The District, cnr. Victoria Avenue and Railway Street Chatswood, New South Wales 2067
|Opening hours||Daily 10am-9pm|
|Features||Cheap Eats, Family friendly, Licensed|
|Prices||Cheap (mains under $20)|
|Phone||02 9898 9888|
The queue started in Hong Kong in 2009. Tipped off by some local mates that the dim sum chef from the elegant Lung King Heen at the Four Seasons had struck out on his own, I took my number and waited for an hour and a half outside the first, tiny (20-seater) Tim Ho Wan in Mong Kok. Was it worth it? It was. Chef Mak Kwai Pui simply did old-school yum cha that reminded me of how yum cha used to be, when prawns were prawns and dumplings were steamed to order. I wasn't blown away; but it was good on quality and value.
Then the Michelin Guide gave little Tim Ho Wan a Michelin star, in order to make a bit of a splash for its first Hong Kong guide. Chef Mak partnered with the Singapore-based Hersing Corporation, renowned for its "aggressive strategy of growth", and things went ballistic. Tim Ho Wan is now touted as "the cheapest Michelin-star restaurant in the world", and queues form in Singapore, Taipei, Hanoi, Kuala Lumpur and Manila at the mere mention of its signature sugar-dusted, crisp-crusted, baked barbecue pork bun.
Now Sydney's first Tim Ho Wan has steamed into town, landing at Chatswood's new Asian-inspired food court, The District, in the perfect storm of social media frenzy, orchestrated publicity and dumpling love. With Eric Koh, former dim sum chef of Mr Wong in the kitchen, I'm curious enough to add to the dragontail of a queue twice in the space of a week.
The 100-seater corner outlet is clean and bright, with a mix of banquette and small timber stool seating. As in Hong Kong, you are handed a pick-and-tick menu card as you arrive, and the food comes as it is cooked. The classics – siu mai ($7.20) and har gau ($7.80) dumplings – are done well and are notable for their top-grade prawns. Braised chicken feet in abalone sauce ($6.20) are toe-lickin' good, and pai gwat, those slippery little pork ribs in black bean sauce ($6.80) are steamy and tender. Spring rolls ($6) are flat, flaky and filled with a prawn and egg white mousse: a highlight.
And then there's The Bun ($6.80 for three), a golden, tanned orb of awesomeness: the pastry crust remarkably fragile and flaky-soft, the barbecue pork inside saucy and satiny. It's rich, and sweet – scandalously so – but that doesn't seem to stop anyone from devouring them.
Other offerings are more miss than hit, or just plain old average. Wasabi salad prawn dumplings were unrewarding, deep-fried and striped with wasabi mayo ($7.80). A bowl of steamed rice with sausage, chicken and mushroom ($8.80) felt dry and lifeless. Cheung faan with pig's liver (listed here as vermicelli roll, $7.50) was leathery on the liver.
Service is a real issue, and I'm not sure it isn't worse a few days after opening than on opening day itself. My menu card doesn't make it into the "system" for 20 minutes, while those behind me in the queue are fed before I am. The floor around me is littered with dropped paper serviettes, and tables are slow to be cleared, prolonging the queue even further. With two more Sydney venues coming, as well as a Melbourne outlet, they'd better get their systems sorted pretty fast.
So, yes, Tim Ho Wan is over-hyped and over here, but it's still worth a visit for the curiosity factor, the undeniable freshness of the food, and The Bun. I'm just not convinced it's worth the queue.
Best bit: The foodie chats you have in the queue
Worst bit: Service struggles to keep up
Go-to dish: Baked bun with barbecue pork, $6.80 for three
Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.