John Nguyen isn’t done with NYC just yet.
The former Hanoi House chef — who quickly rose to prominence for his creative work at the East Village restaurant — is opening a new Vietnamese restaurant in Murray Hill, despite plans to move back to Hong Kong after his contentious departure from Hanoi House led to a lawsuit. The case alleging that Nguyen threatened the restaurant’s owners after they sent him a two-year non-compete agreement has since been settled, according to both parties.
With the non-compete out of the way, Nguyen is opening Sai Gon Dep at 719 Second Ave., between East 38th and 39th Streets, in December. The new restaurant, which seats up to 45 people, will focus on food from Southern Vietnam, the region where he was born, he says. Here, he specifically wants to specialize on chicken pho “because everyone has beef pho,” he says. A quarter, half, or whole chicken will be on the menu, and it’ll be served “head to toe” with head, feet, and organs still attached, he says.
“That’s how it’s served in Vietnam. I want to stay true to tradition, and I want to give [diners] everything,” he says.
The opening menu will have about 15 items including the chicken pho as well as beef pho, spring rolls, summer rolls, a fried banh mi sandwich, and fried rainbow trout served with mango and Brussels sprouts. Everything is meant to be shared and priced under $25, except the whole chicken, for which he’s still crunching numbers.
Nguyen will be a part-owner of the restaurant, which is backed by the team running Chinatown cocktail bar Basement. While he’ll create the menu, chef Leland Yu of Brooklyn Korean barbecue restaurant Insa will be in charge of the kitchen’s day-to-day. Nguyen is following through with previous plans to move to Hong Kong to work with Black Sheep Restaurants, though he’ll return to NYC once or twice a year to change up the menu at Sai Gon Dep.
“Vietnam is going to be my backyard, so I’m going to go there a lot to discover new dishes,” he tells Eater. “My goal is for NYC to try all these dishes.”
Nguyen shot to fame shortly after Hanoi House opened in January 2017, wining Eater NY’s chef of the year and snagging favorable reviews from the Times, Grub Street, and Eater. But he made it clear in a January 2018 profile that his relationship with Hanoi House could be temporary. He abruptly left the restaurant in August, which prompted a lawsuit to stop him from disclosing recipes as well as a restraining order to keep him away. The legal trouble erupted when the owners tacked a three-mile-radius, two-year non-compete to Nguyen’s separation agreement — which he fought against.
The case was settled earlier this month, according to court documents. Both the chef and Hanoi House owners “regret” how the relationship ended, a statement from Hanoi House says. Owners Sara Leveen and Ben Lowell say they “appreciate” Nguyen’s “valuable contributions” to the restaurant, and that both parties “wish each other the best in their future endeavors.”
Nguyen says he was set to leave New York when the Basement team approached him with an idea for a new Vietnamese restaurant; he says he was “intrigued” with the idea of becoming a part-owner and believes that NYC “deserves great Vietnamese restaurants.”
“There’s enough business for everyone,” he says.
Sai Gon Dep is slated to open the week of December 17th. Stay tuned for photos and a full menu.