There’s so much tradition and atmosphere involved when it comes to yum cha. I was at that Sydney institution – Marigold – a couple of weekends ago with Night Owl for quite a late lunch and it’s so much more than just the dim sims themselves. The tea pots somehow seem designed to dribble mid-pour onto the white tablecloth, the blend of Canto-Mando-English reverberating around the high-ceiling-ed room, trolley traffic jams mid-aisle, and the wind-down of the lunch session as the staff efficiently clear tables around you as you sip the remnants of your tea; whipping off the stained white tablecloths before rolling the five foot high and across tables away into the private rooms.
It seems to be a tradition that white tablecloths are always used at yum cha, despite the guarantee that they will stain horribly with chilli sauce and spilt tea. I’ve been to so many European-style restaurants that place an awful layer of plastic or paper over their white tablecloths to save themselves the laundry bill, and yet here are the yum cha establishments clearing away what must be hundreds of stained white tablecloths every day to be bleached and ironed.
But Tim Ho Wan is different to these other yum cha joints. I visited this place back in its first month or two of opening in Chatswood, around late April (the photos have just been sitting in a folder on my Desktop for a hideously long time). I had avoided the restaurant for almost a month after its opening, daunted by the lines that stretched down the stairs to The Interchange and past the doors of the Chatswood RSL. The Sister eventually managed to coax me into going with her early on a Saturday morning, so at 9.30 am there I was joining the line for the 10.00 am start.
There’s not much to say about the decor – wooden panels in light tan, dark brown leather booth benches, quite bright lighting and decorative steamers neatly rowed around the edge of the ceiling up ahead. There’s a diner fusion food court vibe in that everything is quite clean and spotless but it’s fairly no-frills – no white tablecloths so as to enable quick wipe-downs, a few huge thermos set at the side of the room for the hot Chinese tea ($2.50 per person), and the service – while not abrupt – is fairly brisk.
The dim sum range from $5.80 to $8.80, being a little pricier than your average yum cha. The menu is set out into Steamed, Deep Fried, Congee, etc, and there’s also the ‘Big 4 Heavenly Kings’ blazoned across the top of the menu – the favourites of the owner. The owner’s name isn’t Tim Ho Wan by the way; Tim Ho Wan translates into ‘add good luck’.
Out of all the dishes on our order, the Baked Bun with BBQ Pork is the first to arrive. It’s fairly unsurprising as they probably know that that’s what everyone will come for, and so they put them in to bake before opening time.
I was intrigued by these little buns. I’ve had the fluffy, bread-type buns from your regular yum cha, and once I had discovered I liked them my mother proceeded to go to the Chinese grocery store and buy so many trays of frozen pork buns for me I grew sick of them very quickly. These were different though, with a light, crispy and buttery pastry over the outside before you bit into the stewed, slightly-sweet braised pork mixture inside.
You can buy a type of bread roll called a ‘Pineapple bun’ at Asian bakeries which is a plain, sweet roll covered in a coating of sweet pastry and glazed with egg yolk before being baked and the heat creates a beautiful cracked appearance over the top layer. The taste of the topping on this pork bun is identical to that. It’s quite a lovely few mouthfuls, but the base of the buns are rather oily and leave the greasy residue over your fingers.
The Vermicelli Roll with Prawns arrived sitting in its bed of light soy, which didn’t pack quite a punch as I’ve had it at other yum chas – I think it was significantly less salty. The rice vermicelli sheet was beautifully silky and thin yet held the prawns securely. I think while you miss out on the novelty of having the yum cha trolleys, having the dim sum come out freshly steamed to order means the dim sum pastry doesn’t become over-cooked and gluggy from sitting in the heated trolley.
I’m used to encountering a few pockets of air when I bite into dim sum, but the Prawn Hargow was perfectly filled with minced prawn meat and very delicately steamed. Here’s a photo of how compacted it was:
While a little on the small side, they made for a very satisfying couple of bites each – quite possibly the best hargow I’ve had in Sydney.
The goji berries on top of the Pork Dumpling with Shrimp, or Shao Mai, threw me off a little but they are more for decorative purposes, being near tasteless. I’ve seen other restaurants use a cube of carrot, kernel of corn or little pile of fish roe if they are feeling luxurious.
These were also on the small side but when bit into, they contained generous nuggets and chunks of pork meat and prawns.
I was a little daunted when the Spinach Dumpling with Shrimp arrived; the Sister and I just stared at these fat transparent dumplings for the longest while. I had never seen anything like it, but The Sister explained that the pastry is very expensive and technically quite difficult to use; it’s characteristic is its transition from an ordinary pastry skin into a clear gel-like layer upon encountering steam.
The gel-like skin was very thin and delicate, and also quite stretchy when bit into. I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not, but the second time I came here with Night Owl I ordered it again and I had grown on me. It burst upon being bitten to reveal its filling of chopped spinach and prawn; the spinach wasn’t half-gooey like it sometimes is with trolley-style yum cha from over-cooking.
And just for kicks and giggles, I ordered the Mango and Pomelo Tapioca for dessert.
Filled with chunks of pomelo citrus and beads of tapioca, the mango custard was very sweet and slushy and reminded me of something from EasyWay or Chatime. While it was a novelty and a refreshing end to all the dim sum, I’m not sure I would order this again.
Ultimately it’s all about what you go to yum cha for. If you want the full dining experience and atmosphere of traditional yum cha, Tim Ho Wan probably isn’t your place to go. But if you do visit Tim Ho Wan, you will understand the finesse and technique that can go into creating perfect dim sum – dim sum that won’t collapse or stick to the steamer and rip when you try and pick them up with your chopsticks. But hey – you’re always guaranteed a good laugh around the table and a few helping pairs of chopsticks when it does happen!
Tim Ho Wan
1 Railway Street
Chatswood NSW 2067
(02) 9898 9888