I've never been much of a sports fan. I think it comes from a combination of my being monumentally bad at practically every sport I have ever tried (with the possible exception of snooker/pool and skiing), and my absolute loathing for losing at anything – not a great combination! But I have to say that I do have a soft spot for ping pong. And before you roll about on the floor clutching your bellies in helpless mirth, let me explain that I am not referring to the game played with littly dinky balls and bats on outsize green kitchen tables – I am referring to the chain of dim sum restaurants of the same name.
I have been eating dim sum at Ping Pong for a good six years now, since I first spotted a branch behind Liberty in Great Marlborough Street. Dim sum was completely unknown to me until I started blogging and reading about magical things like char siu pork buns on other people's sites. I was intrigued. So when a friend suggested dinner out back in 2005, I suggested Ping Pong and a great love affair began – mainly between me and their char siu pork puffs! So when I was invited back in February this year to attend a Chinese New year dinner at Ping Pong Great Marlborough Street, I jumped at the chance.
The occasion was to launch a few menu specials for Chinese New Year and my fellow-diners were a selection of writers and lifestyle bloggers – I had the good fortune of being seated next to the charming Londoneer who proved himself a fabulous and entertaining dining companion. We were also joined by their head dim sum chef which was great as he could provde some details as to how some of the dim sum are made (the vibrant purple seabass dim sum, sadly only on the menu for a limited time, was a great example – they use red cabbage in the wonton wrapper pastry!)
I love the space at the Great Marlborough Street branch. From the street it looks like any other restaurant, but when you enter and go downstairs, you realise that a large chunk of the back of the restaurant is cut away to make a glassed-in atrium which brings natural light down into the basement level. Instead of a blank wall, the back of the atrium features a giant projection wall with a reflecting pool below which gives the restaurant a great urban chic look and a tremendous sense of spaciousness. Diners upstairs also have the option of sitting at the horseshoe-shaped counter looking down on the room below and out at the projection wall. The vibe is definitely trendy but not intimidatingly so.
Soon we were all settled at the table, sipping on cocktails from their spectacular cocktail menu and nibbling on the completely addictive spicy seaweed prawn crackers – think prawn crackers with attitude. There then followed, in no particular order, a dazzling array of dim sum, some chosen by us and some suggested by the restaurant to give us a good overview of the menu. Highlights for me included the crispy prawn balls that looked like crispy pom poms and packed a succulent prawn punch; fall-off-the-bone tender honey-glazed spare ribs; the pillowy char siu pork buns; the exceptionally prawny proawn toast;the irridescent green chive cumpling – and my all-time favourite, the addictive pork puffs. Some of the dishes we sampled were from the 'Ping Pong Pure' range of translucent steamed dumplings which apparently only contain 500 calories or so per serving but don't stint on taste. (For larger versions of the photos below, please take a look at my Flickr album of the evening.)
Chive dumpling; pork puffs; spicy hot pork dumplings
A number of us remarked on the fact that no two dishes tasted the same or even similar, whereas dim sum at other restaurants can often taste rather samey. Here, flavours were clean and distinctive and many of the dumplings almost too pretty to eat (particularly purple-hued seabass dumplings). This is a testminony to Pong Pong's commitment to natural ingredients, lack of MSG and the fact that all sauces are freshly made at each branch, rather than bought in in bulk from a faceless corporation. And when you are done feasting on dim sum, the best way to finish off the evening is with a specatcular flowering teat which grows from a compact dry ball into a billowing blossom before your eyes in the glass.
Dragon eye flowering tea; jasmine lily flowering tea
With locations around London; 3-piece dim sum baskets for between £3 and £5; and cocktails all under £8, Ping Pong is one of my favourite affordable luxuries and a perfect place for a girls' night out. Or if you need your dim sum fix over the weekend, there is also Lazy Sumdays – all you can eat dim sum for £18.49 on a Sunday. It would be churlish not to go.
45 Great Marlborough Street
Tel: 00 44 20 7851 6969