Chef and owner Bobby Chinn arrives in London with a background that exemplifies a ‘melting pot’ to end all melting pots, fusing a New Zealand birthplace, Chinese/Egyptian parentage, a British education, several years in the USA, and eighteen years in Vietnam — he’s arrived with enthusiasm and energy seeping out of every pore, with stints as a stand-up comedian and time spent at the New York Stock Exchange on his colourful CV. Having staked out potential London opportunities for the last eight years, he enters the febrile landscape of London restaurant openings with the benefit of a solid international reputation, including restaurants in Hanoi and Saigon, hosting the World Café TV show on the Discovery Channel, several books, with an ardent fan in chef Anthony Bourdain lauding him as an “international man of mystery” moniker: no pressure, then.
Re-locating to London shows more than a modicum of intent: he’s here for the long haul. House of Ho’s menu features Northern Vietnamese inspired dishes, a few from Southern Vietnam, and a smattering of new ideas taking it towards the much maligned territory of ’fusion’, no longer the dirty word it became for a while in the UK. Fusion is now hip again and we can pat ourselves on the back for squirting Sriracha, Gochujang and Kewpie all over our London menus. Kingsland Road remains the mosty fruitful area to mine for thrillingly cheap and vibrant Vietnamese in London (Mien Tay, Sông Quê and Viet Grill the stars), and Soho’s Viet on Greek Street is always a joy, free BYO booze sealing the deal, and Cây Tre is worth a visit too.
There seems to be a certain NYC mentality about what’s going on at House of Ho. The use of ‘scallions’ on a London menu? Heaven forfend guv’nor, I always called ‘em spring onions back in the day. There’s a swagger and confidence about the place, perhaps an extension of Bobby’s character transferred into his new Soho home. There are shadowy corners, there are pools of light on tables, there are secluded nooks, there is the echo of ‘industrial’ chic and a wall containing hidden subliminal quotes of ”all you need is love”. The sweeping bar space that greets diners is screaming out for some stools to perch at, but it turns out it’s just a dispense bar and not for sitting at.
December saw them open in the evenings only with a limited menu and 50% off food. Several visits over this period and a visit once the gloves came off with full menu and prices, gives us the picture of what’s going on here. Off we go…
Grilled Chicken Wings, Chilli and Oyster Sauce Glaze (£6) — Slipping obscenely from the bone with a little tug between the lips, these are one bite (one suck?) wonders that forego the need for two messy hands: pick up, pop in mouth, clamp teeth, pull away — you’re left with smoky meat and an oyster sauce glaze that is sweetstickysavoury all at once. Wonderful bar snack. If they had a bar.
Lemongrass Monkfish with a Fish Caramel (£12) — Pull out the big guns, why don’t you? A signature dish that should get some raves. Sweetness that almost veers into dessert territory is hauled back by the zing of lemongrass and a ‘caramel’ with a grounding umami kick from fish sauce. Chase that caramel round the plate with any leftover rice, go on chase it. Lick the plate when no one’s looking.
Pho Cuon with Fillet Mignon (£5.50) — Rice pastry parcels encasing a nugget of beef, rosy rare in the middle, a flash of pink. We’ve had the duck ones too, also good. Dipping sauce of chilli, some of which are pickled, and pickling liquid of vinegar, sugar, lime juice, making this a great bar snack. Oh, a bar….
Smokey Aubergine, Warm Scallion Vinaigrette (£6) — Scoop it out, scoop it out. Two slabs of glistening aubergine cooked to ooziness. Be cheeky and ask for more vinaigrette.
Banh Cuon (currently off menu) — Sous-vide egg draped with translucent webbing of rice pastry, nefarious Jedi skills of the Vietnamese Banh Cuon Yoda (the lady who revealed her technique to Bobby after fifteen years of pleading) coming into play. Chicken stock, caramel, sugar, fish sauce and lime juice creates a savoury backdrop. Wood ear mushrooms and shallots contained within, menthol twang of shiso leaf in the mix. Vegetarian dish (almost) with substance.
Seafood Ceviche, Mangosteen Coconut dressing, White Truffle (£9) — Tender nuggets of scallop, seabass, prawn….with the subtle honk of white truffle oil. The ceviche spews out of a halved coconut across the plate, knickers down.
Hanoi’s Grilled 5 Spice Quails on Crispy Noodles (£9) — The memory of the exemplary quail dish at Mien Tay on Kingsland Road sent these anaemic lacklustre quail portions scurrying down Old Compton Street. Bowl of kumquat, chilli, black pepper and salt alongside to tart up your quail, but I’m still hankering for a Mien Tay portion. Underwhelming.
Crab Pomelo Salad, Crispy Vietnamese Crackers (£7) — A bit too ‘fridge cold’ for us to enjoy straight away, the grapefruity pomelo adding some freshness amongst white crabmeat. 5:2 diet dish.
The ‘Shaking Beef’ (£14) — Our waitress was banging on about this dish until we relented and ordered it. Amongst the other dishes it hovered around mid-table, no prospect of European qualification. No danger of relegation either. Score draw.
Apple Smoked Pork Belly (£11) — This looked like an absolute beauty with a lacquered crust revealing a few ribs poking out. Smoke dial turned up to 11, this was just a little bit too dry, and a little bit too smoky, overwhelming the pork.
Apple Smoked Pork Belly, Braised Cabbage, Egg (£11) — Far more successful was this glistening slab of belly, a take on a classic Vietnamese clay pot dish, the brined belly slow braised for 36 hours before being cold smoked, the braising liquid beefed up with a batch of caramel sauce and shallot oil. Skin studded with peppercorns, Japanese style marinated egg on the side. A dish to return for.
Chicken Potato Curry, Paddy Leaves, Crispy Shallots (£9) — Too subtle for its own good? Or just damn comforting? Either way, we liked it.
Spicy Salmon Tartare , Chopped Pistachio, Shiso, Jicama, Asian Vinaigrette — Puck of chopped salmon laced with sesame oil and an interesting assortment of the sweet root vegetable jicama, shiso leaf, Japanese chilli mix shichimi, and chopped pistachio. Mix it up, have it your way.
Moutard NV Champagne by the glass raises the hackles, one of the most tedious house pours known to humanity, but all is forgiven when we see they are pouring a dry German Riesling from the Nahe, Anton Finkenauer’s ‘Kreuznacher Trocken’ 2010 (£6.75 a glass). I’m cockahoop to see La Crema Pinot Noir from Sonoma, and on one visit we have the very decent Nga Waka Chardonnay from Martinborough, New Zealand, a ballsy white walking a fine line between New World ripeness and Burgundian finesse. There is the excellent Margaret River producer Moss Wood Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc by the glass (£8), and the reds are dominated by lighter, more fragrant varietals such as Pinot Noir (4 out of the 12) Gamay, Blaufrankisch and Sangiovese. A tight list with an entry point of £21.
There’s a lot going on at House of Ho to commend it to London’s breathless pace of restaurant openings, a freshness and creativity to the menu that demands attention and repeated visits. Front of house staff have been slick and efficient from the first preview nights, with General Manager Philip Capaldi pulling the strings, and waitress Natalia patiently endured our constant questions on one occasion which surely deserved nothing less than a slap in response.
‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ was cranked up loud on our last visit. We liked that. The lemongrass monkfish and that song seem like a fitting match…
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