lot milder. Your preference may vary depending on what you like, but I thought the original much more interesting.

Finally, the dessert of Osmanthus Jelly was the most faithful of all the dishes at Chatswood to Sham Shui Po, having the same floral flavour and good wobble that we've enjoyed before.

The Verdict: Okay
As people who have eaten at an actual Michelin Starred Tim Ho Wan in Sham Shui Po as well as a branch in Singapore, Alissa and I found Chatswood's Tim Ho Wan a poor simulacra of the Hong Kong original and as such one of the most disappointing meals we've had in a long time. I don't know what happened; just about every dish tasted flat and uninteresting, and we felt that our local suburban Dim Sum restaurant did everything better than this. The Orchard Road branch in Singapore was already a step down from Hong Kong but this was even worse, with items like the signature Pork Buns, Pig's Liver Chee Cheong Fun and the Fried Carrot Cake smaller and/or of lesser quality. If this had been our first Tim Ho Wan experience we would have said 'is this really it?', which does a terrible disservice to the very much deserving branches in Hong Kong. This was not Michelin Star level cooking, and it would be laughable to think it would receive our Australian equivalent - a Hat in the Good Food Guide.

To add insult to injury the price for our meal came to $62.80 - significantly more than it cost us in Hong Kong, and more than we usually pay for Dim Sum outside of the most expensive and luxe places at home and abroard. If Tim Ho Wan had charged those kind of prices in Hong Kong, they never would have become famous for being the cheapest Michelin Starred restaurant in the world as there would have been quite a few others cheaper. When there are undoubtedly better Dim Sum restaurants in Sydney, it's best to save your money and time. Avoid these dumplings of disappointment.

For further reading, check out our earlier reports on Tim Ho Wan at Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong and Orchard Road, Singapore

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  1. Hehehe I have insider news from the HK Community in Australia. Apparently the head chef left prior to the opening of this branch!

    Having been to the small hole in a wall canteen in Mongkok where it first started, I am sad that the owner decided to commercialise this unique eatery and make it into a franchise =/!

    1. The expansion in Hong Kong didn't bother me as it seemed like Chef Mak still was able to keep the quality control there. For me the problems started with the joint venture in Singapore as the people he's working with are corporate brand managers who have turned Tim Ho Wan into the McDonald's of dim sum. It is a shame as there was an interview back before Singapore happened where Mak said maintaining the quality was more important to him than expansion internationally.