Tuesday, 6 October 2009
Ping Pong, Soho
Before we go any further, Full Disclosure. I didn't pay for this meal. I was invited by the PR lady to try their new Autumn menu after I made some (unprompted) positive comments about it on Twitter, and of course I was happy to accept. But believe me or not, I have always had a soft spot for Ping Pong. Whether or not the traditionalists like it, dim sum lends itself extraordinarily well to post-pub dining, and although Yauatcha was probably the first place to promote the peculiar idea of serving food when the customers might want to eat it rather than when the restaurant decides is convenient for them, the raft of mini-chains that have followed in its wake (including Dim T) have proved that it's not that peculiar an idea after all.
When you think about it, it's obvious. A group of friends, some more hungry than others, some more drunk than others, some leaving early, some arriving late. Imagine trying to make a booking at a restaurant in Soho last-minute - "Yeah, between two and twenty of us, some not eating, some not drinking either. We'll be there any time in the next four hours." Not going to happen is it. But here stands Ping Pong: vast, reasonably priced and welcoming. Sure, you'll have to queue in busy periods, and it can get quite boisterous later in the evening, but for a reliably fun place to share food, sip fruity cocktails and not completely drain that month's budget, I can hardly think of anywhere more suitable.
We started small, with nibbles of Sichuan pork cracklings (not very Sichuan-y - in fact they tasted just like your average pub pork scratchings, albeit served with a really lovely chilli oil) and tamarind prawn crackers (the tamarind sauce was lovely and sharp, and the crackers themselves looked pleasingly rustic) while we supped on our largely successful house cocktails (my lychee martini was pretty good, although the Earl Grey julep was odd).
Seafood puff was a little low on filling, but what was there was tasty. The mooli and spring onion puff is described on the menu as containing 'a hint of garlic' but was so overwhelmingly garlicky it almost drowned any other flavours. Slices of smoked duck were a bit flabby but full of smoky flavour, and one of the new dishes, 'Beggar's Chicken' looked the part and tasted great with its sharp hoi sin dressing.
I won't detail everything we ate - you've probably had enough of the blow-by-blow style after El Bulli and the Sportsman - but some highlights were the char sui buns, usually a good measure of a dim sum restaurant and which passed that test perfectly, being light and gooey and with a great tasting sweet pork filling. The seafood dumplings also tasted as good as they looked, folded into a cute tortellini shape and stuffed full of sweet prawns and scallops. Unfortunately I didn't think much of the honey-glazed spare ribs, which looked a bit over-marinated and bedraggled, and although the crispy prawn balls looked spectacular in their nest of deep-fried egg pastry, there was simply too much grease for me to wade through to find the prawns.
Desserts, so often an afterthought in Chinese restaurants, were surprisingly good. Admittedly had I been paying I probably would never had ordered them, but the mango pudding was lovely and fresh tasting - straightforward but deliberately so - and the "Ping Pong Delights" (which I'm told are also known as mochi) were great fun, with a spongy pastry coating three radically different flavours of ice cream. We particularly enjoyed the vanilla and mango with a quite unexpected chilli heat. Only the chocolate and wasabi mousse was a bit of a let-down, the fiery horseradish sitting very uneasily with the sweet chocolate.
If you've ever been out in Soho or Oxford Circus and been looking for somewhere to eat, chances are you've already found Ping Pong and none of this is news to you. And in fact they seem to have struck a chord with Londoners at large, judging by the alarming growth rate of what was once a mini-chain - there are now twelve branches. Ping Pong is a fine example of the way London can enthusiastically adopt a cuisine from another country and twist it just subtly enough to meet its own local needs. No, it's not strictly "traditional" to eat dim sum in the evening, but this is after all London, not Hong Kong. We do things differently here.