Thursday, 28 July 2011

Restaurant Review: Ping Pong Dim Sum.
"Chinese Jim... But Not As We Know It"

Last weekend, an uncharacteristically romantic Mr Cow, treated me to a surprise break in our nation’s capital. Not one to waste an opportunity to Scoff, I insisted that whilst there, we donned our critical caps and resumed the hunt for the ultimate in ‘dining out, without filling out.’

Although Nottingham holds the crown as the UK’s most restaurant dense city, it hardly sits on a par with London in terms of health fads and cosmopolitanisms.
Having heard so much in recent weeks about the Chinese low-fat delicacy, Dim Sum, I decided that this was the ideal opportunity to give it the 'Scoffing Cow' treatment.

Despite originating in China, the term ‘Dim Sum’ is actually Cantonese, and used to refer to any Chinese dish which is served in small and individual portions.
Like Tapas and Meze, the Dim Sum label is used rather loosely. Nonetheless, from a healthy eating perspective, it is the frequency of steaming and griddling in its preparation, which has served to propel it as a favourite amongst dieters.

As an avid advocate of the Spanish and Greek counterparts, I was giddy to see what all the fuss was about, and after a quick Google, set my targets on the London Dim Sum chain, 'Ping Pong'.

Not only did this place specialise in the very food I was hankering after; it also advertised a dedicated ‘Healthy Fix’ Menu.  Bingo. (Or is that Ping Pong?)

Once again baffling my loyal companion with a promise of Chinese food and plentiful ball sports (!), we trotted off to Soho in order to see what all the fuss was about.

Restaurant Review – Ping Pong Dim Sum – 45 Great Marlborough Street, Soho, London - 020 7851 6969

With subtle neon lighting, plasma screen facades, and chilled out house music pumping through the speakers, Ping Pong Dim Sum is anything but quintessentially Chinese.

More like a late lounge than a restaurant, Ping Pong seems a lot like one of those shamelessly trendy venues, serving to arouse a sense of inadequacy amongst its more insecure proprietors (me!) and convincing the remainder to recklessly part with money which they probably haven’t got.

Ping Ping Dim Sum, Great Marlborough Street, Soho.
The building itself is two storey, with the majority of seating housed in the upstairs portion of the structure; which by the way, is dark enough to bring an ugly date, without itching for the bill.

Ironically, Mr Cow and I were not afforded such a fitting luxury; and upon being seated, found ourselves slap bang in the middle of a brightly lit walk way, balancing upon a balcony table sandwiched between several other diners.
‘Here are your menus guys,’ chipped a young eager server as she popped two cards onto our place mats.
(Oh, the youth of today… when exactly did we all become guys?)

‘Have you guys been to Ping Pong before?’
‘Well guys, let me explain how it works.’

(Great, here we go; the condensing yet mandatory narration of the self explanatory.)

Essentially Ping Pong works a little like ordering a hotel breakfast; you pick which extortionately priced item you wish to purchase, pop a cross in the designated box, and slowly die inside at the money you’ve just agreed to part with in exchange for a soggy croissant.

As Miss Preppy departed, I Skimmed down the thin menu card eager to learn exactly what a Dim Sum meal would consist of.
With around 60 dishes to choose from, I was undeniably spoilt for choice – we were informed that around 3 plates would be an adequate amount for each person, and had I not already selected my food prior to this visit, would have felt like a kid in a candy shop.
Flipping over to the ‘set menus’ side of the card, I eagerly sought out the much revered ‘Healthy Fix,’ excited to see what my 500 calorie feast would consist of.

But alas, it was no where to be found.

Beckoning our super friendly waitress back to the table, (I mean bar stool) I politely enquired as to its whereabouts.
‘Oh yeah,’ she recalled. ‘I think that was a limited edition thing; sorry guys.’


After opting for the Vegetarian Extravaganza set meal (yes I know, hardly a modest sounding quantity, but the waitress seemed to think it similar) my companion and I sat patiently in expectancy of our first Dim Sum experience.

Our meal was to begin with a portion of spicy Chinese nuts as a pre-dinner nibble. This was to be followed by the main attraction consisting of baked vegetable puffs, an assortment of steamed and griddled dumplings, not to mention coconut rice, spring rolls, and an extra side of veg.
There was dessert too… god bless our bellies.

As ravenous and as impatient as always, a couple of minutes after ordering Mr Cow and I engaged in lookout duty, anticipating the arrival of our pre-dinner nuts.
Sat like well behaved Meerkats perched upon barstools, we searched the faces of each passing waitress and strained our necks in that ‘we’re missing something’ kind of manner.

After 30 or so minutes, our chipper waitress returned galloping gaily, laden with baskets, bowls, and plates, clumsily proceeding to pile them in front of us along the thin plinth.
‘Okay guys, you’re all set.’ She said giddily, attempting to arrange the dishes into some kind of order and rectify her sloppiness. ‘Give me a yell when you’d like your desserts’ she added before scampering off.

Examining the copious amount of food that had unsurreptitiously been dumped under our noses, we began to lift the wicker lids and prod our chopsticks into the contents.

Despite being offered a fleeting and mumbled description of each dish as it juggled its way onto our place mats, we were still perplexed as to exactly what was what.

What we deduced to be the dumplings, whether griddled or steamed, looked extraordinarily similar, though admittedly sported slight variation in colour.
Unfortunately, when given the all important taste test our confusion was not lessened; the only flavour I could detect was of overcooked blandness.
With distinctive yet stomach churning gelatinous consistency, each one was about as edible as a rubber sole. Chewy, soggy and limp; if these dumplings had been made fresh to order as opposed to being reheated in a microwave, our waitress was clearly the Pope, and Ping Pong the Vatican.

Take note Ping Pong - how dumplings are supposed to look
Fearing vomit induction, we quickly pushed the dumplings to one side and moved on to the selection of spring rolls.
As before, Mr Cow and I struggled to differentiate; and argued whilst we ate over who had mango tofu and who had sweet and sour.
As we continued, we agreed that this detail was irrelevant since each roll was equally as disappointing, and tasted much akin to a frozen party snack assortment box, purchased from Asda.

The steamed vegetables and coconut rice which accompanied our meal were on the other hand reasonably palatable. Although I still predicted that they too had been subject to the microwave treatment, both were flavoursome and partially redeemed the aforementioned catastrophes.

Unfortunately however as we sampled the final dish, honey glazed vegetable puffs (which incidentally Mr Cow believed to be the dessert) we were brought back down to earth with epic propulsion. Was I in a Dim Sum restaurant, or a dimly lit corner of Greggs?

As Mr Cow and I continued to poke at the remaining food items, still fascinated by the ungodly consistency of a greenish dumpling, we heard a familiar voice from behind.
‘Okay guys,’ the waitress chirped, ‘and here are your spicy nuts’ pushing a bowl of pecans between the two of us. As she turned on her heels and vanished back into the darkness, we were left to sardonically muse over the punctuality of our PRE dinner nibbles (which by the by, were probably the nicest component of Ping Pong’s ‘Extravaganza.’)

Despite feeling slightly ill from the main course, lessened not by our conversation which had likened a mushroom dumpling to a sheep’s brain, we signalled for dessert.
After being joined on the plinth by several other couples who were quite clearly fascinated by our dinning experience, we decided to ask that our sweets be accompanied by the bill.

Ten minutes passed before two plates and yet another basket was carelessly dropped in front of us.
Much to the satisfaction of our intrigued neighbours, I dramatically lifted the lid revealing a white glue-like blob with a dark brown trickle oozing from its summit.
This, I deduced, was the Valrhona chocolate bun with coconut puree, and to its left, a modest pile of white and black rice and mango syrup.

As we bravely devoured, both dishes were uninspiring and lacked any real taste or requisite sweetness.
The Valrhona reminded me of overcooked marshmallow wrapped in edible cake decorating paper, filled with Mr Whippy-esk Chocolate sauce.
Meanwhile, the rice was grainy and nowhere near rich enough, or creamy enough to constitute dessert.

After a couple more excruciating mouthfuls (out of sheer politeness of course) we pushed our puds aside, promptly settled the bill, and hastily said our goodbyes to the world’s most annoying waitress.

Stepping out into the streets of Soho, we both agreed to forgo the obligatory night cap, in favour of some herbal tea back in the comforts of our hotel room.
I couldn’t be sure whether it was the food, or Mr Cow’s inappropriate ‘dumpling’ analogies that had served to upset me, but nonetheless, my overworked stomachs (yes, all three of them) were far from content with Ping Pong, and unsurprisingly, neither was I.

Okay, so I have to fess – this experience was hardly the epitome of low-fat indulgence I was hankering for; the ‘Healthy Fix’ purported to come in at under 500 calories – I doubt that any set menu proceeded by the word ‘extravaganza’ mirrored such an accomplishment.

That being said, having selected a feast which was concocted with no limitation on calories or fats, shouldn’t my expectations of Ping Pong been even higher?
With no reliance on steaming, or griddling (techniques which can so frequently result in bland food) shouldn’t there have at least been one redeeming dish on the menu, laden with calories yet full of taste?

I may be a health junkie; and yes, not often do I partake in deep fried spring rolls or puff pastry parcels. Nonetheless, I can still tell bad ‘unhealthy’ food from the good, and for me, this experience undoubtedly fell into the former.

If this is what traditional Dim Sum is all about, I’m certainly no convert - bring back the prawn crackers and deep fried banana I say; at least these indulgencies are worth their weight in calories.

Boo Ping Pong, boo indeed. You made two greedy cows tremendously disgruntled that night, and furthermore, gave one a very odd phobia about any form of dumpling for the foreseeable future.

My beef stew beseeches you!

(If you’re still not deterred, check out their website, and visit a Ping Pong Dim Sum near you… you have been warned.)

N.B The photo’s used in this blog entry are for illustration only and do not belong to me or The Scoffing Cow ©. (My pathetic camera phone could not cope with Ping Pong’s atmospheric lighting, so thanks to those I have 'borrowed' from on this occasion)


Wendy Wu said...

I love to hate Ping Pong - I've been a few times now and had such a 50/50 experience.
On less busy nights the food is great and tastes completely fresh and homemade... just a case of timing I guess.
If you're in LDN anytime soon, try visiting China town. Much more authentic and consistent too x

Francis said...

Great article, but I'm not sure I'd agree that Dim Sum is low in fat.... spring rolls, puff pastry... hmmmmm.

Perhaps the dumplings are much better for you, but really depends on the filling I guess.
Not sure I'll be rushing for a portion of them at Ping Pong anytime soon though. LOL.