Starstruck: A Michelin Meal in Mongkok

Wednesday, October 26, 2011 19 comments
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."  
Harris: "Why?"  
Perdue: "You think with a financial statement like this you can have the duck? [Pause] Where do you spend your summers?"  
Harris: "Right here."  
Chef: "He can have the chicken."
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.]

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.

Star Grazing

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 
The irresistible combination of delicious, inexpensive food validated by one of the culinary world's most exclusive stamps of approval is obvious by the crowd gathered in front of Tim Ho Wan's doors every day. Tales of hours-long wait times give way to rhapsodies over Chef Mak Pui Gor's skillful touch with classic dim sum fare, such as steamed chicken feet with black bean sauce and pan-fried turnip cakes.

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...

The Invisibles
"Claw, you're welcome." --Restaurant hostess on the phone, Date Night (2010)
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.

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

That rose-colored* sheet bore not only our number in the queue, but also our food order. During the twenty-some minutes Mr. Noodle and I waited to be seated, we huddled in serious discussion over what to choose, occasionally peering at photos of their food from magazine pages taped to the windows. Finally, SWSRTY barked out our number and we handed back the slip to her. Seconds later, we were seated and sipping hot tea while our piece of paper was transformed into a parade of dim sum delicacies. (*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
Tel: 23322896
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

To make:

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.


  • SKIP TO MALOU said...

    Hongkong is one of our favorite holiday destinations in the 80's and your story (wandering around stores and restaurants with Chinese writings) made me remember mine... haha there were a lot of funny (yet at that time frustrating!) memories made in Hongkong.
    Whereas your "Mongkok" memory means your first Michellin star restaurant experience, mine is night market and peking duck haha.
    Im happy to see you again Tracey. Have a great day!

  • Gera@SweetsFoodsBlog said...

    I really like visitng Hong Kong si a multicultural place where you can find everything!

    I'm disappointed you eat all the buns with BBQ pork and no pictures haha - this is the problem with foodies, including me :)



  • kaoko said...

    There's another affordable Michelin-starred restaurant in Victoria Peak. Not as cheap as Tim Ho Wan but just a little more. The name slips me now but it's at the ground floor of The Peak Galleria, with two doors, one inside the mall and another overlooking the tram station. They have excellent noodles---the broth is a little more than okay, but the noodles are the standout.

  • lisa is cooking said...

    LA Story is one of my favorite comedies! I'm guilty of the same-- admitting how silly it is to get excited about a restaurant and then being excited anyway. Sounds like a fun meal, and it's so great you enjoyed every bit of it! And, your red clover in honeyed gulaman is beautiful.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Hi everyone - thanks for your comments!

    Malou - It was too short of a visit to HK so hopefully we'll return in the near future and explores some more. We did the night markets as well and could've done more eating! I also love the bakeries there. 8-)

    Gera - Hehe! My husband and family expect me to whip out the camera but I have my priorities. Those buns were fresh out of the oven and it would've been a shame to let them get cold. Eating took way less time than waiting!

    Kaoko - Thanks for the recommendation! Unfortunately, we didn't make it HK Island on this trip but definitely will plan for it on the next one. 8-)

    Lisa - My mom & I watched it together when it first came out and that scene has always been our favorite (the other being the coffee-ordering scene). The gulaman was so simple to make & very tasty, but I just wish I'd taken the time to try the real Osmanthus Jelly. Next time!

    Penny - The food we tried was all very good and the crowds weren't too bad. To be honest, it was just so nice to be able to walk around a city - Manila, unfortunately, is not a 'walkable' city at all. On foot is my husband's and my favorite way of exploring a new city. 8-)

    Midge - I know what you mean! Sometimes, I'm intimidated, other times they piss me off, but this time, I was just so happy to get in. With the language barrier, I figured she could have just kept ignoring us! 8-)

    Mrs. Lavendula - Secret: I never liked gulaman as a child! I always preferrred Jello because it was more wiggly and softer. Now that I've made this, I'm going gulaman-crazy, wanting to put all sorts of stuff in it!

  • Jennifer Field said...

    First of all, that sounds like an amazing dinner! So happy to see Michelin letting some of us "regular" folk in on the Star Eating! And your wee jelly guys?! Beautiful! They look just like little gems--I love them!

  • ChichaJo said...

    What a great food adventure! I love doing things like that with my husband too...we both have big appetites :) Your meal sounded amazing an definitely worth the wait! And goodness, that dessert you so pretty!

  • Dee said...

    I am remembering how much I enjoyed the LA Story movie & laughing at the thought of an eatery named L'Idiot!! ha,ha! Your experiences there & the beautiful food photos make me feel as though I'm transported. So glad you & Mr Noodle are taking us along for the adventure of a lifetime. Have a wonderful day.

  • Brenda said...

    Fun and delicious...Dimsum is my achilles heel I tell you! We've all had our share of good and bad maitre d's so I am inspired to check out LA Story now :)

  • Lori said...

    As I scrolled through the post I found that I was still in awe by that first photo. Those are amazing. Ahhh, dim sum. What an experience that must have been! I not sure I would ever tire of the selection when it comes to dim sum. It rates up there with my top 5 meals of all time.

  • Betty Ann @Mango_Queen said...

    What an amazing trip!I love any Asian destination & Hongkong has always been one of them. Your story made me feel like I was walking the streets with you. This is an amazing honey-gulaman recipe. I will try it right away! Thanks for sharing. Welcome back. Keep writing...we love to read your stories, Tracey!

  • Trisha said...

    Haha SWRSTY! I know what you mean though, there's a few of those in Chinese restaurants here in Australia! But that gulaman looks awesome... too pretty almost!

  • Daily Spud said...

    Thought it was about time I paid a visit to your place, TN! My blog reading has been practically non-existent lately, 'tis a sorry old state of affairs, because I'm missing out on stuff like this. I love how you capture the whole experience of Tim Ho Wans and I love your jelly creation too. It's been a pleasure to visit with you as always :)

  • Dudut said...

    i haven't been to HK but i would love too and reason of going there will only be about their food!

    i love the gelatin, very unique and very pretty!


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