Sunday 5 February 2012

Dim Sum @ Ping Pong - Is It THAT Bad?

In common with many restaurant chains, it's very easy to have a pop at Ping Pong. So I'm going to start my review with a few positives. The branch I visited (on Great Marlborough Street) is stylish and buzzy. The menu is well presented with a 'dummies guide to dim sum' and brief descriptions of all the dishes. In addition to the à la carte, there are also set menus that enable solo diners/small groups to sample a wide variety of dim sum. And I have nothing but praise for the efficient and friendly service. So far, so good, but just how far can a restaurant go on style without substance? Well let's find out.

Baked & Fried Dim Sum
As I was dining alone (I took it for granted I couldn't persuade anyone to join me at Ping Pong), I went for the Ping Pong Collection (£9.95) in order to try out ten different dim sum. The baked/fried dim sum came out first, and my first impressions were that the spring rolls were stingily filled and a bit 'supermarket'. Of these, the crispy duck one was the pick of the bunch, whilst the less said about the Vietnamese rice paper prawn roll and mixed vegetable spring roll, the better. In contrast, I liked the roast pork puff, which had a well-seasoned filling enveloped in a crisp pastry.

Murdered Steamed Dim Sum
As mediocre as the spring rolls were, they were positively stunning when compared to the steamed selection. In general, the dumpling wrappers were too thick and had a claggy texture whilst the fillings were underseasoned. Moving onto the dumplings individually, the shortcomings were myriad. The har gau (prawn dumpling) was so overcooked that the wrapper fell away from the prawn upon picking it up with chopsticks. The fillings in the chicken & cashew nut dumpling and spicy vegetable dumpling were too grainy.

I haven't finished yet! The green chive dumpling did contain prawns as promised, but there were no chives, just a load of other random filler. The chicken shu mai (sic) was a bit dry, which is why this open-topped dumpling is usually made with fatty pork to give it a juicy quality. And to cap it all off, the vegetable sticky rice was bland and stodgy. In short, this bamboo steamer represented the Room 101 of dim sum.

Half-decent Bao
As I feared the Ping Pong Collection might not sate my appetite, I also ordered a portion of cha sui bao (sic). I actually enjoyed these, as the buns were nice and fluffy and the filling (the same as the roast pork puff) was well seasoned. However, in comparison to other Chinese restaurants, £2.99 for two buns is a bit of a rip-off when most places serve three for a similar price.

To drink, I went for vintage pu-erh tea (£2.25). This was high quality stuff, but it was served in a glass. This meant no refills, and as the glass had no handle and I don't have Teflon hands, it was very tricky to drink. In total, the bill came to £17.38 including 12.5% service. Whilst not exactly exorbitant, there are loads of places where you can eat more and better dim sum for the same price.

Two, maybe three, acceptable dim sum out of eleven is pretty lamentable, and the food was as poor as I remembered from my previous visit to Ping Pong a few years ago. This is a pity, as there's definitely a niche in the market for an accessible quality eatery to attract those who might not otherwise check out dim sum the old school way. In fact, there is a risk that some are put off dim sum altogether by Ping Pong. And that really would be a crying shame.

But let's not single out Ping Pong, or even chain restaurants for that matter. Other cities have top quality chains that I'd love to see in London. Just imagine if instead of Ping Pong, we could eat dumplings from Din Tai Fung and wouldn't it be great if we could slurp noodles at Ippudo instead of Wagamama? We can dream, but as long as Londoners settle for second-rate crap, they will be locked in the chains that they deserve. Or to put it in the words of some Welsh blokes: IF YOU TOLERATE THIS YOUR CHILDREN WILL BE NEXT.

Ping Pong Soho on Urbanspoon

Ping Pong, 45 Great Marlborough Street, London, W1F 7JL
(Tel: 020-7851-6969) Nearest station: Oxford Circus

PS: Do check out my Dim Sum in London guide for restaurants that are the real deal.


  1. I stay a mile away from Ping Pong from the reviews that I have come across. I think it comes across as less intimidating to those who aren't familiar with dim sum - much like the Chinese equivalent of Banana Tree if you know what I mean.

  2. I think a picture paints a thousand words and from your pictures above, it looks very unappetising and overcooked springs to mind.

  3. I think this is the first time I have ever felt it appropriate to type *hugs* on a food blog...

  4. uhhh these dim sum look vile! Before I knew what dim sum are supposed to taste like, I thought ping pong was not bad. I think that's the main problem - people are scared to try new things and stick to the chain-Westernized version without knowing what the miss out on!
    Brave one to face ping pong all by yourself...

  5. Good for you for actually trying to find some positives! But we really do need more decent chain restaurants. I'll make you a deal - when I get back to the Big Smoke I'll help you with your DTF campaign if you'll help me in trying to get Haidilao (Sichuan hotpot) to London!

    Also, I remember for a long time Royal China successfully rolled out decent dim sum across London. Not sure what the standard is like now but it's possible to have good mass dim sum!

  6. LChow - I know exactly what you mean. But as with Banana Tree, is there any reason why the food is so mediocre/poor?

    Thebao - I can't be sure if they steamed the dim sum all at the same time, but that might be why some of the steamed stuff was badly overcooked.

    Kake - thanks!

    Ute - Ping Pong's a big wasted opportunity imho. If the food was any cop, it could do wonders for the profile of dim sum.

    HF - good point on Royal China. I hear mixed reviews, and it isn't anywhere that I'd choose to go to. Having said that, in contrast to Ping Pong, Royal China goes about doing dim sum in the proper way, which is to be applauded.

    PS: More on the DTF campaign soon! And yes, let's try to get more Asian/Chinese resto groups to blighty!

  7. Goodness! It looks like it's got worse over the years. I used to say at least it was a decent place to meet people before heading out (the cocktail menu was fairly good). While you could obviously get better dim sum for less, it was passable and the locations were good. Looks like it's not even good for that any more.

  8. I think the reason why Ping Pong does so well is people don't know what they are missing out on. "What the real deal should taste like"

    I have a similar situation with XLB. I really enjoyed the ones at Dumpling Legends and Leong's Legends but I have been well informed, by no other than Mr. N himself, that these are nothing in comparison to the real deal.

    So I believe for many - ignorance is bliss. Which is kinda sad I 'spose

  9. Wow...

    my flat-mate swears by PingPong which explains why we haven't eaten out together in over a year. Fair play for taking the plunge - maybe you should go DimT next week...
    btw - any updates on your quest to bring Din Tai to London?

  10. Bleugh. Apparently all the food is made off site and then steamed / fried upon serving which might explain some things.

    The last time I went to Ping Pong there was some sort of pork and pineapple monstrosity in a spring roll that I had the misfortune to experience. Never again.

  11. Chz - cocktails. It's what everyone says is good about Ping Pong when they 'fess up to having been there!

    Frank - the XLB and the general dim sum situation aren't really comparable. The fact is you can get decent dim sum in London at accessible and classy restaurants such as Princess Garden and Phoenix Palace. In other words, there is no need to visit Ping Pong. In contrast, it is difficult to get really good XLB in London.

    Having said that, the gulf between XLB in Shanghai, for example, and London is analogous to the gap between a top-of-the-table football team and a one in mid-table. Extending this analogy, the gulf between the best dim sum in London and Ping Pong is like comparing a Premiership team to a League One side.

    ikans - dim t makes Ping Pong look good! On DTF, an update soon...

    Lizzie - I also heard that Ping Pong use a central kitchen, which might explain the lack of delicacy if not the crap stingy fillings! And what is it with their experimental fillings? Pork & pineapple - why?

  12. I'm just amazed you ventured inside pretty much knowing how rubbish they were gonna be. But as my Nan always used to say "never slate anything until you've tried it". Wise words from the old girl.

    1. Ha ha! Yes, I knew it would be mediocre at best but I guess I wanted to understand Ping Pong's appeal. And I also wanted to see if the food was as bad as I imagined it to be.

  13. @Mr. N...
    My point wasn't on the availability but the fact that I thought the XLB I had was good. Purely as I haven't had the good stuff. That is the same with Ping Pong. People think it is good because they don't know what the real deal is!

    The shame is on them though because - as you say, good dim sum IS readily available in London. They just can't be bothered to check it out.

  14. I dislike ping pong. I went twice, to two different branches, a long while back, think they were still reasonably new. It was all style over substance and more like a nightclub than a restaurant. On both my visits, staff seemed more interested in looking cool and/ or chatting amongst themselves than in serving us.

    And the food was poor. No two ways about it.

    Shortly afterwards, a bunch of bloggers were invited to go in and review, and seemed to like it, so perhaps they can turn out decent stuff when pushed, but it wasn't the experience I had as a regular paying punter.

    Since then I've not bothered going back... don't want to throw good money after bad.

    I'm not even a coinnoisseur of dim sum... but the stuff at Ping Pong was just not good.

  15. hate this place with a passion

  16. It's the McDonalds of dim sum. It feels like it was set up by 2 ex-bankers or as some kind of management consulting project to create an experience for large groups of urban professionals looking to have 'modern' chinese food in a sharing 'exotic' format with THE CRAZY TEA WITH THE FLOWER IN IT OMG.

  17. Hi, I've been 3 times, to 3 different branches (to give it a chance). I've been met with sloppy over-steamed dim sum, charged for condiment sauces given to me without being made they were chargeable and surly service. Once I can forgive, but for the price and the fact I've always had poor service (perhaps because I've been in their eyes, only a table for one), it really isn't for me.

  18. Yup yup yup, I've only been once and that once was with Kake. It was pretty awful.

  19. Frank - I hear what you're saying, but the XLB you've sampled in London is like 'Aston Villa' - unlikely to challenge for honours but decent enough. However, Ping Pong is very much 'Tranmere Rovers' - never likely to rise above the lower leagues.

    In other words, I can understand why you might think XLB in London in decent. But even if some peeps know nothing about dim sum, they should realise when food is overcooked and dumpling wrappers are sticky and unpleasant.

    Kavey - you're spot on. You don't have to be an expert to realise when something is bad.

    Leluu - worse than Pho (the chain)?

    Cian - but harsh on McD's, it doesn't pretend to be anything it isn't. Whereas Ping Pong's business model is predicated on urbanity and sophistication - a kind of cut-price Yauatcha/Hakkasan.

    Dini - I thought the service was OK when I went, but I guess that's the luck of the draw.

    Su-Lin - I remember your review! Let's replace them all with DTF's!

  20. To be fair, I did like their non-steamed stuff when I went to the one on Goodge Street; the aubergine dish there was actually really good. The dishes I had with Su-Lin at the St Paul's branch were truly terrible though.

  21. Once again, you have taken one for the team - thanks for that Mr "F" N. I can chalk this up as somewhere never to go. Anywhere that cooks centrally and reheats is going to be pretty bad, in order to maintain "brand consistency" they usually aim for the lowest common denominator... Bleurgh.

    It's not just limited to Asian style food either as anyone who has ventured into any themed pubs/big UK chains can probably attest. It's food as fuel and not for fun at all.

  22. I cannot believe you went to Ping Pong!! Did you notice there were no other asian people in there???? Urgh, I went once and everything was bland, and then made the mistake of going again and it was bland. They have a good cocktail menu though, which is um.. good I suppose, but a real dim sum restaurant wouldn't have cocktails!!

  23. Kake - as I think we've previously discussed, there's less scope to balls-up non-steamed stuff.

    Gworm - you raise an excellent point about 'brand consistency', but why should this result in the lowest common denominator, as is all too often the case in blighty? Wouldn't it be great if the brand values were a benchmark of excellence. Take, for example, Din Tai Fung (the dumpling restaurant) - I heard a story that they ended a franchise agreement in southern China becauuse the franchisee's quality wasn't good enough.

    catty - I am at pains to point out that I was fully aware of Ping Pong's bad rep before going there. Consider this an 'investigative blogging' trip to see whether Ping Pong's bad reputation is deserved.

  24. Crystal Jade's Xiao Long Bao is better than Ding Tai Fung's though the service at Ding Tai Fung's is much better.

    As for Ippudo...the broth is too hearty for HK, but might be great for chilly London.

    Dimsum is great in HK as most places steam and fry when you order ensuring that the quality will be decent at the very minimum.

  25. Hilarious post. When I was in London Ping Pong kept on inviting me to their restaurant and I kept on saying no as I knew I could only write bad things. I have actually eaten there (sadly) a few times when other people have organised the location. The best I can say is that the cocktails and the tea are both quite good.

  26. Kelly - I don't think I've ever sampled Crystal Jade's XLB but I wouldn't mind seeing those guys in London, too. I've never been to Ippudo but used them as an example of the calibre of chain restaurant that I'd like to see. Dim sum is, of course, better in HK but remember that Ping Pong are very much near the bottom of the league.

    GChick - thank god for the cocktails! You're lucky that dim sum/yum cha tends to be better in Melbourne. I doubt very much if Ping Pong would ever succeed there.