Viet Royale was one of the elders of the Eden Center, an expansive and, you could argue, exhaustive restaurant that offered more than 250 dishes, drawing inspiration from every corner of Vietnam. But after serving as an anchor at the Vietnamese dining and shopping destination for more than 20 years — a span which saw families fed, children raised and young adults sent off to college — Viet Royale’s owner decided his time was up. Hung “Lawrence” Cheng sold the business in 2015.
He sold it to Jeana Nguyen and her family, first-time restaurateurs who, initially at least, tried to carry on the good name of Viet Royale. It made sense. Cheng had created an institution at the Eden Center. The restaurant’s very moniker, if not always its fare, evoked the old Vietnamese monarchy, whose cooks had borrowed techniques from across the country and, in time, created a royal cuisine as sophisticated as any on Earth. The name alone could stir memories of imperial feasts, radishes carved into ceremonial dragons and the era before Vietnam was ripped apart by war and political ideologies.
But those memories belong to an older generation, one that fled Vietnam in the 1970s and helped build this commercial monument in Northern Virginia to their war dead — and to a country that hasn’t existed for decades. These men and women have since grown gray. They’ve also been ceding their place to the next generation, whose ideas have been informed as much by America as by Vietnam.
“We wanted to make something new,” Nguyen bottom-lines it for me.
So after almost three years of nursing a moribund business, Nguyen, her brother-in-law, Tom Van, and her family officially laid Viet Royale to rest last year. They also invested in a makeover, transforming a (mostly) utilitarian dining room into a verdant space dedicated to the natural beauty and spiritual purity of the lotus flower. Even the light fixtures in the new place look as if lotus leaves have suddenly self-inflated, generated light from within and floated to the ceiling. The family has christened its new place Four Seasons Restaurant, a name that evokes, for some Americans, the fall of one of its own gastronomic traditions.
Like other full-service restaurants at the Eden Center, Four Seasons boasts a wide-ranging menu that leans on the cooking traditions throughout Vietnam, though with an emphasis on the fresh herbs and the complex layering of flavors favored in the south. It’s an approach that mirrors the family itself: Jeana Nguyen was born in Saigon, in the south. Her father, Dung Nguyen, hails from Hue, the imperial city in the central part of the country, and her mom, Lien Le, comes from Hanoi, in the north.
But there’s something of an experimental streak at Four Seasons, too. Some dishes give off an air of tradition but don’t seem to be rooted in any particular regional style. I’m thinking about a chef’s special of steamed sticky rice with shrimp, a dish that arrives in a bamboo steamer. Jeana Nguyen tells me the combination is original to her restaurant, and I tend to believe her. There’s a smokiness to the rice, which breaks apart in big, chewy pucks, a workout for the jaw and a pleasure for the palate. By contrast, the shell-on shrimp are garnished with loads of coarsely chopped garlic, blurring the line between pungency and sweetness. The dish is hypnotic, and you won’t break the spell until the last morsel is gone.
The menu is a visual feast before the first plate ever lands on your table. Almost every dish has a full-color glamour shot to accompany its description. You certainly don’t need a photo to tell you what a summer roll looks like (though I’ll tell you they’re fresh, minty and undistinguished), but you might need one to guide your decision on the fried lotus root with pork. The appetizer is something of a snack cake, with a pork filling pressed between two thick slices of fried lotus root, which have the soft crunch of a raw potato. The cakes have heft. They have residual grease. They have the ability to eradicate an appetite fast.
The Vietnamese table has always been interactive. You’re regularly expected to customize your meal, whether adding a wheezing squeeze of Sriracha to your noodle soup or selecting the herbs to wrap around your fried spring rolls. But Four Seasons — like its Eden Center neighbor, Rice Paper — basically puts you on the prep line with some plates, such as an appetizer of sliced rare beef. The name is deceiving because, by the time you’re done composing the bite, the beef will be fully or partially cooked (your call) in a vinegar broth brought to a low boil with a butane burner placed on the table. You will be asked to roll the beef, along with your choice of herbs and sliced veggies, into a slip of rice paper softened in water. Your first tabletop summer roll will look like hell. Your second will be divine.
Four Seasons prepares a handful of dipping sauces to complete your individual bites. Its nuoc mam cham condiment is too timid for my tastes, its fish-sauce fervor all but stifled by sugar. But the kitchen allows its mam tom sauce to speak freely, without any attempts to muffle its glorious, vociferous decay. Built with fermented shrimp paste and garlic, among other ingredients, mam tom adds an almost livery element to the dishes it touches. It works better on some preparations (it elevates the eggy seafood pancake) than others (it tends to dominate the DIY rice noodles with fried tofu).
The restaurant can fumble some fundamentals, evidence that the rookie owners still need to hone their operations. One busy Saturday night, our kindly server struggled to cover all the tables assigned to her; she also informed me, on two separate occasions, that the place had no Saigon Export beer available, an indication someone’s not on top of routine orders. The kitchen has its own problems to solve, notably a pair of grilled items (beef wrapped in grape leaves, shrimp paste wrapped around sugar cane), whose proteins were so tough I could have used them on a racquetball court.
Such mistakes can be hard to reconcile when you then dig into something as deeply satisfying as a whole catfish lightly perfumed with lemongrass and served on a sizzling platter. Or something as complex as bun bo Hue, the spicy beef noodle soup made famous in Dung Nguyen’s hometown. Then again, it can be hard to reconcile the holiday tunes piped into the dining room in late February. As I slurped on the thick, chewy strands lounging in my bun bo Hue, savoring the oil and spice that clung to them, I could only conclude the obvious: With some plates, or bowls, it really can feel like Christmas comes every day at Four Seasons.
6767 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church, 703-533-8388; fourseasonsus.net.
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Prices: $4 to $19.50 for appetizers, salads and soups; $9 to $49 for entrees, hot pots and chef’s specials.