A Friendly Argument

I wasn’t expecting an invitation to The House of Ho. I got into a friendly argument with Bobby Chinn you see…

I was a guest in the audience for a panel discussion about the Future of London’s Dining Scene hosted by Land Securities, a property development company behind the new Nova complex in Victoria. Nicholas Lander (former restaurateur and FT restaurant correspondent) chaired the discussion, with input from Henry Dimbleby (founder of Leon), Kate Spicer (journalist), Martin Morales (restaurateur, founder of Ceviche) and Bobby Chinn (restaurateur, founder of The House of Ho).

In reality, there was very little discussion on the future of the dining scene. Instead, the chatting was mainly centred on where we are today, how we got here and what is popular right now. The rise of social media and blogging was inevitably raised, during which Bobby Chinn took issue with a blogger who’d posted a review of his restaurant after visiting on the first day. He was also frustrated by that blogger’s willingness to pass comment on the authenticity of his Vietnamese food without ever having stepped foot in Vietnam.

As input from the audience was encouraged, I stood up and asked a question. Was the visit during a soft launch, with reduced prices to mitigate potential teething issues or was the restaurant charging full prices on the date of the visit? On the first full price day, he replied. Whilst I agree that it’s a little surprising to pass judgement on a new restaurant so early on, I pointed out that bloggers are not professional food critics, rather we are, in the main part, enthusiastic consumers with a voice. As such, if a restaurant is charging customers full price for its food, it should accept being judged on that basis.

We had a bit of friendly but passionate back and forth on the topic (with Bobby suggesting that bloggers might like to sink their own money into opening a new restaurant to appreciate how it feels) before Nick moved the discussion forward.

I should add too that Bobby clarified that bloggers have been pretty good for his business on the whole and he’s appreciated their coverage, which has mainly been positive.

After the panel session was over, I made my way over to introduce myself properly to Bobby and to say that, whilst I don’t tend to review restaurants quite that early on, mostly because I rarely rush to visit when places are so new, I stood by my statement that full prices means being fully open to criticism. Also, I felt that he had conflated two distinct issues – the right or wrongs of posting a review in the early days and the rights and wrongs of commenting on authenticity of a cuisine without the experience or knowledge to do so intelligently. I wondered if his frustration at the second aspect was colouring his feedback on the first.

In any case, I thanked him for engaging in debate so openly and exchanged business cards.

To my delight, as I was getting ready to leave at the end of the evening, Ranjit Mathrani (one of the owners of Veeraswamy, Chutney Mary and Masala Zone restaurants) approached me, shook my hand and told me he was in complete agreement with me, that I had spoken well and he too felt that as soon as a restaurant is charging full price, it should expect to be judged.

A week later, an unexpected invitation arrived from The House of Ho’s marketing manager, inviting me to come in and visit. After such an intense and engaging first meeting with owner Bobby, I couldn’t say no!

Bobby Chinn

So, who is Bobby Chinn? Well, as I discovered, he’s a larger than life character with a story to match. In his recently published cookbook, Bobby Chinn’s Vietnamese Food, he describes himself as an “ethnic mutt” – half Chinese-half Egyptian – who grew up in New Zealand, England and America. I suggest you read the book to follow the story in full but in a nutshell: in the mid 1990s Chinn’s father identified Vietnamese cuisine as one that would soon explode in popularity around the world. So Bobby moved to Vietnam, having recently discovered a love and skill for cooking, ended up establishing restaurants in Saigon then Hanoi, and became a genuine authority on authentic Vietnamese cooking in the process. At the same time, he launched his television career with a show about Asian food for Discovery Network Travel and Living.

In December last year, he opened his first UK restaurant, The House of Ho, bringing his brand of Vietnamese cooking to London. Whilst some of the menu is a faithful rendition of traditional dishes, the rest is Bobby’s modern take on Vietnamese cuisine, bringing modern and international ingredients and techniques into play. His book gives more background on the food he loves to cook, full of stories of street food vendors he persuaded to share their secrets, and the thought processes behind dishes he developed himself.

The House of Ho

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In fact, the menu is a little confusing. Dishes are divided between sections for Light & Raw, Hot & Grilled, Ho’s Dishes, Sides and Dessert. Pricing suggests that the first two sections might be starters, with Ho’s Dishes being larger, but we’re advised that the whole menu is about small sharing plates and are recommended to order 5 to 7 dishes between two, with no real guidance on balancing between the sections.

A Saigon beer (£4.50) and a refreshing Rosy Lemonade (rose petal, kumquat, lemongrass syrup and lemonade £4.50) kick off the meal and soon, our dishes begin to arrive.

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First to come out (in that “dishes will arrive when they’re ready” style of service that make life easier for the kitchen but less predictable for punters) is the BBQ Baby Back Ribs on a Light Asian Slaw (£6 from Hot & Grilled). The ribs are classic American Barbecue and the meat just the right texture – falling away from bone easily but not so soft it’s like baby food. Nice but not very Asian. That requirement is covered by the Asian slaw, which I really enjoy – light, crunchy and refreshing, though quite mild in overall flavour.

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Stuffed Tofu with a Mushroom Medley, Cellophane Noodles in Tomato Sauce (£5 from Hot & Grilled) is a pretty dish. Crisp-skinned soft tofu with a slightly bland filling of teeny tiny mushrooms and noodles, served on a puddle of rich classic European tomato sauce that would be the pride of any Italian mama. I ask Bobby about the dish later; he tells me that the original Vietnamese dish is a more rustic affair with a tomato sauce mixed into mushrooms, noodles and tofu. Knowing little about what is available in Vietnam, I wonder if the sauce is an influence of the French colonial period?

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Another prettily presented dish arrives, the Spicy Salmon Tartare, Chopped Pistachio, Shiso, Jicama with Asian Vinaigrette (£7, Light & Raw). This is excellent, with punchy flavours and some great textures. I’d never have thought of pistachios with salmon but love the combination. Those rice crackers are a thing of beauty and perfect to scoop up the mixed tartare.

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I like The ‘Shaking Beef’, Grass-Fed, 21 Day-Aged Fillet (£14, Ho’s Dishes) better than Pete. We both appreciate the excellent quality of the meat, and how very tender it is. Pete finds the flavours a little too understated, but I love the freshness and tastes of the mixed micro herbs, which add a lot to the dish. Even with the quality of the beef, it’s a little pricy for the portion, given that it includes no vegetables or rice.

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I absolutely love the Apple-Smoked Pork Belly, Braised Cabbage. Egg (£11, Ho’s Dishes) though, goodness me, there’s hardly any cabbage at all – more of a garnish – and two egg halves would make it a better sharing dish. But the fatty pork belly is cooked to perfection and the rich caramelised sauce is very good indeed.

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The portion of Lemongrass Monkfish with a Fish Caramel Sauce (£12, Ho’s Dishes) is disappointingly small for the price tag, though the tastes and textures are lovely. It’s not cloyingly sweet, indeed the key flavour is that of the lemongrass, with the welcome addition of the spring onions.

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A side of Morning Glory (£4, Sides) is simply, tasty and adds some much needed greenery. A jasmine rice (£2.50) is good to mop up juices.

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I often find chocolate desserts in Asian restaurants (of various nationalities) far too sweet so the Molten Marou Chocolate Cake (£6.50, Dessert)  is a pleasant surprise. Excellent quality dark chocolate is used to flavour a small cake, cooked just right to give a gooey centre.

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I love my little Lemon-Scented Creme Brulee (£5.50, Dessert). Pete thinks it’s too small, especially as the price point is that of a full size dessert, but the creamy richness and flavour means I’m not too disappointed though he’s right that I could happily have eaten a little more!

Not in the mood for drinking, we don’t pay much attention to the wine menu, but I do enjoy a shot of Misty Mountain, Junmai Usu-nigori Sake, (£6.50 for 50ml) with dessert. When I dither over my sake choice, the waitress kindly suggests bringing me a taster of the two I’m choosing between, which is a nice touch.

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Overall, we enjoy the meal. With such a short menu, I’d like to see more space given over to classic Vietnamese dishes, though I enjoyed Bobby’s interpretations well enough. Ingredients are of good quality, presentation is appealing and I’m always a fan of sharing a higher number of small plates rather than a couple of full size ones.

And I must comment on the beautiful crockery which contributed much to the visual presentation of the dishes – Bobby has an almost Japanese sensibility in the choice of beautiful individual dishes to showcase his food.

Pricing is a bit high, even taking into account the heart-of-Soho location – the BBQ ribs are good value, and the tartare and tofu fair, but the shaking beef and lemongrass monkfish are pricy. With our very limited drinks order, our bill would be around a ton (were we not dining as guests).

Service hasn’t been as consistent as I’d hoped. The tasters of sake were much appreciated. But it has been hard to attract attention even before the restaurant was full and it has sometimes been lacking in focus; at one point, our waitress turned away from us as I was mid-sentence, in reaction to a discussion between the customers and waitress at the table behind us, continued to observe their conversation for the next several minutes, and then wandered off in reaction to it, leaving us with our mouths open and no chance to complete our request. The friendliness is here, but not the attention.

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I did enjoy our window table, looking out on the hustle and bustle of Soho; it’s not every day you see two fundraising teletubbies wandering past as you dine!

 

Kavey Eats dined as guests of The House of Ho.
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Square Meal

 

Pete and I and a couple of friends spent the weekend feasting with Uyen Luu. And she wasn’t even there!

Instead, we cooked up a storm from her beautiful cookery book, My Vietnamese Kitchen. Over the weekend we made a dessert for our first dinner, another recipe for breakfast, one more for the next dinner and yet another for Sunday lunch. While the rain and wind lashed outside, we stayed warm and busy cooking and eating – what better way to spend a weekend with dear friends?

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Uyen Luu was born in Vietnam into a close-knit, food-loving family – her maternal grandmother opened a noodle soup shop in her front room to help make ends meet during the tough times following the Vietnam War, and some of Uyen’s earliest memories are of her grandmother making and serving her fragrant bún bò huế to customers. Times were very tough during that period and Uyen’s parents made the decision to emigrate to London. Here, her mother continued to raise her family on a traditional Vietnamese diet, as best she could with the ingredients available here.

I came to know Uyen’s story and her cooking via her food and travel blog, where she shares a mixture of old and new memories and tasty recipes, all beautifully illustrated by her creative photography and styling. Since moving to the UK, she has returned to Vietnam often, and her travel journal posts are a particular pleasure to read.

Uyen and I met in person several years ago via her supperclub – she is one of the pioneers of the UK supper club phenomenon – and I couldn’t fail to be captivated as much by her gentle and complex character as by her food; she’s shy but riotous (and occasionally fiery), vulnerable but strong, superbly creative but genuinely modest, a social butterfly but also quite private. I love to sit in her kitchen, following her instructions to stir the stock, chop some vegetables, rub salt and oil onto the meat, and talk about life, the universe and everything. She has a knack for bringing out a protective feeling in me, and I’m always so happy to learn of her successes and joys.

So I was delighted when she announced her book deal, which resulted in this truly beautiful book. Her food is authentic, delicious and achievable and she’s taught many, many people how to make it during the cookery classes she also runs out of her East London home. Those numbers include greats like Raymond Blanc and Jamie Oliver, who are quick to acknowledge not only her skill with flavours but also her ability to teach those skills to others.

I was one of the many friends who helped Uyen with recipe testing when she was still writing the book, and when I saw the finished book, I felt very proud to have played a (very very tiny) part in it.

As I always knew it would be, the book is a visual feast. The team she worked with to style and photograph the book have captured Uyen’s very personal and quirky style amazingly well. First and foremost, the images showcase the food itself, but they also create a very warm and rich tapestry that tells Uyen’s story beautifully.

My Vietnamese Kitchen starts with an introduction to key ingredients. The recipe chapters are then divided into Breakfast, Soups, Snacks, Noodles, Lunch & Dinner and Sweets. Many of the recipes need only what you can find in a well-stocked UK supermarket, but of course there are some that require specialist ingredients. In this era of online shopping, these are no longer difficult to source.

Here is Uyen’s recipe for Caramelised Sardines in Coconut Water (cá mòi kho). As we couldn’t get sardines, we switched to mackerel as a similarly oily fish; we also doubled the recipe (given in its original quantities, below). It was beautifully simple, worked perfectly and we all really loved it! I’m already planning on making this one again and again.

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Recipe: Caramelised Sardines in Coconut Water (cá mòi kho)

Serves 2

Ingredients
1 tablespoon cooking oil
Half a red onion, finely chopped
350 grams whole sardines, scaled and gutted
150 ml coconut water (or use fresh water plus one teaspoon sugar)
1 Bird’s Eye chilli
1 pinch black pepper
1 teaspoon coconut caramel (see note)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
cooked rice, to serve

Note: As we didn’t have any coconut caramel, we followed Uyen’s tip to melt and caramelise some brown sugar instead. Make sure you let the sugar get reasonably dark so it can add colour, sweetness and bitterness to the dish.

Method

  • Heat the cooking oil in a frying pan over medium heat and fry the onion until browned.
  • Add the sardines to the pan and fry for about 2 minutes per side.
  • Add the coconut water, chilli, pepper, coconut caramel, sugar, fish sauce and vegetable oil. Bring to the boil, then cover with a lid and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes.
  • Serve with cooked rice, or a palate-cleansing soup and fried greens.

As you can see from the images, we served this with a simple egg and peas fried rice made by following my friend Diana’s tutorial on quick and easy egg fried rice and a salad from another of my current favourite books, Everyday Harumi.

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Other dishes we made from Uyen’s book during the weekend were:

  • Frozen Yoghurt (kem da-ua) – an outrageously simple recipe combining tangy natural yoghurt with condensed milk before churning in an ice cream machine. We had this with a clafoutis of whisky-soaked dates and the match was excellent. I loved the balance of tart and sweet and will definitely make this again.
  • Omelette Baguette (bánh mì trứng ốp lết) – we switched baguette for other home made loaves but we loved the core recipe for sweet sharp pickled shredded carrot and herby omelette. The chillis we added were so hot that my eyes watered, my lips were still tingling ages later!
  • Fresh Rolls with Mackerel Ceviche (gỏi cuốn cá thu sống đầu phộng ớt) – rice paper summer rolls filled with herbs, beansprouts, a pineapple dipping sauce, rice vermicelli noodles and mackerel ceviche and we also added leftover pickled shredded carrot. This was our least favourite of the dishes we made with the texture of the rice paper wrappers and the ceviche cited as difficult textures / tastes.

I’ve also made the Tofu and Tomatoes in Fish Sauce (đầu phụ sốt cà chua), which I first had at Uyen’s house, so it was a great test of whether I could achieve the same flavours and textures by following her recipe. I could and I liked it just as much the second time around.

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Frozen Yoghurt with whisky-soaked dates clafoutis

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Omelette Sandwiches

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Fresh Rolls with Mackerel Ceviche; A game of Carcassone

Kavey Eats was sent a review copy of My Vietnamese Kitchen by publisher Ryland Peters. As I’ve made clear, Uyen Luu is a friend, but all of us genuinely enjoyed cooking and eating from her book and I recommend the book wholeheartedly.

Thanks to Monica for additional images, as per copyright text. And cheers to Monica, Marie and Pete for another fabulous weekend!

 

I really wanted to love Kitchen Nomad unreservedly.

I think the idea is excellent – each month they pick a cuisine, create recipe cards and pack a box full of speciality ingredients required to make the five recipes provided. Thus far, the countries they have covered are Greece, Vietnam, Lebanon, Pakistan and Mexico.

Boxes cost £22 plus £3 delivery and the retail value of the ingredients will be pretty much around that mark.

In London, I can actually find specialist ingredients for many international cuisines quite easily – especially if I’m willing to travel around the capital to the area(s) that focus best on the cuisine(s) in question – but I appreciate that many of these items are much harder to find across the rest of the UK, which is another reason I really like the idea.

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Kitchen Nomad Greek box; Kitchen Nomad Vietnamese box

In practice, there are a few issues…

The first may not be a negative at all for many customers; indeed it’s probably a positive! On placing an order, customers don’t know the country that Kitchen Nomad will cover next, so the box they receive is a complete surprise. Of course, surprises can be wonderful but they can also backfire now and again. When I accepted Kitchen Nomad’s invitation to trial their new service, a few months ago, I was sent their very first box, full of Greek ingredients and recipes. Although I’m not a fussy eater, there are a handful of things I don’t like and a few Pete isn’t keen on. Between the two of us, the recipes within the Greek box featured five such ingredients – vine leaves, capers, olives, feta cheese and walnuts. Nothing wrong with any of those – just bad luck to find so many we dislike between us – but had I known in advance the theme was Greek, I could have suggested deferring delivery to the following month.

In my case, Kitchen Nomad kindly allowed me to pass the Greek Box on to a blogger friend who felt she might enjoy the dishes more than I would, and sent me a different box a few months later.

On a related note, it’d be nice to be able to order boxes from previous months as gifts for friends who might enjoy trying a particular cuisine, and that option isn’t (currently) available. I understand why on a practical level but from a consumer point-of-view, I think it would popular.

As the website makes clear, the box doesn’t include all the ingredients you need to make any of the recipes – indeed it doesn’t even contain most of them. Instead, it provides only the long life speciality ingredients, leaving you to buy fresh ingredients yourself. This isn’t a problem either, but it does mean that the cost of making the five recipes is far higher than the cost of the box. This is simply something I want to draw your attention to.

Then there are little things that make me cross. In that original Greek Box, one of the five recipe cards was for Prawn Saganaki, a dish of fresh prawns baked in a tomato sauce with feta cheese over the top. It calls for 300-400 grams of fresh prawns and 225 grams of feta cheese. And it contains a note that you can make it vegetarian by… not adding the prawns! This is sheer craziness – not only would this result in an unbalanced dish, the portions would no longer be suitable to serve the 4 people indicated! If you wish to suggest a vegetarian version, then make the effort to consider and propose suitable alternatives to the non-vegetarian main ingredient. Leaving out a couple of rashers of bacon where it’s a secondary ingredient used to add saltiness is one thing, but skipping the central ingredient completely is quite another!

A problem with containers that are too fragile and break open, spilling their contents, has already been resolved in the months since Kitchen Nomad launched. They have been receptive to feedback, which is good to see.

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We first came a cropper when we made the Bánh Xeo (Crispy Crêpes) recipe provided in the Vietnam box. Having made our shopping list according to the instructions on the card, it was only when we came to make the batter that we realised there were no instructions given for that, and more alarmingly, the text printed on the back of the batter mix bag called for coconut milk and turmeric, neither of which had been mentioned at all. Cue a second trip out (on a cold and dark evening) to the shops for coconut milk, and we were finally able to get started. Sadly, we didn’t succeed at cooking crispy pancakes; though we tried different temperatures and cooking times, our pancakes remained fragile, and even when we got them to crisp up, they still collapsed to mush when touched. I am certain we got the batter mix wrong, for lack of any guidance.

We had similar problems with the recipe card for the Bo Kho (Beef Stew). A 60 gram tub of kho spice mix was included in the box but the recipe didn’t indicate how much to use, saying nothing more than “mix the kho spice mix into the meat”. Given how potent the mix was, we could see that the whole tub was obviously too much for the amount of meat, so we decided to use about 5-6 teaspoons – significantly less than half. The finished dish was robustly flavoured and pretty hot on the chilli front –  it would have been way too strong had we mixed in the entire amount. We had exactly the same issue with the annatto, used to flavour and colour the cooking oil. No amounts were given in the recipe, but the bag of annatto provided contained at least a couple of tablespoons worth. We Googled and discovered that a single teaspoon would be sufficient. And even with extra cooking time to try and reduce it, we found that the amount of liquid stipulated resulted in a very liquidy finished dish – so our dinner was (thankfully tasty) beef, carrots and potatoes in a lot of thin soup.

In both cases, what this suggests to me is that Kitchen Nomad don’t bother to test their recipe cards before sending them out to customers, and that’s hugely frustrating as it can result in unsuccessful dishes and wasted ingredients. The website lists the Vietnamese recipes as being written by my friend and Vietnamese food writer Uyen Luu, but I’ve since obtained a copy of her book, My Vietnamese Kitchen, and these recipes are definitely not sourced from that. Her book’s Bánh Xeo recipe provides full ingredients and instructions for the pancake batter and her Bo Kho recipe not only uses carefully measured individual spices, it also includes cornflour to thicken the sauce. Regardless of the original recipe source, customers are buying the recipes from Kitchen Nomad; I really think Kitchen Nomad should test the recipes themselves, enabling them to spot and correct omissions and mistakes.

It gives me absolutely no pleasure at all to criticise a new business, especially when I think the idea is such a good one. But having been invited to review and share my opinions, I am compelled to be honest about my experiences. As the boxes are good value for the ingredients included, perhaps the trick is to source (or at least sense check) the recipes yourself on the web, to avoid similar failures.

 

Kavey Eats was provided review samples by Kitchen Nomad.

 

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Read my guest post at Pete Drinks, about tasting Vietnamese rice wine liqueurs at Pho restaurant.

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