Published on March 30th, 2016 | by Rebecca Anne Milford0
House of Ho, Fitzrovia
Summary: If you are looking for pho and bao, look elsewhere, but everything offered at House of Ho is superb
I’m a huge fan of Vietnamese food – and therefore a big critic, too. It’s natural that if you enjoy something, then eat enough of it (by enough I mean at least one Nước chấm spiked dish a week), you’re bound to get a pretty good idea of what you like and dislike. In the past month I’ve been bowled over by the flavours in a bowl of sirloin pho; have found a new Goi Ga salad that is now my go-to comfort food; and been thoroughly disappointed by one place that was trying to over complicate things.
So when I got an invite to try some of the dishes from Chef Ian Pengelley at House of Ho in Fitzrovia, I was more than game – but also slightly wary. Some of the best Asian food I’ve ever had has been scarfed in muggy heat while sitting on an upturned bucket in an unpronounceable South East Asian city somewhere – where, as Tom Parker Bowles says, ‘the food you eat is the soul and heart of a culture’. House of Ho is about as far away from an upturned bucket as it’s possible to be.
Set in a gorgeous townhouse in Fitzrovia, there are four floors of rather luxuriously decorated dining rooms, reached via a steep and winding staircase that somehow adds to the feeling you’re ascending towards some very special banquet. The mix between oriental and modern is adeptly created with sleek design, warm lighting and trendy fittings. Staff are confident, knowledgeable, and thoroughly efficient at explaining dishes and recommending items from the menu – this is good.
We head upwards, winding into the attic of the house, and find ourselves at a rather lovely bar that I can imagine is popular for those wishing to hire a sumptuous space. A glass of champagne to open the taste-buds and set them dancing in anticipation, and then it’s down to the dining room.
This is set out in the traditional Asian form of a large circular table so that the twelve or so guests and I can all speak, laugh, interact and, of course, share food. That is the essence of what we eat now, so while it means that pho is off the table, so to speak (although available on the menu), some of the dishes we are presented with are delivered in show-stopping style.
The man behind the menu is Ian Pengelley, formally of Gilgamesh and Chai Wu fame. He knows his spring onions, and is regarding as a forerunner in creating delicious Pan-Asian cuisine. He’s joined House of Ho and is reproducing food he tried, and loved, during his escapades around Vietnam. He’s the kind of man you can imagine backpacking through cities and tiny towns, catching trains to out of the way villages where legend has it a rare chilli grows that can transform a whole stock, or learning the art of hand-pulled noodles from an ancient woman who doesn’t speak a word of English. Maybe, maybe not.
What is for sure is that the food here shines with authenticity and care. We begin with crisp crackers that snap in two with a sound of twigs breaking in winter, and are subtly flavoured with prawn. A starter of Crispy squid with chilli & sea salt is one of the famous offerings, and is a revelation – thin pieces, almost as if the squid has been tempered, and covered in the lightest batter that could almost be held against tracing paper without leaving a grease stain. This is how I like my fried goods – not steeped in oil, but light and carefully considered.
My favourite starter is the duck and watermelon salad – great chunks of vibrant pink fruit glistening like gemstones, combined with the salty, gamey shreds of duck, the crunch of cashew, and that wonderful refreshing tang of mint that lifts the whole dish. I could have been satisfied with a bowl of this.
Luckily, the next offering arrives before I get too full, since it would be such a shame not to try this. Soft Shell Crab is served on a huge bed of chillis, brought in like some sort of ceremonial bowl and placed in the middle. Again, it’s light and delicate. I’m too busy digging into the chicken though. It’s tender, soaked in a rich sauce that sings with lemongrass and is perfect when spooned up with rice. Shaking Beef is also another popular plate that has us all digging chopsticks in and marveling at the burst of flavours that escape from each bite.
For dessert, the banana crumble special is heaven/diabetes in a bowl, and basically some sort of deconstructed banoffee pie. So that’s banana bathing in the richest caramel sauce I’ve ever tried, topped with crunchy biscuit. I could honestly have eaten the whole thing twice, but stop myself at half a bowl for fear of a sugar-rush keeping me up until the wee hours. This doesn’t stop me from digging my spoon into the lighter option of green tea fondant – oozing as we break the spongy exterior, and served with a delicious citrus pow of sorbet.
So, House of Ho – which camp does it go into? While the traditional Vietnamese items that I would usually go for (pho, bún, bao) weren’t present, this is forgiven in a blink after tasting the marvelous flavours and cooking skills shown by Pengelley. Each morsel was superb, both whisking me to Asia in a mouthful, while also reminding me how lucky we are to be able to taste such great food in London these days. House of Ho? House of Hell-Yeah, and I’ll definitely be visiting again.
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