You’d not want to be a waiter at House of Ho, Percy Street. The kitchen is the basement of this old town house and the restaurant’s three floors are accessible only by a narrow staircase. On the plus side, you’d stay pretty fit.
Once upon a time this building was the The White House, a Greek restaurant where the ad agency I worked at in the 80s would take you to party after a successful pitch, There’s probably still some smashed crockery in the farthest corners if you look hard enough. And maybe a still smashed copywriter.
This is the second location for Ho, after the original in Old Compton Street, and is under the very experienced hand of freshly appointed Chef director Ian Pengelley. As we come in I see his ginger head heading off downstairs, he’s not dressed in the fancy all white, name on the front, togs of a superstar ego chef but in a simple black and white striped apron like someone who has serious work to do. His career has been a bit chequered to say the least, but no one has ever said he couldn’t cook because he really, really can. I’ve never had a bad meal off him
The ground floor main room is smart and quite compact; the space above is more about private dining rooms and a bar, and it’s all filling up fast even at 7:15 midweek. Customers are good looking, well dressed, chic and international. Apart from me, obviously.
The menu is blessedly compact and while offering plenty of choice it doesn’t cause head hurting indecisions. Starters, Small Dishes, Rolls & Salads, Dumplings, Signatures and Sides. It’s not pure Vietnamese I would say, but a blend of pan -Asian cuisines.
We order a variety of things, with every intention of sharing it all, and pass waiting time with a box of multi hued crackers. Some taste a bit like cardboard but the others have that dry snap followed by the saliva sucking dryness that I like. Edamame beans sauced with chilli garlic soon make a mess of our hands and napkins and, I am informed by L, the tip of my nose too.
First proper dish is soft shell crab, which arrives perched amid a massive sea of dried chillies, I had forgotten Ian’s penchant for a bit of theatre. The crabs are perfect, the batter dry and crunchy and the meat soft and sweet. We eat them swiftly and move on to crispy squid, chilli and sea salt.
This is a dish so filtered down to the mainstream that now you can even find it in country pubs, but this is a league above that. The squid is cut in small squares, curling vivaciously from its brief trip into the oil. The salt is strong and the chilli a poke in the taste buds.
I always heard that betel leaf was a mild narcotic, so Black Angus Fillet wrapped in betel sounded promising. The steak was cooked extremely well i.e. rare and came as thick strips wrapped in the leaf, which basically served as a way to get hold of it when chopsticks failed us. It gives a slightly bitter peppery flavour to the beef, kind of au poivre, and is very good.
We found the lemongrass chicken with chicken scratchings and sweet caramel glaze a bit reminiscent of sweet and sour at the local Chinese, but the jasmine smoked chilli ribs were excellent. There’s far too much smoking of meat in London right now, we’ll all have cancer in thirty years at this rate, but this was a different kind of smoking, a breath of jasmine not a bloody great hit of hickory.
Chilean sea bass served on a leaf, banana possibly, was gloriously (the food writer must use adjective/adverb of 2015) sweet and firm and delicately charred and flavoured with a fermented plum sauce.
It was about now that we realised we had not ordered any rice, which turned out to be just as well as we would never have finished all the dishes otherwise. As we toyed with some crispy rolls that we dunked in a crazily salty dip that was just right, we realised dessert was never going to happen, we were stuffed, so we had another bottle of the house white before rolling out into the night. We would have gone to the bar but three flights of stairs were now beyond us.
I hope Ian Pengelley hangs around House of Ho, his skills are not showy but they are those of a perfectionist and that shows. The food is interesting, well done, well presented and the atmosphere of the restaurant much nicer than the dark hole that is Ho on Old Compton. A glam place to impress a date. But I recommend the bar first before eating; it’s a lot easier on the legs.