Big groups, small plates at Ping Pong Dim Sum

It’s hard to imagine having a bad time at a place called Ping Pong Dim Sum. The name alone is fun to say.

But if you venture to the new Chinatown eatery looking for an authentic Chinese dim sum experience, complete with rolling carts filled with steamed delicacies or the occasional UFI (unidentifiable fried item), your idea of a good time may be thwarted. The food has Asian names and Asian flavors, but this is a modern, somewhat Americanized version of what our server called “Asian-style tapas.” Get beyond this, though, and you can throw a group of friends around a table, order the strong, tasty cocktails, munch on the sharable plates of dumplings, rolls and rice, and the lack of authenticity won’t ruin your lunch or evening. It can be just as fun as it sounds (but for the record, no table tennis here).

The London-based chain knows that Washington diners are no strangers to the small, sharable-food concept, what with the city’s many popular Spanish tapas, Greek mezze and American small-plates restaurants.

The first location stateside now adds Asian flavors to the scene, with fancy teas and Asian-infused cocktails rounding out the menu.
The space is designed for group dining, with large, round tables ready for that happy hour or celebration. The main room is dark, with cylinder and round dim lights dotted across the ceiling. As you look around, it’s hard to pick up on what’s missing. Sit down, and it’s clear: The chairs have no backs.

Sitting on a stool is fine when having a drink or two, but when lingering over multiple dishes and cocktails, it can get uncomfortable.

All of my dining companions ended up doing some sort of back stretch before the night was over.

There’s also seating along the bar in front of the kitchen. It can be a steamy show as you watch the chefs work dim sum magic.

Ping Pong’s tag line is “little steamed parcels of deliciousness,” which is fair and true — though there are also a handful of fried, baked, grilled and even pickled options.

Know going in that all the plates comes with three portions — good for a couple, who can split the remaining bite. But they otherwise leave an odd man out for tables of four, creating some awkward splitting of already small portions.

The knowledgeable servers can help diners fill out the paper order form (reminiscent of sushi restaurants). The staff marks off each item ordered as it arrives, so it’s easy to keep track of what you have at the table. This is particularly useful as lots of those “parcels of deliciousness” can look the same at first glance.

The dishes come out as they are ready, so there is a stream of plates as the meal progresses, instead of a table jammed full of dishes. Service is fast, with nice pacing between rounds.

The winner of everything we ordered is the steamed char sui bun, which came highly recommended by the server. The white, puffy dough surrounds a honey-barbecued pork center. The bun looks like it would be heavy, when it is actually light, airy and almost cloudlike. The honey gives the shredded-pork filling an American barbecue flavor rather than an Asian Hoisin-sauce bite, but they taste so good it doesn’t really matter.

Other winners are the shrimp toast, the crab-and-prawn dumplings and lemon chicken.

The lemon chicken dish is made up of small squares of marinated chicken breast served on a bite-sized layer of iceberg lettuce. Nothing too complicated here, but the lemon flavor is a nice salty-citrusy taste over the charred chicken.

The crab-and-prawn dumplings actually taste like their ingredients — not so with the “seafood” dumplings, which supposedly have similar ingredients but come out bland.

Surprisingly, there are few strictly vegetarian dishes. The majority of them contain shellfish, too — so for diners who can’t or won’t eat it, options are limited.

Even the salads include duck or prawns, and the table soy sauce contains shrimp.

Meanwhile, the shrimp toast consists of round bites of fried bread with chopped shrimp on top. These could be a greasy mess but aren’t; they don’t call for more than one napkin. They are crunchy and flavorful, in contrast to many of the other dishes, which arrive a tad under-seasoned and really depend on the soy sauce.

The sticky rice options come wrapped in giant lotus leaves and can almost be sliced, they’re so densely packed. The rice takes on the flavor of the ingredients — in our case, pork, chicken and prawn.

If the plates are small, the drinks are big. The Tennessee Tingle is a lesson in fusion. This is a blend of Jack Daniel’s, Cointreau, lime juice and cola — and a Szechuan bud. The server recommended nibbling off the yellow-colored kernel-like portion of the flower. The result is a tingly, almost electric sensation.

The lemongrass-and-lime cocktail has vodka, fresh lemongrass, lime and lychee juice. It almost looks like a salad in a glass. It tastes, though, like a lemon-lime soda.

Non-alcoholic options include flowering teas that put tightly wound bundles into a tall glass with hot water. After a few minutes, the tea blooms, opening into a full flower that releases the flavor.

Desserts are simple and do the trick, but each of my companions said next time they would forgo the sweet course and order another cocktail instead.