|Red Clover in Honeyed Gulaman|
Perdue: "Let us make this easier. Suppose you get a reservation. And let us suppose you come down to the restaurant and we honor it. What do you think you might order?'
Harris: "Well, um, I might like to have the duck."
Chef: "He can't have the duck."
Perdue: "You can't have the duck."
Perdue: "You think with a financial statement like this you can have the duck? [Pause] Where do you spend your summers?"
Harris: "Right here."
In the 1991 comedy LA Story, TV weatherman Harris Telemacher, played by Steve Martin, nervously faces a withering financial inquisition from an imperious maître d' named Perdue (a mustachioed Patrick Stewart). His transgression: Daring to request a dinner reservation at a snooty eatery called L'Idiot, in hopes of impressing a nubile starlet in image-conscious Tinseltown. [Watch the full scene here.]Chef: "He can have the chicken."
The scene satirizes hyper-exclusive restaurants whose nosebleed-inducing menu prices may be chump change for the One-Percenters, but require selling of a firstborn or extraneous limb for everyone else. It's film fiction played for laughs, yet Harris' trepidation is very familiar to those of us who have Noma aspirations on a Pizza Hut budget. While Mr. Noodle and I have enjoyed some fine dining in the past few years, we still lack a certain heft to our wallets that would make the prospect of eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant more than just a hunger pang.
Or so I've always assumed.
It turns out that the fine folks at Michelin Guides have seen fit to award one of their coveted stars to a humble little dim sum joint called Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong's Mongkok district. Michelin could have bestowed its respected Bib Gourmand recognition, given to restaurants that "represent the best hidden culinary value that [a] city has to offer", as it has done for such celebrated establishments as A16 and Slanted Door in San Francisco, and both Momofuku Noodle Bar and Ssäm Bar in New York. Against such calibre, garnering a stellar distinction is quite an accomplishment for a 20-seat venue where the most expensive item on the menu rings up at a budget-friendly HK$22 (approximately US$3).
|An unassuming storefront|
Since it first earned that precious star in 2009, Tim Ho Wan has added two locations - in Sham Shui Po just north of the Kowloon original and, most recently, across Victoria Harbor at the International Finance Centre (IFC) Mall. These branches offer more seating, shorter lines and a slightly expanded menu (although the prices at IFC are reportedly higher due to its prime locale), but it was the first restaurant on Kwong Wah Street that earned the accolades and it was there that Mr. Noodle and I headed on our first afternoon in Hong Kong.
It was nearly 4 o'clock when we arrived - well past lunch and comfortably before dinner. Perfect timing, I thought. Getting a table should be so easy...
Yet another popular stereotype about fortresses of haute cuisine is the haughty gatekeeper. Like Monsieur Perdue of L'Idiot, maître d's and hostesses are often portrayed in caricature - fashionably-dressed human barbed wires whose intimidating presence keep the hungry rabble at bay. But on occasion, the portrayal comes to life and if a fierce front of the house is the hallmark of a fine dining establishment, then Tim Ho Wan's Michelin star boasts a fearsome guardian."Claw, you're welcome." --Restaurant hostess on the phone, Date Night (2010)
|Rare photo of SWSRTY (in white),|
taken from a safe distance
The process in concept was simple: Let the hostess (heretofore known as She Who Stares Right Through You) know how many will be dining and she, in turn, will let me know how long the wait will be. With only a half dozen people milling about, I thought our chances of quickly getting in were high.
The process in practice, however, was comical: Not two feet from SWSRTY, I was bobbing and swerving, desperately trying to stay in her line of sight. It was like playing dodgeball, except I wanted to be hit by the ball - at least it meant she saw me! When her shark's gaze finally focused on us, I meekly held up two fingers. SWSRTY scanned her seating chart and jotted down a number on a piece of pink paper, which she held out in my general direction. Eye contact broken, I gratefully took the ticket and resisted the urge to back away bowing.
In the Pink
(*Pink denoted the English-language version, while green slips were in Chinese.)
There were the usual suspects: fragile steamed shrimp dumplings, or ha jiao, and piquant spareribs with black bean sauce. Mr. Noodle preferred the steamed bean curd sheets filled with meat and tofu while I hogged most of the vermicelli roll stuffed with pig's liver. The braised pig's knuckles were excellent - meltingly tender fatty skin, tendon and meat (what little there was) had absorbed a savory-sweet brown sauce. I regretted not ordering a small bowl of rice to sop up every bit of it.
But the stellar dish that really earned Tim Ho Wan its Michelin star were the baked buns with BBQ pork. Chef Mak's masterpiece bao were unlike the usual golden-brown bread-y buns of previous experience. Dainty, pale and more like pastry, they had a wonderful sugary crust that gave way to a delicate crumb and a saucy filling of tender sweet pork. It was a perfect balance of flavor and texture. Although the restaurant offers its menu for take-out, it would be a shame to risk the chance that these fresh-from-the-oven buns could turn cool or soggy.
|No ordinary buns|
(Apologies for the lack of photographs. We were hungry.)
So, does Tim Ho Wan deserve its star? Having no other Michelin-starred experience to which I can compare, all I can say is that we enjoyed every moment and each bite. It was fun wandering through Mongkok, looking for a restaurant whose name we couldn't recognize in its native language; chatting with fellow diners waiting in line, admitting how silly our enthusiasm seemed to be, but excited nonetheless; and simply taking in the fact that we were eating our first meal in a new city.
The sun was just beginning to set as we walked out of Tim Ho Wan and began meandering down the street in exploration. Stars appeared in the sky and ahead of us was even more good food, waiting to be found.
Star light, star bright, my first Michelin star tonight...
Tim Ho Wan (original location)
Shop 8, Taui Yuen Mansion Phase 2
2-20 Kwong Wah Street, Mongkok
Hours: Daily 10:00am - 10:00pm
Red Clover in Honeyed Gulaman
Content as we were with our early dinner, Mr. Noodle and I skipped dessert at Tim Ho Wan. But I did catch a glimpse of the next table's order - ruby-gold cubes of jelly with little blossoms floating inside. Listed on the menu as tonic medlar and petal cake, it is a very popular Hong Kong dessert more commonly known as Osmanthus Jelly. Osmanthus fragrans, or gui hua, is the apricot-scented flower of an ornamental evergreen shrub and is used to make teas, jams and wiggly-jiggly desserts.
Although I was curious about it and had ample opportunity to order during our visit, we returned to Manila without having a taste of Osmanthus Jelly. Until our next trip to Hong Kong for another shot at the real thing, I decided to make my own quasi-floral gelatin dessert using dried red clover blossoms, honey and gulaman*, a seaweed-based gelatin also known as agar-agar, carrageenan and kanten, among other names. Unlike animal protein-based gelatin (such as that used to make Jello), gulaman remains firm at room temperature and has a more 'chewy' composition.
The clear gulaman took on the warm hue and subtle sweetness of the Palawan honey I used, resulting in a refreshingly light dessert that looked for all the world like blossoms suspended in amber.
90g unflavored gulaman powder
1 2/3 cups water*
2 Tablespoons honey
1 Tablespoon dried red clover blossoms
*If you prefer a firmer jelly, reduce the amount of water by another 1/3 cup
In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, dissolve the gulaman in water. Stirring constantly, bring the mixture to a boil. Continue at a low boil, still stirring, for another 5 minutes then remove from heat. Stir in the honey and allow the mixture to cool for a bit. When the gulaman has slightly thickened, stir in the red clover, making sure to distribute the blossoms as evenly as possible. Pour into an 8x8 glass dish, individual ramekins or small decoratively shaped moulds. The gulaman will set firm at room temperature in approximately 45 minutes, or may be chilled in the refrigerator for more rapid setting.
To serve, loosen from the sides of the dish or moulds using a knife, or place inside a cake pan and add warm water until halfway up the sides of the moulds. Invert onto serving plates and gently shake loose. If set in a large dish, slice into cubes or diamonds before serving.