House of Ho's gourmet street food makes Rasika Sittamparam reminisce about the Southeast Asian coffee houses she used to know
The four storey townhouse in Fitzrovia that is home to House of Ho has minimalist decor with quaint details of Vietnam’s colonial past. With high ceilings, old framed pictures and smiling staff in traditional garb, I felt at ease in the cosy ground floor dining area. A pair of ceiling fans rotated noiselessly, creating a sense of perpetual motion with the soft electronic bass notes in the background. The fans, marble tables, the pleasant chatter of diners and the scent of the five-spice wafting through; all reminded me of the kopitiams (traditional Southeast Asian coffee houses) I grew up with – I knew I was in for an authentic treat.
The sharing menu made me feel greedy, and if it wasn’t for my partner’s gentle caution, I would have requested for a bite of each and every item. There were officially no entrées, but there was a selection of small, large and sharing dishes (for two). I did wonder how all six of our choices would sit on our smallish table, but I silenced my thoughts when the first two arrived: sea bass and prawn dumplings and Hanoi duck spring rolls.
The acid green dumplings with their glistening gooey cases were delightful, but were difficult not to deconstruct with the chopsticks and spoon provided (I avoided the latter to show off my skills in the former). Once I had manoeuvred the slippery ones through the basket-sauce-plate-mouth route, the soft mixture delivered the tangy garlic flavour of the Ponzu sauce. The crispy spring rolls, on the other hand -- choc-a-block with minced duck -- were much firmer. The Hoisin dip was sharp and sweet, and the combination satisfying (and surprisingly filling).
Next came the smoked jasmine ribs and the Asian aubergine salad. I knew we were meant to share, but as my partner preferred the hearty ribs, I went solo and indulged in the salad’s adequate spiciness. The perfectly cooked and crisped aubergines were silky and the rice vinegar soy sauce infused them with an addictive salty-sweet richness. It is meant to be eaten with rice as it could be overpowering, I was told, but hailing from the region itself, the salt and chili provided a tasty high instead.
At this point, we were both stuffed, but our appetites were miraculously resurrected at the sight and smell of the next pairing: a bowl of vegetable pho and fragrant Chilean sea bass with Vietnamese fermented plum sauce (tương). The pho’s minty herbs were refreshing, but the broth lacked character when juxtaposed with the elegant piscine delight hiding under a leafy cocoon.
If I could give the chef director Ian Pengelley (of Mango Tree and Gilgamesh fame) a medal for the sea bass, I would. Everything I had tasted before was the chef’s take on the classics, but this one was a Vietnam-inspired creation, a winning one too. The fish, which took three days to prepare, was ultra-soft and supple, even slightly squeaky, to my amusement. The pungent taste of the fermented soybean, mixed with the saccharine-saltiness of the sauce and the zing of lime was pure genius. A piece of sauce-coated plum on the side was a sweet and thoughtful feature.
The strong coffee with ample condensed milk is something Southeast Asians dream about in London, even while sipping macchiato in a hip café. It was a lovely complement to the matcha (powdered green tea) fondant, although I did wish the dessert had more of the flavour’s faint but distinct bitterness. It could have also done without the tartness of the passion fruit on the side, if I am allowed to be pernickety.
Pengelley’s intention to elevate the cuisine’s status -- from street-food to gourmet -- is commendable. The flagship is unpretentious, and its focus on the herbs and the goodness of Vietnamese gastronomy is a step in the right direction, although a part of me feels that the menu could have been a little more adventurous -- for those who might draw parallels to the various street savouries they tasted on a holiday in Southeast Asia.
The calm appeal of the restaurant struck me when I left it behind. Many days later, I still wished I were back under the slowly rotating fans, sipping the sweet coffee, tucking into the warm delicacies. There was something timeless about the fans in particular, a reminder of how their cooling oscillations produce a gentle breeze in the heat back home. I reminisced about how the tropical sun seemed to slow time, it made people lounge about in coffee houses, share meals and chat with family and friends without a care in the world. It was enough to make me miss Southeast Asia, that’s for sure.