Sunday, March 7, 2010

Ping Pong Dim Sum

I really love dim sum.  For the uninitiated, dim sum refers to a Southern Chinese style of dining where servers roam about the restaurant with carts piled high with bamboo steamer baskets and small plates, and customers help themselves to the dishes they want.  Traditional dim sum consists of a variety of steamed buns, dumplings, fried rolls, rice noodle dishes, and other small plates of vegetables and roasted meats.  I generally don't get to have it very often, as D.C. doesn't have a whole lot of dim sum options.  Mark has never had it at all, so this Friday night, I thought I'd ease him into the cuisine at Ping Pong Dim Sum, a UK-based chain version (I was inspired by fellow D.C. food blogger strawberry basil's recent post).  I'd heard mixed reviews about newly opened (as of December 2009) Chinatown eatery, and so I kept my expectations low, but we walked out pleasantly surprised and satisfied.  While it's definitely not representative of your traditional dim sum experience (no deep fried chicken feet?!!), the dishes we had were well-executed and tasty.  I would definitely recommend Ping Pong for a low-key, pre-movie dinner, or a fun group outing. 

Click below to see what we ate!

We walked into the trendily decorated restaurant on 7th street at about 6:15 pm.  While the bar was packed with the happy hour crowd, there were still plenty of tables in the huge space, so we were seated immediately.  Our server introduced himself with a quick smile and explained how to order: instead of the typical cart-based operation, Ping Ping has adopted more of a sushi restaurant model of dim sum- each table gets a sheet of paper with a list of all the items on the menu, and you check off the dishes you want.  We were pretty hungry, so we opted to get several dishes.  The service was okay, although not particularly welcoming, and the kitchen kept the dishes coming out at a fast and furious pace.  In fact, it was a little too fast, as the dishes were arriving much more quickly than the servers could bus the empty plates - we ran out of room on the small table more than once.  We weren't in a particular rush on Friday (or at least I thought we weren't*), so the pace was a little disconcerting, but I can see where it would be a plus if you just wanted to grab a quick meal before a movie, or before meeting up with friends to dance the night away. 

Our first dish was the pork puff.  I've never had a dim sum dish quite like this, but both Mark and I really liked it.  The hand made puff pastry was light, flaky, and flavorful on its own, and provided a nice balance to the sweetness of the honey roasted pork and caramelized onion filling (which would have been a little too sweet on its own). 

Pork Puff

Next, we moved on to a trio of dumplings with translucent white pastry wrappers: har gau (with king prawn and bamboo shoots), spicy pork dumpling, and spicy chicken dumpling.  This type of wrapper, typically made with rice flour and/or wheat starch, is one of my favorite things about eating dim sum - something about the texture of the wrappers makes me crave them, and so far, I've never successfully replicated them at home. These were good, although the wrappers were a little thicker than I would have preferred, and a little bland.  Mark didn't mind this and pointed out that we had been provided a number of spicy dipping sauces to combat any lack of seasoning.  The filling for each of the dumplings was very good - the har gau was filled with  a succulent yet crunchy prawn/bamboo shoot mixture, and the pork and chicken dumpling fillings had great flavor and a respectable amount of heat.  

Har Gau

Spicy Pork Dumpling

Spicy Chicken Dumpling

The next dish to arrive at the table was the crispy duck spring rolls, served with hoi sin sauce.  These were nicely fried, and the filling was good, but not quite ducky enough for me.  However, cucumber and spring onion added a needed fresh greenness to the filling.  Mark loved the hoi sin sauce, and didn't limit himself to using it on just the spring rolls (I don't think he used it on the dessert dishes, but I'm pretty sure he put it on everything else). 

Crispy Hoi Sin Duck Spring Roll

Mark's favorite dish of the night arrived late in the game, the honey glazed pork ribs.  He really loved the subtle sweetness of the honey (he swirled each rib around in the honey glaze painting the bottom of the dish), as well as the tenderness of the roasted meat, which literally fell off the bone.  I liked the ribs a lot, but would have preferred something, maybe spice, or heat, or acidity, to cut the richness the meat.

Honey Glazed Ribs

We ordered the crispy asparagus just to get a little more green in our meal, but this was the least successful dish of the night.  The asparagus arrived at the table almost cold, and each spear was stringy and tough to eat.  I have generally heard that the vegetarian options at Ping Pong are across-the-board sub-par, and the asparagus did not change my mind.

Crispy Asparagus

My favorite dish of the night was the lemon chicken.  The juicy chicken breast pieces were bursting with flavor from the chili, honey, and lemon glaze.  I loved the citrusy glaze on the meat - it really brightened up the dish.   

Lemon Chicken

Our final savory dish of the evening was the smoked duck and orange salad.  I really liked the tangy, gingery vinaigrette and how it played off against the sweet orange segments, as well as the crispy shallots topping the salad.  The smoked duck, however, wasn't really anything special (I didn't taste any smoked flavor), and didn't really add anything to the salad.

Smoked Duck And Orange Salad

For dessert, we got two small plates, the first of which consisted of two Valrhona chocolate buns.  While the dark, rich chocolate itself was decadent and delicious, I was not a fan of the dish.  The surrounding dough was completely overwhelming, heavy and bland - I'm pretty sure they use the same dough for their savory steamed buns, and here, it was just a terrible mismatch. 

Valrhona Chocolate Bun

Our second dessert dish, the roasted pineapple and coconut spring rolls with butterscotch sauce was much more successful - roasting pineapple takes the edge off the sweetness of the raw fruit and gives you a deeper and more complex flavor, one that paired perfectly with the coconut and surprisingly, the butterscotch sauce. 

Roasted Pineapple And Coconut Spring Roll With Butterscotch Sauce

I've read a lot of so-so to terrible reviews of this restaurant, and I sort of understand - if you are looking for a really traditional dim sum experience, I could see being very disappointed.  But if you're looking for a fun and/or quick meal that gives you a taste of dim sum without requiring you to step too far out of the box, Ping Pong Dim Sum is a solid choice. 

*After dinner, Mark and I decided to meet up with my best friend at Kelly's Irish Times (my friends and I used to go all the time in law school).  I thought I was just going for a beer and a quick game of Big Buck Hunter - those plans disappeared when I realized that all of my friends were gathered there for a slightly delayed surprise birthday party!  What a fantastic night....


  1. Hey, thanks for the shout-out! I think the more authentic dim sum has to be outside the city, so if you're willing to go the distance, it's well worth it.

    I laughed at your reference to the chicken feet...a long time ago, I unwittingly reached for it at a cart dim sum place. I don't think I was prepared at the time to be so adventurous, so it was a good thing I asked what it was before quickly withdrawing my hand.

    Glad you had a good experience at Ping Pong! Totally agreed with you on the choco wasn't matched very well.

  2. I know - my problem is that I don't have a car. Sad!

    I actually really enjoy chicken feet - if you can get over the look, they are pretty tasty!

    I wish that they had had some sort of rice noodle dish - that is my absolute FAVORITE. But, again, I was aware of the limitations of the restaurant before I went. Again, it's a matter of managing expectations...

  3. I love Buck hunter. Good times.

    Don't shoot the cow!

  4. I'm afraid I can't agree.
    Ate there a couple of weeks ago and it was terrible.

    Perhaps I was unlucky....
    Tell me if I'm being unfair:-