Six years ago, I reported for HTSI on Michelin-starred restaurants in Hong Kong where it’s possible to eat for under £10 a head. One of my favourites was a dim sum place, Tim Ho Wan, whose branch in the IFC (International Finance Centre) in Central I still go to whenever I’m in town.
Tim Ho Wan was founded by a chef who previously worked at the Four Seasons Hong Kong’s three-starred restaurant. There are now five outposts in Hong Kong, many more across Asia and two in Sydney. It was the opening in New York, however, that got me excited, having previously never found a Manhattan dim sum restaurant that was more than myeh.
The big test? Whether a satellite Tim Ho Wan could reproduce the group’s flagship dish: baked cha siu pau pork buns. Iconic dishes do seem to survive global expansion – I am thinking not so much of the yellow arches but of Nobu, whose black cod with miso seems to be identical all over the world. In Hong Kong, Tim Ho Wan’s baked bun with BBQ pork, as it is officially called, is for me another of the world’s most perfect foodstuffs – three domes of golden sweet pastry with a tender, succulent sweet-but-sharp pork filling.
So how would it taste on Fourth Avenue at 10th Street, an unremarkable part of town a few blocks south of Union Square? I went with my daughter on a rainy June lunchtime; Ruth had never experienced a Tim Ho Wan pork bun. After one bite, she was ordering an extra triumvirate of the big guys to take home for her sceptical Cornish husband’s supper.
Disregard the slightly dreary position and Tim Ho Wan NY is identical to, if slightly less noisy and rumbustious than, the Hong Kong original. The queue, which can be ridiculous in Hong Kong – as in several hours’ wait – is here 15 minutes max on a weekday. The menus are slightly cut back, but not bowdlerised. So steamed rice with pork spare rib and chicken feet (not one for me, frankly) makes it over from Hong Kong, but deep fried shrimp dumplings with salad cream is thankfully left out. Steamed rice with chicken, lily flowers and fungus, sadly, does not make the trip. But most of the greats are present and correct. Pan-fried turnip cake, check. deep-fried dumplings with pork and dried shrimp, check. HK’s glutinous rice dumpling, with its tea-infused sausage and belly pork makes it onto Fourth Avenue as sticky rice in lotus leaf.
The only mild disappointment is that HK’s iconic dessert, tonic medlar and petal cake – an extravagant jelly in which flower petals, decayed rose apple and goji berries are suspended – appears in New York as a rather flat sweet osmanthus with goji berries. Osmanthus, Wikipedia informs me, is an east Asian flower, so I’m guessing supplies of medlar are the problem. Whatever, desserts are hardly the main event of a dim sum lunch, so Tim Ho Wan will remain my new Manhattan lunch go-to. Roll on a London branch, guys.