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One by one, we’re running through the 50 restaurants that made the cut on this year’s Young & Hungry Dining Guide. If you have visited the day’s featured restaurant, let us know what you think. If you’re planning to visit for the first time, tell us about your meal when you return.
The area’s best Vietnamese restaurant never would have materialized without the persistence of Gene Nguyen, who’s among the most unlikely candidates in Northern Virginia to set out on this lofty path. Until he opened Present in Falls Church last year, Nguyen was best known for peddling pho and running a nightclub in the Eden Center.
But seven years ago at his nightclub, Nguyen met a group of folks visiting from Vietnam; they told him about this chef back home who’s been captivating diners wherever he cooks. Nguyen dutifully recorded Luong Tran’s contact information and began communicating with the chef. They talked. They e-mailed. They traded pictures and tips and recipes. After a while, Nguyen finally felt comfortable enough to drop the big one: Would Tran like to cook in America?
No way. Tran was happy staying in Vietnam.
After an apparently unsatisfying attempt to work in Malaysia, however, Tran reversed the roles and called Nguyen himself, looking for work in America. Once he had snagged his prized chef, though, Nguyen wasn’t sure exactly what to do with him. “I knew I couldn’t put him in the pho place,” the owner says about his two Pho Hot outlets. “He doesn’t fit there. That would have killed him.”
Instead, Tran and Nguyen set out to create a Vietnamese restaurant unlike any other in the region. It would be an elegant, meditative space featuring not just dishes from North and Central Vietnam—those areas underserved by Vietnamese restaurants in Northern Virginia – but also home-style meals from the mother country. “We…have a lot of extra dishes that no one has in Eden Center, home cooking from grandma’s kitchen,” Nguyen says, rattling off such Present offerings as the purple yam soup, the grilled eggplant with fish sauce, and the stir-fry mushrooms with chicken gizzards, liver, and heart. “This is the kind of food we’re used to.”
But Present would also reject the cheap and/or frozen ingredients that define many Vietnamese-American restaurants. Present roasts its own peanuts every morning before lunch and every afternoon before dinner, because fresh-roasted nuts are far superior to those sitting in a jar for months. Tran buys fish every morning, too, inspecting the gills on each specimen to make sure it passes his test for freshness. The chef even prepares his fried rice without using previously boiled and refrigerated grains—a cheat that helps keep the grains separate—and also designs more than one house-made fish sauce. Tran, in fact, makes nine, each for different dishes.
“If you have the crêpe, it doesn’t taste right if you don’t roll it up and dip it in the fish sauce,” Nguyen says. “There’s a particular sauce that goes with the dish.”
The chef’s painstaking approach to ingredients and their preparation can be tasted in every dish you order at Present. The imperial autumn rolls—an example of royal cuisine from Central Vietnam, a style for which few chefs aside from Tran have formal training—is as rich and crackly as it is artistic; it’s an appetizer that looks designed by Jackson Pollock. The lemongrass chicken, by contrast, has all the subtly of an air raid, but its considerable heat is tempered by a soft wave of fresh aromatic lemongrass (and maybe a little sugar, yes?). Even a simple bowl of grilled pork over vermicelli takes on special qualities in Tran’s kitchen. The bounty of ingredients in the bowl—daikon, lettuce, peanuts, scallions, pork, noodles, summer roll, and sprouts—are the freshest I’ve ever sampled in a Vietnamese restaurant, right down to the bright orange julienne carrot garnishes, which are often just dry, scaly afterthoughts in lesser restaurants.
Present, 6678 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church, (703) 531-1881
Photo by Darrow Montgomery