Wonton joy on a shoestring

Michelin taste, yum-cha price ... diners squeeze into Tim Ho Wan restaurant.
Michelin taste, yum-cha price ... diners squeeze into Tim Ho Wan restaurant. Photo: AFP

Michelle Wranik joins the queue at Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong, the world's cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant.

The queues at Tim Ho Wan could make the most patient diner feel slightly crazed. Even the woman at the counter is agitated; hastily scrawling a number on a yellow Post-it note and shoving it unceremoniously into my hand.

This is the moment I'm expected to leave but I linger, inquiring timidly how long the wait will be. Big mistake.

"Two hours!" she barks, then shouts something in Cantonese into a tiny microphone attached to the register.

I edge outside, mystified. It's hard to believe I've just made a reservation at a Michelin-starred restaurant. It feels more like dropping off a shirt at the dry cleaner's.

The unseasonably chilly day in Hong Kong has shrouded the city with drizzle. Outside, about 40 people huddle around the entrance, clustered together like excited teenagers at the gates of a music festival; their chatter punctuated by the revving engines of motorcycles and taxis.

Passers-by seem bemused as they weave past. From the outside, Tim Ho Wan looks like any other nondescript dumpling canteen in the city's traffic-choked Mong Kok district. But there is one marked difference: Michelin reviewers have awarded it a coveted one-star rating, netting it the auspicious title of cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world.

Baskets of prawn dumplings and pork buns cost a mere $1.40. Diners at many Michelin-starred restaurants, such as The Fat Duck in Britain or El Bulli in Spain, can clock upastronomical bills. This is a rare chance for people of modest means to sample cuisine usually enjoyed by only the wealthy.

The restaurant is headed by Mak Pui Gor, the former dumpling master at Hong Kong's Four Seasons Hotel. Pui Gor worked at the hotel's three-starred restaurant, Lung King Heen, before going it alone.

But despite his new star rating, awarded in November, he is not raising the prices. This means Tim Ho Wan is Hong Kong's hottest meal ticket and if you want to eat here, you must take a number and stand in line - for a long time.

I have been waiting for at least an hour already, with a Post-it note marked 252. The last number to be called was 90. A young,bespectacled couple standing next to me giggle when they hear me groan. They have been waiting for 90 minutes, the girl explains shyly.

Half an hour later, gnawing hunger and obsessive thoughts of succulent pork buns turn to grumpiness. Is it worth it? It seems like idiocy to wait so long but there's a wonton-sized shred of hope every 15 minutes: the shrill voice, therustling sound of queuers checking theirnumbers and one lucky patron pushing through heaven's gates, leaving hungry comrades behind.

Hunger doesn't inspire good manners. Some of the queuers press their faces against the glass doors, ogling diners trying to manoeuvre slippery prawn dumplings into their mouths. Others give up hope.

One Chinese man causes a minor sensation when he shuffles off and rejoins the queue minutes later chewing on satay chicken skewers bought from a starless restaurant down the road.

Counting the minutes together creates a strange sense of camaraderie and we strike up conversations to pass the time. I chat to Mr Leung, a robotics engineer who has been waiting for more than an hour. He has number 178 and graciously invites me to tag along on his ticket. I feel like hugging him.

I am faint with hunger by the time our number is called 45 minutes later. We hand the waitress a paper menu with our choices circled in pen and we're seated elbow-to-elbow at a long table crammed with other diners, the clatter of the kitchen at our backs.

No one talks - we're too hungry and fixated on the food. A steady stream of baskets stacked atop each other passes by, along with a constant flow of tea from China's Yunnan province.

Our first dish is Tim Ho Wan's piece de resistance, char siu bau (pork buns), which sell like hot cakes here (about 750 a day). They are "worth dying for", according to one of our fellow diners. They are usually served steamed but, here, they are fried: the slightly crisp sugar glaze around the pastry bun yielding to a decadent mixture of diced pork and sauce inside.

The succulent beef meatballs, infused with dried mandarin and spring onions, could also be worth dying for. As could the wobbly turnip cakes, the prawn dumplings wrapped intranslucent pastry, or the dessert - jasmine tea jelly suffused with a flower petal.

I insist on paying for Mr Leung. Had it not been for him, I would still be outside, shivering, hungry - and grumpy.

"One hundred and twenty-four dollars," says the lady at the counter. Less than $18 for both of us. A wonton-sized price for a Michelin-starred meal.

Tim Ho Wan is open daily, 10am-10pm. Shop 8, 2-20 Kwong Wa Street, Mong Kok, Kowloon. Phone +852 2332 2896.

- Telegraph, London

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