This had the makings of a subpar evening: trendy new restaurant serving dim sum (at night!), in a fancy setting, served by waitresses who couldn't pronounce most of the dishes on the menu. We really expected to be disappointed. As we were led to our tiny table and seated on stools with no backs in a loud (but beautiful) bar area, I was wondering why I'd opted to try Ping Pong Dim Sum. My mood brightened when I learned that the stools had little cubby holes in them to stow purses and jackets. So clever! My eyes widened when I spied the extensive drink menu that featured alcoholic bubble teas (boba, for you west coasters). This was just the beginning of a night full of welcomed surprises.
D.C. got the first U.S. outpost of this very popular London chain. Don't let the name fool you. Unlike Comet Ping Pong (see our post here), there are no ping pong tables in sight at Ping Pong Dim Sum. There are, however, thoughtful touches in abundance. I liked the cute explanation of dim sum on the back of the menu (For example, "Finally, always pick a 'wild card' dish for the table to share - something that you have never tried before - eating should always be fun.")
Though the restaurant's slogan is "little steamed parcels of deliciousness," I was still convinced it was really going to taste like "little steamed parcels of trendy, Americanized, over-priced dim sum."
Our first course was the honey glazed ribs. While the presentation was pretty bland, the ribs were tender and, according to B, spiced very authentically. They were good, but nothing amazing.
I thought we were in trouble when the waitress described char siu bao to us by saying "it's kinda like this fluffy thing with meat in it." What she didn't know is that B and I have been eating char siu bao since we were tiny tots. B's family goes to a special bakery in San Francisco to get "the best bao ever." B is HARD to please when it comes to bao, especially steamed bao. Imagine my sheer delight when he took his first bite and it passed his test! The dough was unbelievably fluffy and light. It was almost as if a cloud got tangled around bbq pork and fell from the sky onto our table. None of that too-hard, too-bland, pasty crap that is often passed off as steamed char siu bao. These definitely were steamed parcels of deliciousness! I could've eaten a dozen.
The crispy prawn balls were a challenge to eat as the crispy parts went flying across the table when I took my first bite. I could've done with a little more prawn and a little less crisp, but the flavors were great.
Next was the spicy vegetable dumpling. Maybe the chef forgot his spice rack because it was not spicy at all! While the dumpling skin was perfectly cooked, there was way too much cilantro inside for it to pass my deliciousness test.
The seafood sticky rice was one of my favorites. After removing the lotus leaf wrapper, we dove into wonderfully sticky and slightly sweet rice, packed with generous chunks of seafood and mushrooms.
This dish is traditionally made with star anise (black licorice, bleh) and I was pleasantly surprised that Ping Pong Dim Sum's version omitted the overpowering spice. Instead, they let the seafood and rice do all of the talking. What do seafood and rice say when you let them talk? "Eat me, I'm deliciously awesome!"
Next up was one of the stars of the American dim sum scene: har gau. It is so ubiquitous that you can buy it at the frozen food aisle of Trader Joe's. If you stacked all of the little shrimp balls that I've had in my life, you'd probably reach the moon. Sometimes they are too doughy, or too tough, or the shrimp is so overcooked it's like shoe leather. So simple, yet so easy to screw up. Once again, Ping Pong Dim Sum hit this dish out of the park. More please!
We debated ordering more food but decided to head straight to dessert after seeing these beauties on the menu: roasted pineapple and coconut spring rolls, served with a side of caramel dipping sauce. It was a sweet take on the egg roll and was a great way to end the meal.
I leave you with an open letter to Ping Pong Dim Sum:
Dear Ping Pong Dim Sum:
I didn't want to like you. You appeared completely shallow on the outside and I figured there was no substance behind your showy exterior. Your waitress was kind of clumsy, but by the end of the night, she was endearing. Your seats have no backs on them and it just reminds me that I have crappy posture. The review in the Post was bad, but you get major credit for taking the dishes that Tom S. didn't like off of the menu to revamp them. I thought you were going to be way too expensive, but you surprised me when you brought my check and the food was only $39 for two. Your drinks are too expensive, but I guess it's fair that you slash the prices on them during happy hour and that you gave me a coupon for free drinks if I return.
I wanted to scream and cry that you're taking authentic dim sum and white-washing it for American palates, but then you brought me one of the best bao dishes I've ever had. B and I often wonder what our quarter-Chinese kids will look like and whether we'll do a good enough job at preserving their Chinese heritage. Well, Ping Pong Dim Sum, you're probably less than a quarter Chinese, and you're beautiful and seem well-grounded in your heritage. There is hope for us yet!
Until next time,
Second Thoughts from B
I think J said it all. There were so many areas that Ping Pong Dim Sum could have screwed up. Instead, they took the cuisine that has been fine tuned over centuries and beloved by billions, and simply did it really well. The best ingredients, all fresh, with the only twist being that they made it a bit more healthy by finding a way to eliminate unnecessary grease. How ironic that it took a British invasion to bring great Chinese food to Chinatown...
In my experience, DC has a wealth of sophisticated, international palates. There is no need to be afraid of foreign flavors anymore. Sure, there is always a place for Panda Express or Chipotle, but it is refreshing to have an option for quality, authentic ethnic food too. Normally J and I search out the "dirty" places; knowing that they'll be most true to the original culture. But it is nice to occasionally get those same flavors in places where you're more likely to see a cloth napkin on your lap than a cockroach.
J talked about the food specifically, and I would echo her sentiments. With all due respect to the Washington Post's venerable food critic, Tom Sietsema, and with the understanding that our respective experiences could have been very different, I'd have to say Ping Pong Dim Sum is among the best Chinese food options in the District, if not anywhere. In all my experiences with Chinese food - whether in LA, SF, or throughout China - the blend of authenticity with high-class modern dining was a perfect balance.
Many of the dishes were noteworthy, but as you probably picked up, the bao really represented the pleasant surprise that was Ping Pong Dim Sum. I can't overstate my love of bao. It holds a warm place in the hearts and stomachs of my family, and has been the driving force behind many treks to San Francisco to get the perfect bao. (One time we brought the entire family into the city just to carry my grandmother's order of 12 dozen softball-sized bao) What I'm saying is that the B stamp of approval for bao might be more difficult to obtain than bipartisan agreement on health care reform. So since we all know we shouldn't hold our breath to see if Democrats and Republicans can compromise, just head down to 7th and I St. to witness something almost as wonderful in this fair city.