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!
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!