Ping Pong Diplomacy: Chinese Food so Wrong, It’s Absolutely Right
Finding the perfect character for a restaurant has become frustratingly Sisyphean. Even when you’ve figured out the right price point, the right mood, and the right cuisine, there is still the unending challenge to innovate. With eateries mushrooming at every corner and “neighborhood joints” being the latest gambit, restaurants no longer develop habits. They create lures, and as far as novelty is concerned, no one does it better than Charles Paw and his merry band of culinary vanguards.
The tech entrepreneur turned restaurant maverick has been telling us about Ping Pong Diplomacy since last year. Hey Handsome had just opened, with people already pegging it as Restaurant of the Year, but Charlie was grinning from ear to ear over his new American-Chinese concept, which was about to break ground. The name refers to the 1970s exchange of table tennis players between the U.S. and China. (Yes. Forrest Gump. Exactly.), which eventually helped President Richard Nixon break through the two countries' then frosty relations.
In front of the restaurateur that glorified MSG (isn't everyone nursing a Bad Bird addiction?) and approved an F.U. Ramen, we still had to ask the difficult question. Modern Chinese has never been given a warm welcome by those of us who have been comforted by a reliable beef and broccoli. Many have tried, most have failed. If food were a sport, this would be hang-gliding and a wonton cheeseburger was risky stuff. Fowl Bread, Freezer Burn, Wrong Ramen—Charlie's Tasteless Group of Restaurants and Low Brow Casual Restaurants all have a talent for coming up with idiosyncrasies that stick.
For Ping Pong Diplomacy, Charlie tapped into freestyling chef Him Uy de Baron, who jumpstarted Manila’s ramen obsession five years ago with his unique interpretations of noodle soups, and chef Noel Mauricio, who led the hot kitchen of French-Japanese café Le Petit Soufflé. When you put together a group of rule-breakers, you just don’t expect a paper plate of yellow-tinged pork siomai.
Charlie wanted to capitalize on Hey Handsome’s momentum, noting how customers embraced Chef Nicco Santos' wild explosions of flavor. Ping Pong Diplomacy continues the assault, slinging a Kitayama breakfast steak that’s loaded with Chinese five-spice, a lo mien that feels as though every noodle has been dipped in heat, and a scotch egg that's bolstered with a quick dip in black vinegar and wasabi mayo.
5-Spice Steak and (Duck) Eggs
Simple noodles with a bit of soy sauce
Gorgeous Scotch Eggs with the prefect crust
There is an obvious disregard for the rules—assuming that there are any. According to Chef Noel, what was supposed to be an American-Chinese concept turned into something more because they never ran out of ideas and inspirations (one drink, the Fritillary Almond Soy Milk, was patterned after something they saw in a Hong Kong convenience store.)
The chefs' quirky combinations forego geographic lines and the F word threatens to escape our chili-coated lips. But "fusion," for some reason, has been the pariah of food terminology, and no one uses it to be complimentary, despite the intention. Then, you begin the exhausting debate between tradition and results. The advice would be to ignore the boundaries of cuisine and appreciate flavor for flavor's sake, relishing the little contribution of chicken skin to the dandan rice and the whisper of heat that trails after each mouthful; the sharp saltiness of the bacon amid the tangle of soy sauce-seasoned noodles; the deep notes of cumin in the lamb; the delicate spices in the chicken wings that come together for a major sweet-spicy detonation.
Typhoon Shelter Grilled Prawns
Twice Cooked Cumin Lamb
Chicken Skin Dandan Rice
But you look around at the paddle-covered blue walls, the retractable iron gates that line the door and windows (harkening to old Chinese establishments where work was also home), the counter outside for more convenient dining, the porcelain versions of takeout cartons. This is Chinese. Novel, inventive, but still Chinese. And the sooner you realize that, the better you can appreciate the genius behind their Mapo Tofu, which replaces the beancurd with a hardier egg custard quite similar to Japan's chawanmushi. Or the teriyaki-like glaze that makes the Crispy Eggplant a sweet little treat.
Truffled Mushroom Edamame Shumai
Ping Pong Wings
A Chef Miko Aspiras contribution: Fortune Balls featuring taro, ginger, and black sesame mochi, with a sesame crumble and pistachio cream.
There is no denying the influence. Chef Him himself describes the menu as "bastardized Chinese." You can forget about beating around the bush when the chefs and owners themselves are embracing their peculiarity. In the hustle and bustle of another round of Ping Pong Wings, someone mentions that craving is the foremost challenge in competing with Chinese food, which, after years of tradition and familiarity, has been inculcated in gastronomic DNA. Well, that's just another rule that the chefs are about to break.
Opening to the public on February 1, Ping Pong Diplomacy is at 3/F SM Aura Premier, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig City.