Tuesday, January 14, 2014

dim sum

I have been in Hong Kong for the past couple of weeks for school.  Today was my last day here and I had yet to complete my one itinerary item that Gina insisted was an absolute essential to my whole trip: get dim sum at Tim Ho Wan, a Michelin-starred dim sum restaurant in Hong Kong, widely regarded as the "least expensive restaurant in the world with a Michelin star."

Being a food nerd but also a student (read: poor), a chance to eat at a Michelin-starred restaurant had seemed financially out of my reach; however, as I was watching Anthony Bourdain's Layover episode on Hong Kong prior to leaving, I saw him eat dim sum at a cramped and busy restaurant that he said cost less than $20/person and had a Michelin star.  Hurray!  Even I can afford $20 for a lunch while traveling (although most of my meals here were much, much less expensive than that).

That the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world resides in Hong Kong of all places surprised me:  Hong Kong is a city that is more obsessed with luxury goods and consumerism than any other place in the world.  The city boasts more luxury cars here per capita than any other place in the world, despite a 100% "first-time registration" tax on every vehicle and a 100% sales tax on gasoline.   Furthermorw, over 80% of the world's luxury brands (e.g. Louis Vuitton, Prada) have at least one store here, and most of them have more stores here than any other city.  It's the finance capital of Asia and a ridiculously expensive city in which to live.  But cheap, ridiculously good eats? Apparently, yes.

Anyway, on to the food: I ate lunch with my buddy, Aaron, a fellow native-Illinoisan. Not knowing what to order, we basically ordered one of everything and got WAY too much food.  Still, our bill only totaled $260 HKD for both of us, or about $17 USD per person.  Luckily, we bagged-up what we couldn't eat and took it back to the hotel for later (except for the chicken feet:  those were too weird for either of us to want to take for the road).

The restaurant itself is in the basement of the Hong Kong Station MTR station, near the ifc mall in the Central district.  Its subway-station location reminded me a bit of Sukiyabashi Jiro, the three-Michelin star restaurant featured in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi (Netflix it if you haven't seen it).   We waited in line beforehand for about an hour, which wasn't too bad because I had heard stories of 2-2.5 hour waits to get a seat.

I would guess that the restaurant seats 40-50 people at a time and, like most of the restaurant we had eaten at in Hong Kong, was cramped.  Retail space in Hong Kong is expensive and most restaurants are tiny and seat as many people as they can cram in there;  you are likely to be sitting in mixed-parties elbow-to-elbow with strangers, a sensation that would be akin to eating a sit-down meal in a crowded college bar.

The place is fast and efficient:  you pre-order before you are seated so your food is ready-to-go by the time you sit down, or shortly thereafter.  I felt we had to eat really fast and get out of there so someone else could sit down; the vibe of the place makes you feel that way, as well as the wait staff.  Get in, eat quickly, leave.  Not exactly a place to have a relaxing meal, but that is pretty much the norm here.  Time is money, you need to turn those seats over.  Aaron commented that his dad would have hated the place for that reason, and I can understand why:  normally when I want to go eat, I want to relax and eat at a leisurely pace.

However, that feeling of being rushed was dispelled by the aperitive dim sum.  Gina and I both love pork buns, which happened to be the first thing they handed Aaron and me.   These were more light-brown and less white than anywhere I have eaten them in the States, but, oh my goodness, were they good.  Easily the best pork buns I have ever eaten.  The rest of the food was amazing, as well, except for the chicken feet, which Aaron and I ordered a plate of but were only able to nibble at; they were too strange, but mostly awkward to eat.   My other favorite items were the egg cake and the pork-stuffed peppers.

The photos are definitely not up to Gina Standards, but I had to shoot them on my iPhone whilst trying to eat quickly and not elbow the people to my left and right.  If you have the chance to visit Hong Kong, definitely try to make a stop here at Tim Ho Wan, if for no other reason to say that you have eaten at the World's Cheapest Michelin-Starred Restaurant.  That being said, there are hundreds, if not thousands of good restaurants here, and I wasn't here nearly long enough to try a good sampling of them.  Although the dining atmosphere is generally much different than anywhere in the States, when you think about the economics of running a restaurant here, you can understand why. Hey, after all, we were here on a class for Business School!

Enjoy the pictures and Happy New Year!

1 comment :