It was curtains for Tim Ho Wan in Sydney, "the world's cheapest Michelin-star restaurant", in mid-2018 when its local branches closed. Since then, its flagship location on George Street in Sydney's CBD has been quietly operating as Canton! Canton!, with a short menu of classic dishes – dumplings, roasted meats – from China's Guangdong province.
Yet the memory of Tim Ho Wan lingered. Perhaps it was the sparse canteen vibes, or the overhead spotlights and the spartan set-up.
But come the Year of the Pig, it's a new (lunar) year, new restaurant. Canton! Canton! version 2.0, by The Jewel Pantry group, is set to open its doors on Monday, with a branding re-boot, a menu overhaul and a more opulent fit-out.
"We've gutted the whole restaurant," says owner David Howe. "We needed to totally re-service the place, and we are going slightly upmarket in our décor and ambience."
Interior stylists Dorian McCartney and Raymond Teo have kept to a design brief that channels "industrial pre-war China", which translates to decorated lanterns, exposed dark brick and dining booths inspired by opium beds.
They also engaged a feng shui expert to optimise the space for harmony and good luck. Hence, the placement of mirrors above the banquette seats, and plants at the entrance to "engender a sense of well-being," says Howe.
It's all-new, yet links to Tim Ho Wan remain: executive chef Jacky Chan is a Tim Ho Wan alumnus, and while the menu now reflects that of a full-service Cantonese restaurant (yum cha in the morning, banquet-style dining at night), many Tim Ho Wan classics are still available.
Take the baked barbecue pork buns. Crisp and sweet on the outside, they're strikingly similar to Tim Ho Wan's signature. Elsewhere, for the yum-cha service, there's the usual Cantonese suspects: siu mai topped with fish roe, har gau plus five types of steamed rice noodle rolls, and braised chicken feet served with abalone sauce.
Later in the day, there's also rice dishes, noodles and a "premium" congee menu, which includes varieties with century egg, scallop and pork rind; while Hong Kong-style roasted meats are the star attraction for dinner. "The roasted duck is a secret recipe handed down from Jacky's family," says Howe. "He's pretty proud to bring it to Sydney [from Singapore]."
In a city not short on good Cantonese, and with more big names set to open this year (including a new restaurant from Golden Century at Darling Square), the competition for Canton! Canton! is stiff. Howe, a former real estate agent, hopes that the restaurant will stand out with what he calls "six-star service".
"In real estate, I always depended on word of mouth. In the restaurant business, it's the same. If we serve good food with great service, people will keep coming back," he says.
With the promise of top service, dim sum and good luck, it's likely they will.
Canton! Canton! opens on Monday 18 February. Shop GD04, 580 George St, Sydney, Monday to Sunday 11am-10pm. thejewelpantrygroup.com