Long gone are the days when dining in the Gaslamp Quarter meant choosing between chain restaurants and tourist traps for mediocre, over-priced fare. The Disneyland of Downtown is finally shaking its bad food rap, thanks to the arrival of some heavyweight chefs whose concepts promise to give the neighborhood the flavors it deserves.
Executive chef Daniel Barron of the soon-to-open Blush Ice Bar is making his return to the Gaslamp Quarter after parting ways with the Cohn Restaurant Group and Blue Point Coastal Cuisine back in 2012. "When I left Blue Point, I didn't come back downtown but maybe twice, before Blush got started. It's where you bring family when they come to visit," said the chef whose more recent stints included Evolve Cuisine, a pop-up concept, and an exec chef post at the La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla .
"It's a tough market and we know that," said Barron, who was hired by the owners of Blush to adapt their Asian fusion restaurant concept from San Jose to downtown San Diego. "But with new restaurants with chefs like Michael Huynh and Antonio Friscia, there's some legitimate food happening down here right now."
Restaurateur Alex Thao (Lucky Liu's, Rama) is taking his new concept, Sovereign Vietnamese Kitchen & Bar, one step further with Food Shop, its next door café with a menu chock full of items under $15. Considering this is executive chef Michael "Bao" Huynh's return to the states after "Iron Chef Vietnam" fame, and that you can catch a glimpse of the Michelin-starred chef as he's making your food, this is something different than what the Gaslamp has seen in the past.
The glaring truth from studying the restaurant scene in downtown is that bigger doesn't always translate to better. The highly anticipated Water Grill is the latest gargantuan project to hit the neighborhood, and while early reports of the steak and seafood restaurant are positive, its price point will remain out of reach for the majority of locals passing through.
"I just don't think they'll be able to do enough business to support how huge it is, and how much staff they employ," Barron said of his nearby raw-bar competition for Blush.
So where is the sweet spot? And how does Barron, who has been dining around the neighborhood as Blush gets ready to debut, plan on contributing to the Gaslamp in a way that works?
"We're not trying to be too fancy. There are things on the menu that local food snobs might raise a brow at, like Brussels sprouts and our burger. But I've been down here long enough to know what works and what doesn't," Barron said as he gears up for the mid-July debut of Blush. "It's about giving clientele what they want, but that doesn't mean we aren't going to be extremely creative about it."
Barron's idea is to make interesting, yet approachable food that, in his words, will lure local foodies from their sanctuary, North Park.
Think seafood focused dishes, like the whole roasted Dungeness crab, first soaked in a garlic, ginger and fish sauce marinade before meeting the wood-fired grill. Barron is particularly excited for the presentation of this dish, which comes served high on a steel riser with a bowl of noodles beneath it. There will also be a dry-aging program, house-smoked bacon, sausage making, and an array of sashimi, all responsibly sourced.
"I have a feeling there are going to be more chefs trying to make the Gaslamp a place for locals," Barron predicted. "So that people come here for something more than the bars, or a place to take friends from out of town."
Editor's note: As of July 20, 2015, Chef Michael "Bao" Huynh is no longer associated with Sovereign Kitchen + Bar. Owner Alex Thao said the new restaurant's sous chef Daniel Nguyen has been promoted to run the restaurant's ktichen. Thao said Huynh's commitment to other projects limited his time at Sovereign and as a result, Thao wanted a chef who could be onsite full-time. While the menu is revamped and Thao awaits the approval of Sovereign's liquor license, the restaurant is open for only limited dinner service. A grand reopening is planned for August.