On a wild and windy night shortly before Christmas my dining companion and I exited Wembley Park underground station and followed the banners to the recently opened London Designer Outlet. We were blown down Empire Way towards Wembley Stadium, its arch silhouetted against the night sky and then turned off into a cluster of modern, illuminated blocks. We soon entered the outlet, much of which is, unusually, open to the elements and were surprised to find, so close to the festive season, a paucity of customers. Perhaps it has yet to become established, perhaps shoppers are waiting for more spring-like weather. Whatever, we graduated to the upper levels which are home to a multi-screen cinema (de rigueur it seems these days in shopping malls) and a plethora of restaurants, most of which are new offspring of familiar chains.
Our destination was Ping Pong, one of the newer arrivals on the London eating scene, with its original venue in Great Malborough Street and an extremely popular one on the South Bank judging by the number of customers I spy there on my frequent walks past on the way to the Festival Hall or the National Theatre. Warmth greeted us as we entered, both in the ambient temperature and the pleasantness of the staff. Both of us having confessed to never having previously frequented a Ping Pong restaurant, we were enlightened as to its ethos and to its modus operandi. The neat phrase ‘Chinese tapas’ summed up the food on offer, a modern take on the teahouse stops on the ancient Silk Route that fed and watered traders along its many miles. The menu is extensive but divided into sections such as soups, fried and griddled, baked, rice dishes and, the longest section of all, steamed.
Each dish is fully explained and, indeed, what you got matched its description perfectly. The recommendation was to order four or five dishes per person – we went for seven in total to start with and found that plenty. The tapas were small but quite filling.
We indulged in one of Ping Pong’s unusual cocktails, all the ingredients blending beautifully into a delicious drink. As we expected, the tapas dishes arrived consecutively, wonderfully hot and obviously freshly prepared. The flavours and spices mingled perfectly; nothing was overpowered but everything was there to be tasted. All steamed items came in individual bamboo steamers, piled up on top of one another.
Everything we ate was delicious, and it would be quite invidious to pick out favourites, but I have to say that the spinach and mushroom dumplings were my idea of heaven, and the sticky rice parcels of king prawn and scallop sticky rice wrapped in lovely green banana leaves, were my companion’s. But, there again, the har gau (prawn and bamboo shoot dumpling), the duck spring roll and the honey-glazed spare ribs were great too!
Having no room for dessert, I rounded off the meal with an amazing jasmine and lily tea. Placed in front of me was a large glass with a strange looking ball in it. Hot water was poured over it and, over the course of two or three minutes the ball gently opened into a beautiful flower as the tea brewed. A lovely theatrical touch to a cup of tea!
Despite the weather, there was a respectable number of customers in the restaurant (that can cater for 250), considering it only had been open for a couple of days. There was a good mix, different ethnicities, old and young.
We took away our loyalty cards (which certainly will tempt me back to a Ping Pong in the near future) – even the paper chopstick holder had an offer for a free cocktail printed on it!
And we headed back in the gale force winds, this time accompanied by lashing rain, to the underground station, replete and content after our Chinese tapas experience.
Jeannette Nelson Food Critic and Restaurant Reviewer, as well as all things theatrically entertaining!