Few chefs can have as interesting a background as Bobby Chinn. Born in New Zealand to a Chinese father and Egyptian mother, he was educated in England, went through a varied series of jobs – including stand-up comedian and commodity broker – in America, before making his gastronomic name in Vietnam. With celebrated eponymous restaurants in Hanoi and Saigon, and a successful role as TV host for World Café Asia on the Discovery Channel, he has entered the continually exciting London restaurant scene with opening of the House of Ho.
Not that his career as a chef has progressed smoothly. Indeed, having earlier sustained a serious injury working as a saucier, he was crippled for a year and given a (premature) diagnosis of “permanently disabled!” Today, with a slim physique and engaging charm, he looks 35 but approaches his 50th birthday. Cool and hip, as befitting his surroundings, he surveys his restaurant and chats to guests. Enthusiastic and energetic, concerned that every aspect of his new venture should be perfect, he openly discusses teething problems in the kitchen, the décor and the restaurant’s acoustics – he prefers less noise and hopes to install surround sound.
After several years of searching for a suitable venue, Bobby has bagged a prime double fronted site in Old Compton Street, in the heart of Soho. The exterior is understated in a matt black wooden finish, with small windows, modest entrance and minimalist signing. The low ceilinged, oak floored interior is deceptively spacious, with 90 covers at plain, bamboo timbered tables and low backed green leather banquettes. The ten metre dispense bar divides front and back seating areas, whilst varied spotlighting, creating a shadowy feel, and bare grey walls also help to create an informal, relaxed atmosphere. This attracts the mainly young clientele, creating an animated buzz in the restaurant.
They come mainly, however, for the Vietnamese cuisine, admired as one of the healthiest in the world, with its use of fresh ingredients, minimal use of oil, reliance on herbs and vegetables, and selective use of spices. The House of Ho specialises in northern Vietnamese dishes, (and a few from the south), which are light and subtle in their combination of flavours, sourcing is impeccable, with a special emphasis on the “ethical purchasing of seafood.” Cooking is accurately timed and portions are generous, with grilling, salads and broths being prominent. Not surprisingly, given Bobby Chinn’s background, the menu also includes some fusion dishes, once again in fashion. Descriptors such as fillet mignon, ceviche, truffle oil, tartare, baby back ribs, scallions, bouillabaisse, frittata and crème brulee testify to the use of western methods and ingredients.
The five sectioned menu, which will change gradually, offers a range of dishes to ensure consistency at pleasingly modest prices.
Fine Dining Guide selected four of the five Light and Raw dishes, priced between £4 and £9
First came traditional Pho Cuon, cold rice noodle rolls, with a slightly gelatinous texture, generously filled with roast duck, dressed with crispy scallions and accompanied by a light, fragrant dip. These provided a deliciously satisfying starter.
A Vietnamese salad featured sweet crab and crisp vegetable noodles tossed in fish sauce. The use of pomelo; sweeter and less citric than grapefruit – often used to partner crab in western dishes – complemented rather than overpowered the seafood. Mint and lemon oil lifted the flavours, whilst Vietnamese crackers added a crisp finish.
Next was a lively seafood ceviche of vibrantly fresh prawns, sea bass and scallops. Mangosteen provided a mild aroma and delicate sweetness to balance the marinade spiked with white truffle oil and coconut jus. Diced sweet pepper added a much needed crispness to this dish which was stunningly presented Cascading from a halved coconut onto a lotus leaf.
Another successful fusion dish featured wonderfully succulent salmon tartare topped with a quail’s egg. Chopped pistachio, herbal shiso and crisp sweet turnip like Jicama dressed in Asian vinaigrette, provided unusual but successful mixing ingredients in terms of flavour and texture. A final flourish was given by a large rice cracker.
The Hot and Grilled selection, priced between £5 and £9, includes a signature dish of grilled chicken wings with a spicy chilli glaze which took 10 years to perfect. Smokey aubergine, warm scallion vinaigrette with scallions and crispy shallots is equally popular.
We decided on Hanoi’s grilled quails with crispy noodles and were not disappointed. The small, butterflied game birds retained their moist succulence, their flavour enhanced by fragrant Chinese five spice. A wedge of lime, and a bowl of chopped kumquat, fresh chilli, black pepper and salt proved suitable condiments to be used at the diner’s discretion.
From Ho’s Dishes, six alternatives priced between £9 and £14, we chose two contrasting preparations.
Apple smoked belly pork had been slowly braised before being cold smoked, although this might have been a little stronger. The result was a melting, unctuously rich meat in a dark caramel sauce. A marinated Japanese style egg and braised cabbage – (perhaps more of the latter) – finished this traditional dish, given a unique Bobby twist.
Vietnamese Seafood Bouillabaisse, replete with accurately timed monkfish, mussels and squid, also included tomatoes, okra and carambola, the last adding texture if not flavour. However, the broth, the base of the dish, would have been improved with extra tamarind sourness to balance the excessive sweetness of the pineapple. This was a dish that is still a work in progress.
From the four Sides (£2.50 to £4) Jasmine rice helped to soak up the juices whilst Morning Glory, a type of water spinach, added a flavoursome, fresh note.
Desserts, (a choice of three, from £4.50 to £6.50), never a strong point in Asian restaurants, include a trio of ice creams and lemon scented crème brulee. The best, which we sampled, was Molten Marou chocolate cake. Made from cocoa beans ethically grown in Vietnam, it is essentially a chocolate fondant with an oozingly rich interior. Lemon grass ice cream of silky texture completed this fusion dessert.
Overall, the meal at the House of Ho was a highly enjoyable experience. The service was welcoming, courteous and efficient. Those visiting for the first time like ourselves could be better informed of the signature dishes. Not that we will resent returning to sample the delights of Duck a la Banana, Grilled chicken wings, Shaking beef and Lemongrass Monkfish with Fish Caramel sauce.
The competitively priced Drinks list, featuring sakes, Old and New World wines and cocktails (starting from £7), laced with home-made bitters and syrups, is an added attraction.
Although Anthony Bourdain has described Bobby Chinn as an “international man of mystery,” there is no secret as to why the House of Ho has made an impressive start, immediately proving popular amongst a well-heeled clientele Its West End location, lively atmosphere, not over ambitious menu and keen prices are a recipe for continued success.