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.
When Michelin Star chef Michael "Bao" Huynh decamped from New York in 2013 to return to his native Vietnam, many foodies wondered if he'd ever come back to cook in his adopted homeland. But "Bao" is back this month with a pair of Gaslamp Quarter restaurants that will serve as his new base of operations in the United States.
Landing the winner of "Iron Chef Vietnam" a year after "Top Chef All-Stars" victor Richard Blais relocated to San Diego is another sign that the city's long-simmering restaurant scene is about to reach a rolling boil.
Huynh is most famous for his bahn mi sandwiches, but as a James Beard Award winner and Bocuse d'Or coach, he's got serious fine-dining chops. San Diego diners can sample both ends of the Bao spectrum with side-by-side eateries that have opened on Fifth Avenue.
FoodShop, which opened in mid-May, serves Huynh's coriander-spiced pork baguettes, pho, bowls and wok dishes for $6 to $11. Sovereign Kitchen + Bar, which opened Thursday, is a fine-dining dinnerhouse serving modern Vietnamese dishes priced from $12 to $25.
Tip of the week
Chef Huynh's $6 Classic Banh Mi sandwich, in his new grab-and-go Food Shop next door to Sovereign, was once rated by GQ Magazine as the "best sandwich in America."
Sovereign is the fourth Gaslamp restaurant opened by San Diego native Alex Thao, who also runs Lucky Liu's (Chinese), Rama (Thai) and Saja (Korean). The men met about eight years ago, and Thao has spent the past year wooing Huynh to take over the former Royal Thai space at Fifth and Island avenues.
Huynh spent 30 years in New York before moving to Vietnam, where he has restaurants and other business interests. But Huynh said he and his wife would prefer to raise their 16-month-old son in the U.S. and he likes San Diego's location and climate. Sovereign's menu is a reflection of modern Vietnamese cuisine with a nod to regional ingredients, like a spicy jalapeño herb sauce and creamy yucca/sweet corn waffles.
Sovereign's menu is accessible to Western tastes while still authentic in its presentation and ingredients.
Huynh's flavors are delicate, like the subtle blend of fried leeks, shrimp and puréed yams in his Mountain Yame Soup ($10). His plating is colorful and creative. The Spicy Prawn Salad comes served on a coconut with tender noodle-like strips of young coconut flesh ($12), and the Sweet Sour Crispy Whole Fish arrives in a sculptural arched shape, as if it were still flapping when it dropped into the fryer (market price).
He marries flavors in interesting ways, like grilled short rib meat wrapped around fragrant lemon grass "skewers" then drizzled with peanut sauce ($12). And there's a fun factor in his food, like the interactive Grilled Cornish Hen plate, which comes with mortar and pestle to grind your own bird's eye chilis with Kaffir lime leaf, garlic cloves and green papaya sauce. The hen itself is a showstopper - brined for a day, stuffed with garlic and Kaffir leaves, then fried, smoked and cooked to utter perfection. I could eat the crispy skin for days.
And absolutely don't leave without trying a cup of Huynh's rich, creamy Vietnamese iced coffee, made with caramelized sweetened condensed milk. You can always sleep tomorrow.
Sovereign Kitchen + Bar
Address: 467 Fifth Ave., Gaslamp Quarter
Phone: (619) 359-8897