Michael "Bao"Huynh was Iron Chef Vietnam; he was a vaunted James Beard award winner. The San Diego food scene was atwitter with excitement when it was announced that Huynh had been tapped to run Sovereign Vietnamese Kitchen + Bar (467 Fifth Ave.) in the Gaslamp, the latest in local restaurateur Alex Thao's mini-empire of Asian restaurants.
However, before the establishment opened, Huynh had mysteriously become Sovereign's former chef. By the time Sovereign unlocked its doors in early July, word had crept out that the celebrated chef had left the establishment.
While Huynh's promising menu, which included creative takes on Vietnamese classics, could be found on the eatery's website, Thao eventually announced he'd promoted Daniel Nguyen, supposedly Huynh's long-time sous-chef, to executive chef.
Unfortunately, along with the change, the anticipated creative flourishes had been significantly dialed back, yielding a "classic" menu.
Hyunh told CityBeat that Nguyen was never his sous chef in Vietnam, as first rumored. Hyunh says he only worked with the young chef for two weeks at Sovereign. Nguyen's social media posts seem to confirm this.
Either way, the new menu may be the least of Sovereign's problems. The restaurant has so far shown a lack of quality and consistency, with some flavors that simply fall flat. Ill-trimmed chicken and beef have resulted in fat globules on the plate. The fried shrimp was limp, the onions undercooked and the meat in the BBQ beef rice seemed steamed more than "BBQed."
Not all Sovereign's offerings were bad. The shaken beef was extraordinary, better than San Francisco's much-lauded Slanted Door, where it's a signature dish. The beef was meltingly tender and well seared with exterior caramelization echoing the sauce's sweet notes and underlining its umami warmth. The classic banh mi was excellent with its combination of savory rich, sweet-and-sour flavors.
The front of the house at Sovereign was a mess. Main courses were served before appetizers were cleared. The wait staff asked the same questions numerous times. Hostesses served as bussers and vice versa. The overall impression was of ill-trained chaos.
Why did Chef Huynh leave?
According to Huynh, he had only been paid $500 on a $36,000 contract. Thao said Huynh had a one-year contract, "which also included a set of parameters and expectations." The contract reviewed by CityBeat did not appear to mention such expectations. When asked whether he'd paid Huynh, Thao said he wished the chef "all the best in his future endeavors."
The Sovereign story is reminiscent of Thao's short-lived restaurant, French Concession. There, Thao also hired a high-profile chef from Asia and did a light remodel, only to close in a matter of months. When asked about the parallel, Thao said the business venture was a "play" that simply didn't work.
Two other projects of his seem to be going the same way. Lucky Liu was sold in November 2014, and Thao said his "Saja Korean Kitchen also is not performing up to expectations." He said he's considered "a new concept for the space."
Sovereign was one of the hottest and most-anticipated San Diego restaurant openings of the year. However, much like Chef Huyhn's time at the restaurant, the buzz is quickly fading into the past.