Tatyana Leonov lines up at Tim Ho Wan in Singapore to see what the fuss is all about.
Frenzied wait staff whizz around, zigzagging skilfully between tables. Dishes come flying out and are swiftly plopped down in front of blissful customers confident it's worth the wait. Those who haven't yet ordered are perusing menus and slyly glancing at other patrons' dishes, trying to make a decision.
Tim Ho Wan, the world's cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant, has been drawing in crowds in Hong Kong since the first store (a casual 20-seater) opened in 2009 in Mong Kok. In 2010 it debuted in the Michelin Guide and from there Tim Ho Wan eateries have sprouted up all over Hong Kong, then Singapore, Hanoi, Taipei, Kuala Lumpar and Manila.
Lining up at the Plaza Singapura location alongside approximately 100 others – mainly a local crowd – I'm keen to see what the fuss is all about. Australians too will have their pork and prawn fix soon (ahead of Europe and America). The first of the three planned Sydney outlets will open in Chatswood in early March, then Burwood is scheduled for an April opening, and the flagship George Street store will open later in the year. There's a Melbourne Chinatown outlet in development as well.
Chatting with dim sum gastronomes while waiting in line I wonder if Australians will be as enthused about the concept. Yes, it's cheap, but is it really that good? How long will we wait until we crack it and head to a fast food chain next shop over? I peek through the window and watch the chefs dexterously craft one dim sum after another. Their fingers dance nimbly, their brows are beaded with sweat, and their expressions (what can be seen under their face masks) are of pure concentration.
Inside it's a flurry of Cantonese foodie delights. Although the dim sums are popular (I observe exquisitely translucent prawn and spinach and tubular pork and shrimp varieties), I see a cornucopia of other dishes on route to tables. There are baked barbecue pork buns, spongy turnip cake slivers, deep-fried bean curd chunks, pig's liver wrapped (spring roll style) in thick ribbons of starchy stuff and an interesting dish of glistening steamed chicken feet drenched in black bean sauce.
The founder of Tim Ho Wan, chef Mak Kwai Pui (formerly of the three Michelin-starred restaurant, Lung King Heen) launched the eatery with the aspiration to prepare inexpensive quality Cantonese food for the local community. Although he now manages a global dim sum chain his ethos is still the same. Ingredients must be fresh, chefs are cherry-picked and training is comprehensive.
Two hours waiting time and it's my turn to feast. I take a seat, undo the top button of my jeans and beam at the waitress prancing towards me with a menu. There is a no-booking policy at most outlets (some Australian stores will have private rooms available for reservation) so by the time most people sit down, they're hungry (I can vouch for that). The waitress doesn't know it yet… but I plan to hoe into just about every item on the menu. That's the beauty of travel – it's unlikely anyone I know will see me gorging as if it's my last day on earth.
The writer travelled at her own expense.