No sniggering in the back
The vast majority of Vietnamese restaurants in London have very traditional menus and tend to be clustered together in Hoxton and Deptford, with smaller concentrations in other places such as Hammersmith. Soho’s House of Ho is a very different affair. The exposed brick walls, moody lighting and odd contemporary art are a world away from the typical chintz of Kingsland Road. Not only are the waiting staff friendly and gracious, but the menu is striking too. There isn’t any pho, banh mi or bun cha here, but more modern, inventive dishes that you won’t find anywhere else.
First things first
The menu isn’t completely devoid of traditional Vietnamese dishes. There’s the pho cuon for example, thin rice noodle rolls stuffed with the filling of your choice such as the duck. The small helping of meat had a herby sweetness that I couldn’t quite place, but it was startlingly unexpected and moreish.
Langoustines look like prawn-sized lobsters, but taste more like shrimp than their bigger cousins. If you manage to extract the minuscule amount of meat from the prickly, skin-piercing shell without wishing to bring the little blighter back to life so you can kill it all over again, then you’re a better person than I am. The firm, juicy meat is just about worth the effort, especially the earthy brains. The minty, nutty, slightly spicy salad of firm lotus root shreds served underneath it is a winner although this doesn’t really make up for the fact that, due to the singular langoustine, there’s far more salad than seafood here.
The small square of pork belly may not look like much, but it’s sublimely delicious. The tender and fatty pork is complimented exceedingly well by the thin, fruity, peppery sauce that’s moreishly addictive. The braised cabbage and egg add little to the pork, but it’s great nonetheless.
A side dish of choyote, a sort of gourd originally from Mexico, was served in thin, crisp slices. It tastes somewhere in between a cucumber and a melon, so it’s rather bland to be honest but it’s one of your five a day.
If you’re predictable and dull, then you’ll order the chocolate cake for dessert. The sponge’s molten interior is pleasing enough, but the oozing chocolate, and the vaguely sweet and caramel-ish ice cream on the side for that matter, was severely lacking in character. This unoriginal dessert could’ve been served anywhere.
Going back for seconds
I returned to House of Ho with the help of Bleeding Gums Murphy. He started off with the crab pomelo salad. The chunks of juicy fruit helped emphasise the zingy, zesty, minty flavours of the crunchy salad. However, the small chunks and shreds of limp crab leg meat was disappointing while the addition of prawn crackers was just baffling.
Despite its odd appearance, the julienned vegetables in the duck salad tasted largely similar to the pomelo salad, but with unremarkable shreds of duck in place of the crab.
Despite my advice to the contrary, Bleeding Gums Murphy plumped for the langoustine and enjoyed it more than I did (although he doesn’t get out much anymore). He did a better job of extracting the langoustine flesh from the prickly shell though, so perhaps I’m just shit at that sort of thing.
After a disappointing start, our meal improved considerably. Although the monkfish had been a little overcooked, so that the stodgy flesh could’ve been almost any white fish, the exceptionally tangy, sweet, almost garlicky sauce was incredibly addictive. Don’t be put off by its odd description on the menu as ‘fish caramel sauce’ – I had to restrain myself from picking up the bowl and slurping every last drop.
Despite its unusual appearance, the tender strands of distinctly smoky aubergine were a winner and unsurprisingly reminiscent of the Levantine dish of baba ghanoush. The topping of crispy, chewy and sweet fried shallots complimented the smokiness of the aubergine very well.
Vietnamese bouillabaisse isn’t as outlandish as it sounds given the history between France and Vietnam. The bouillabaisse here obviously veers away from traditional French ingredients, while remaining close in spirit. The cloudy, moreish starfruit-flecked broth is full of lipsmacking umami, no doubt thanks to the tomatoes, yet still has a clean after taste. The selection of seafood isn’t very inspiring, but it’s all fresh, zesty and with the right amount of firmness from the squid and white fish to the clams and mussels.
The ‘lemon-scented’ creme brulee had only the faintest whiff of citrus. In all other respects it was a small and unremarkable version of this classic French dessert. The thin crust was crisp, while the custard underneath was very soft and wispy – almost too wispy, lacking the richness I usually prefer.
Bleeding Gums Murphy opted for the ice cream trio and was more impressed than I was with the mediocre dollops of pistachio and vanilla. Far more flavoursome was the nutty, chocolatey and malty pandan-flavoured scoop which deserves to form the basis of a dessert all on its own, rather than sharing the stage with its two ugly stepsisters.
Third time’s the charm?
One of the more traditional dishes on House of Ho’s menu is the vegetable curry. The mildly creamy, thin and coconutty sauce served over vermicelli noodles is largely identical to what you’d find in almost any of London’s other Vietnamese restaurants. More unusual were the vegetables used – tender chunks/slices of okra, pumpkin, potato and small spherical Thai aubergines as well as some mangetout too. It’s not an especially spicy or flavoursome curry, but it is a filling one and the addition of Thai aubergine and a scattering of crunchy peanuts gave this dish a slight Thai feel to it.
Another dish with a foreign feel to it was, unsurprisingly, the ceviche. Versions of this originally Peruvian dish of raw fish can now be found on the menus of numerous London restaurants of all cuisines. The version here used firm, juicy prawns and meaty slices of sea bass, both raw, as well as some small, limp scallops served cooked. The seafood was bathed in a milky coconut jus which would’ve felt almost completely Peruvian if it wasn’t for the sweet crunch of bell peppers. It’s a satisfying dish, but feels out of place.
Tofu gets a bad rep from carnivores with no taste who try a badly cooked version, which they then use as an excuse to damn all tofus everywhere. Sadly, the version here isn’t going to convince them otherwise, nor will it please more open minded diners and vegetarians. Although the tofu was suitably thick and meaty, the fruity puree-like tomato sauce didn’t suit it. Piled into the middle of the hollowed-out tofu was a small heap of chopped mushrooms, but it was hard to appreciate either their taste or their texture as they were far too small and bitty.
At its best the food at House of Ho remixes Vietnamese food with influences from elsewhere to delicious effect, with bold flavours and a clean after taste in a meal that’s filling despite being deceptively light. The problem is that the menu, as it stands, is far too hit and miss with some dishes markedly better than others. Even then, only a handful of the good dishes are exceptional enough to justify the relatively high overall price of a meal here. House of Ho has great potential, but for now it’s merely okay. It’s an acceptable place to while away an hour or two, but isn’t an essential dining experience.
Name: House of Ho
Address: 55-59 Old Compton Street, Soho, London W1D 6HP
Phone: 020 7287 0770
Opening Hours: seven days a week noon-15:00 and 17:00-late.
Reservations: essential on and around weekends; highly recommended the rest of the time
Average cost for one person including drinks: £50 approx.