It was a Friday night when we walked out of Waterloo station, past some crazy neon-light art installations on the Southbank, and into Ping Pong for the promise of some dim sum. It was also pretty crazy inside Ping Pong, though due largely to the mass of people eating there, rather than any neon-light art installations. London’s weekenders were out in full force – office workers, tourists and gaggles of friends had descended upon the restaurant, which is described by Ping Pong’s people as a “twenty-first century teahouse”. It certainly wasn’t imbuing us with a sense of serenity as we battle our way through the throngs of people filling up the bar upstairs, but that must have been the twenty-first century bit.
We chatted while we waited to be seated in the heaving bar area, adding our 30 decibels-worth to the clamour of teahouse talk that was going on. We also looked through the drinks list, spying the virtues of green tea, in amongst the martinis and tempting long cocktails. We set aside the idea of being virtuous and decided on two of the long cocktails: the raspberry, basil and plum wine, and the mango and gin. Once we had decided, we waited and chatted, and waited some more. Eventually a lady came over, not take our drinks order, but to usher us to our seats downstairs. Slightly confused, we settled into our seats and promptly set about ordering our cocktails, which arrived promptly and satisfyingly long in measure. Not too much in the way of booze could be detected in either, but they tasted seriously fruity.
The idea with the menu at Ping Pong is a little like Chinese tapas. There are light dishes (under sections titled, ‘baked’, ‘steamed’ and ‘nibbles’) and larger dishes (under ‘fried’ and ‘signature dishes’) along with plenty of side dishes (sticky rice, and steamed buns) that you can pick and choose from to make up your meal. Our charming waitress explained that four or five dishes would be about right, with perhaps two lighter bites, two larger dishes and a side order. If you’re ravenously hungry when you arrive at Ping Pong, it’s tempting to play restaurant bingo and pick five dishes at random (they are all numbered). You will no doubt order enough this way, but as with all reviews, it’s our duty to let you know which dishes are definitely worth picking. These dishes, by the way, turn up in no particular order, so your table ends up being loaded with steamers, which is fine, but makes you look outrageously greedy.
The chicken wonton soup (that’s number 54 to all you bingo players) was a definite hit. The clear broth wrapped our taste buds up in savoury comfort, and had my spoon scraping the bottom of the bowl before you could shout ‘full house’. The chilli sauce that accompanied the spicy vegetables in crystal pastry (number 17), was hot enough to melt the polar ice cap, and had both of us sipping long mouthfuls from our long cocktails. Thank goodness for long cocktails. The spicy vegetables wrapped in crystal pastry were by the way wonderfully delicate, and fairly fiery in their own right. If you’re one of those chilli freaks, dip the parcel in the chilli dip – go on, we dare you.
The chicken puff (number 2), was not so good, due mostly to the heavy pastry it was wrapped in, which tied in more with the notion of sturdy British fare, than the more delicate approach of Chinese cooking. Other highlights were the char sui buns (number 23), which were filled with sweet and sticky pork, wrapped up in pure fluffy bun dough, and the first emperor’s treasure (number 70), which comprised steamed salmon dumplings, topped with lime leaves and trout’s eggs. Yum. Admittedly vegetables on their own don’t tend to make the headlines in restaurants, but the steamed choy sum with soy sauce and garlic (number 47), was beautifully light, tender and cleansing. Tricky with chopsticks, but worth getting your fork out for. Speaking of chopsticks – if your chopsticking skills make George Bush look dexterous, don’t fret. Ping Pong has some handy, easy versions available. More flat, wide tongs than chopsticks, they’re easy to manoeuvre and leave far more of the food in your mouth and less on the table.
Our desserts of mango pudding and fresh seasonal fruit were rather uneventful after the success of our main meal, but the waitress suggested we rounded things of with some flowering teas. Hand stitched balls of dried tea leaves were dropped into large steaming glasses of hot water in front of us. Five minutes later, we were sipping our way through jasmine infused tea, and feeling increasingly more serene. If you’re after a calm, balancing meal, lunch times are a better bet here at Ping Pong. If it’s a hive of chatter and activity that you crave, visit Ping Pong on a Friday night for a full measure of 21st century teahouse.
Ping Pong: Southbank, Festival Terrace, South Bank Centre, Belvedere Road, London, SE1 8XX. Tel: 020 7960 4160
Reviewer: Helenka Bednar