It should be no secret that Hong Kong has some of the greatest dim sum in the world. There are both pronounced and subtle differences to what I’ve experienced across Australia in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney, but the only important comparison is that Hong Kong contains the masters of this beautiful and iconic cuisine.
Within Hong Kong you find that at the best dim sum restaurants, there is a formula that needs to be followed in a precise fashion given the weight of numbers wanting their fill. That formula has nothing to do with facades, for it is the food that rules whether or not success will be sustained. The branch of Tim Ho Wan in Central is a great example. Reams of small pieces of paper with brief descriptions of the dim sum available are being filled out by tens of hungry diners waiting for their names to be called out. All in the bottom of Hong Kong Station in as plain a shopping space as you are ever likely to find.
Compare that to the opulence of Fook Lam Moon and its decadent room, often full of celebrities; or Luk Yu Tea House and its almost unflappable authenticity. These are restaurants with tradition abounding, greatness being shown in the meticulous dim sum, and floorstaff with absolutely no arrogance doing their job with so little fuss it almost epitomises quiet confidence.
Back to Tim Ho Wan and the procedure. Put your name down, get your piece of paper, fill it out, provide it once your name is called, sit down, eat, sip, leave. This is no space to be quietly contemplating anything. There are so many people outside waiting with their pencils and pieces of paper, with looks of consternation, that you would think we are at the races. My tip here, which no doubt goes without saying, is get here as early as possible and be prepared to wait. We arrived about 11.45am and were seated shortly after midday so all was good.
Like all three places I’m describing in this blog, the dim sum is delivered fresh based on your order. At THW we had marked down the several dishes, savoury and sweet, that we wanted, so we knew the exact cost (plus service) for our meal. Dishes then arrive once they are ready in no particular order with sweets accompanying savouries. The apparent go-to dish is the baked pork buns. The dough has a touch of sweetness that is not overpowering but combines well with the gorgeous pork filling. There is a nice texture there from the baking, rather than steaming. Once THW is in Melbourne in 2015 I’ll be going out of my way to have several tries of the buns again because they are revered for a reason.
Almost every dish was excellent including the har gow (steamed prawn dumplings) and the black sticky rice cream. Though the main standouts other than the buns included the “tonic medlar and petal cake” which is definitely a classic dish often differently described. I believe it is made with chrysanthemum tea and petals but I’m really not sure. In the end it is a delicious, slightly sweet, textural jelly that is the perfect cleanser. The other standout was the glutinous rice or lo mai gai. This classic dish, wrapped in lotus leaves, contains chicken, Chinese sausage (tastes like blood sausage here), mushrooms and several other base ingredients. The perfume from the steamed lotus leaf provides an attractive introduction to what is a dense, decadent, and rich package of rice and meat. The only let down in the THW script was the seasonal vegetable being steamed iceberg lettuce. In any cuisine steamed iceberg lettuce is disappointing.
It was not my first time to Luk Yu Tea House and it won’t be my last. I feel I know what to do here – beat the nearby workers in Central to the table before their lunch hour. While it feels a little empty on this Monday late morning, by 1pm the restaurant is filling up with large bookings being seated. Inside, the restaurant has this feel like it was put together overnight, several decades ago! That is not to say it is without charm, in fact it, and the staff, have charm in spades.
We tried the steamed pork buns (or char siu bao), the har gow, spring rolls with shredded chicken, and shredded barbecued duck meat & mushroom dumplings. All arrived freshly prepared and mighty quick! There is exquisite technique shown by the dim sum chefs in both the presentation and taste of each dish. The fact the technique needs to be duplicated with monotonous regularity adds, rather than detracts, from the greatness.
Here the char siu bao is classically fluffy, with a nice and hot filling of juicy barbecue pork. The har gow are almost overflowing with succulent prawns in a glutinous wrapper that tastes as pretty as it looks. There is an ease about Luk Yu.
We finish with egg tarts and oven baked peach cakes. The egg tarts have flaky pastry that catches the sweet egg filling. I try not ordering them all the time because I can’t stop at one. The “cakes” are oddly described, but taste incredible. A combination of fresh peach and custard contained in the wicker basket like pastry are also impossible to not finish!
On the last day of the trip we venture to Fook Lam Moon and I have made a mistake in wearing shorts as this dim sum temple is anything but casual. Again there is no concern from the staff and we are made to feel welcome. It does go to show that decor can be the final ingredient, even in HK, for a Michelin star.
Everything, and I do mean everything, we try is top quality. This is probably my favourite dim sum experience for the trip. The prawn spring rolls are nothing short of astonishing. Spring rolls are both enticing with their fried crunchy exterior, and often boring by their similarity and familiarity. These are perfect because they have that exterior, but inside the fresh juicy prawns are incredibly flavoursome. I wish I could have some more!
The char siu bao, har gow and lo mai gai are all delicious – quality and finesse in every bite. We finish with mango pudding and it is the most familiar to me for the trip with chunks of mango throughout the pudding and mango syrup on top. It’s an exciting way to finish the trip.
Dim sum is something that grows on you quickly. The jasmine tea is a fantastic digestive and many of the dishes of choice are rather healthy. The main feature though, like many share situations, is the social interaction. Sharing food and tea is made so natural in this delicious format.