It's impossible to resist this young Vietnamese restaurant
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 24, 2009
The green papaya salad at Present is probably the 512th green papaya salad I've eaten in my career. It's also the best I've ever encountered.
In Vietnam, the dish is considered a snack. As served by this inviting restaurant in an otherwise ordinary shopping strip in Northern Virginia, the appetizer looks more like a gift.
Cool and refreshing, the julienned tropical fruit arrives in a gorgeous thin "bowl" of purple cabbage. Strewn across the surface are crushed nuts that taste unusually fresh, snips of aromatic mint and chewy matchsticks of beef jerky. It's not the traditional dried meat I'm expecting, but richer. A waiter explains the difference: "The jerky is made with liver." The garnishes on the plate extend to airy shrimp chips for scooping up the salad and a radish, tinted yellow and carved to look like a rose. "May I?" owner Gene Nguyen asks before adding the finishing touch. The splash of soy sauce (plus vinegar, sugar, lime juice and chili paste) combines with the fruit, the nuts and the herbs to create a little feast that is so compelling, I never fail to order it here.
Moments later, another salad appears. This one involves pearly shrimp, batons of fatty pork and soft white strings (shredded lotus stalk) arranged in a delicate shell of green lettuce. The first course comes with a "flower" garnish, too, but this one is bright orange. A tangy fish-sauce vinaigrette rounds out the flavors.
Next, a steaming fish is set before us. The rockfish is showered with cilantro and scallions and perched on onion halves that lend their sweetness to the entree. A delicate wash of soy sauce and fresh ginger completes the seduction. On the heels of the fish comes duck with airy-crisp skin and a tamarind sauce that races from sweet to tart and back.
"Vietnamese food should be a little crunchy, a little soft, a little sweet, a little tangy," the waiter says as he fusses over our table. I can only nod, because my mouth is full.
"Four Sisters, watch out!" cries a friend from across the table who knows and loves the Vietnamese competitor, also in Falls Church.
Present, which came on the scene in August, is certainly giving its peers in the area a run for their money. In a previous incarnation, the dining room was called Secret Garden and served Korean flavors. In the hands of Nguyen, the location has been transformed into a retreat that suggests a garden, with its pretty fountain and wallpaper depicting a bamboo forest. It also looks like someplace special, thanks to designer plates and attendants in suits and ties. Only the taped music, which sounds as if it's being piped in from some unfortunate mall, detracts from the pleasure of dining here.
The restaurant's staff is uncommonly suave and articulate, even Ritz-like at times (make that the fabled Ritz of yore, not today's brand). Everyone at Present is Vietnamese, everyone speaks English and everyone knows the menu as if they had watched the cooks make the food.
A warm environment and knowledgeable guides are great assets. But more than anything, it's the beautiful food and the precise cooking that have catapulted Present to the top of my list of can't-wait-to-go-back restaurants. I rarely dine someplace that doesn't involve a deadline. Going forward, I know I'll make an exception for Present.
There are four cooks, each responsible for different dishes. One of them, Tran Luong, is considered the first among equals. The Saigon native is so particular, "he wants to see the fish swimming when he comes to work," a waiter shares. Luong is also the one who insists on those freshly roasted peanuts. The chief's exactness resulted in a lot of turnover behind the scenes in the early months, the server adds. His smile signals pride in his colleague with high standards.
Present's menu is long and varied, distinguished from the pack by dishes that aren't mere variations on themes but truly distinct. Even after four meals, I feel as if I've only begun to mine the kitchen's treasures. Cauliflower sauteed with chicken liver, gizzard and heart? Purple yam soup with minced pork and shrimp? Deep-fried tuna with shredded mango? Those and other dishes will have to wait for another day.
Right now, I can tempt you with this: As much as I like that steamed rockfish, the whole fried version is even more impressive. I spotted the catch on the table of some diners on my initial visit, and a server pointed to it as I was leaving. ("Next time!" he advised.) A light coat of egg yolk and flour gives the rockfish a golden hue and a crust that shatters at the touch of a tine. Inside, the fish is all hot, sweet eating. Gracing its platter is a lovely "tree" fashioned from carrot; like all the accessories at Present, this one has been created by specialist Nhan Nguyen (no relation to his boss).
A customer could visit every day of the week and try a different salad; each will vie for the title of best in class on your tongue. I thought the green papaya salad was my favorite, but that was before I sampled Smoky Petal (the titles for these dishes are almost as poetic as their flavors): warm baby clams, finely ground beef and fresh lemon grass in a bowl-shaped sesame rice cracker that breaks apart to yield spades for eating the contents. Then again, Treasure From the Sea lives up to its billing, too. Served in a festive half of young, not-too-sweet pineapple: a boatload of fine-cut ivory squid, pink shrimp, carrots and more.
When a food friend raved to me about a banquet of off-the-menu dishes he'd orchestrated with the owner, I enlisted a trusted dining companion to do the same for me. The surprise of the arranged night was -- well, not what I expected, based on so much prior pleasure. The dishes I'd requested, scallops in their shells and braised duck among them, were easy on the eyes and delivered with ceremony, but they lacked the dazzle of almost every dish I knew from the standing script. The only other time I felt similarly let down was when I tried the caramelized pork ribs. The Hard-Working Piglet sat in a cloying brown sauce that smacked of another, lesser restaurant. Still, I'm giving Present the benefit of the doubt, in part because my notes from other excursions here contained more exclamation points than did my records of any other local restaurant I've been to this year.
The name Present reflects a couple of things the owner says he holds dear. One is that Nguyen likes to think of his clientele as a gift. Perhaps more important, he wants everyone in his restaurant to forget about the past and put off the future so they can focus on the meal in front of them: the delicious present.