As a restaurant critic you occasionally stumble across a formula that is so winning, so obviously destined for success, that you wish you were a venture capitalist instead. Ping Pong, a new dim sum emporium on Great Malborough Street, is one such place. At the moment, there's only one Ping Pong, but another is shortly to open in Westbourne Grove and, over the next five years, a further 23 branches are scheduled to open. It's destined to do for dim sum what Wagamama has done for the noodle and, like the Wagamama chain, will probably soon be worth over £100 million.
Ping Pong was founded by Kurt Zdesar, a former operations manager of Nobu Europe, but to describe it as his "brainchild" would be misleading since the inspiration behind it is clearly Yauatcha, Alan Yau's superb dim sum restaurant on Broadwick Street. Ping Pong is to Yauatcha what Miu Miu is to Prada: it's the restaurant equivalent of a diffusion line. Like Alan Yau's Michelin-starred venture, Ping Pong serves a selection of dim sum standards all day, but charges 50% less for them and churns through its customers even faster. The result is an instant hit. Ping Pong won't take reservations for less than eight, with the vast majority of its tables allocated on a first come, first serve basis, and on the night I went there the queue stretched round the block. If people are prepared to stand in the rain for 45 minutes to get a table, you know Ping Pong's owners are on to a good thing.
In the former Soviet Union, where prices were fixed by the state rather than the operation of market forces, a queue outside a bakery was a sign that the State Committee on Prices had set the cost of a loaf of bread too low. Ping Pong, which opened earlier this year, has been gradually putting up its prices in the hope of reducing its queuing time, though without much success. Last July, for instance, the cost of steamed chicken feet was £1.90, whereas today it's £2.80. But for those who've been to Yauatcha, where they'll set you back £3.80, that's still too good a bargain to pass up.
It's not just Ping Pong's prices that account for its popularity. The architect-designed interior and plywood tables are vaguely reminiscent of Roka, one of the most successful restaurants to open last year, and the staff are nearly all young and good-looking. On the night I visited, the service was a little patchy, with some dishes arriving almost instantly and others seeming to take an age, but that's nearly always the case when a restaurant is operating at full capacity. The dim sum itself was pretty good considering it's manufactured in a warehouse in South-East London and then transported to Great Malborough Street by van. According to the restaurant's manager, George Matzaridis, the intention is for all 25 branches of the chain to be supplied by the same central location. I particularly liked the baked puffs, one variety containing roast pork, the other chicken, though they weren't a patch on Yauatcha's venison puffs. My wife found the vegetable steamed dumplings a little too spicy, but on the whole we were both pretty impressed.
Our fellow diners were precisely the kind of people you'd expect to see in a cheap, trendy restaurant off Lower Regent's Street. Plenty of young women in outfits from Top Shop and hordes of slightly overweight lads in jeans and un-tucked shirts. For them, a pit stop at Ping Pong was clearly the beginning of a long evening rather than the end of a long day. Judging from the roar emanating from the surrounding tables, they were all having a fabulous time.
A surefire winner, then, that's bound to make its owners a fortune. This is the second time that Alan Yau's come up with a brilliant formula that others have then gone on to exploit. Let's hope that when he next strikes culinary gold he reaps all the rewards himself.