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The early word on Present in Falls Church was almost too good to be true, particularly such lofty remarks as this and this. Such praise tends to, at least for me, set the bar impossibly high, especially for a transplanted Vietnamese chef who’s just beginning to understand the American palate and the D.C. market —- and how they differ from back home.
But I’ll tell you what, after my first visit last weekend, I’m itching to roll out the superlatives for Present (6678 Arlington Blvd; 703-531-1881). From my perspective, chef Luong Tran isn’t necessarily re-inventing Vietnamese cuisine for our market as much as he’s taking an extremely fresh approach to it. Everything I sampled —- from the autumn rolls to a slippery Vietnamese-style rice crepes —- popped with freshness, down to the bright orange julienne carrot garnishes, which are often dry, scaly afterthoughts in lesser restaurants.
Now, granted, Present is a little precious, in that Eastern Religion-Meets-New-Age puffery that kept so many self-help gurus employed in the ’90s. The interior is truly a calming, wood-heavy space with a silent waterfall in the middle. The menu attempts to further create a meditative setting with its philosophical introduction that suggests we all have gifts and presents in our lives. “Whether we can receive them or not depends entirely on our ability to be present in the moment to enjoy them,” the intro tells me.
The truth of that statement is unquestionable, and I can see how owner Gene Nguyen has meticulously groomed his space to try to ease my burdens upon entry so that I can open my mind and palate to his chef’s handiwork. But the whole serene concept took a left turn when I started reading some of the dish descriptions, which are written in both English and Vietnamese and which carry an extra, fable-like name. I’m sorry, but I laughed out loud at such anthropomorphic names as “Pig and Friends Crepes” and “Resting Steer on Haystack.” Yeah, that creature is resting all right.
My fable-resistant personality aside, I savored the real-life food in front of me, particularly the “Silken Shawl Imperial Autumn Roll,” which takes a filling of marinated and minced prawn/pork meat and encases it in an exquisitely crunchy rice wrapper that looks as if Jackson Pollock created it. (See picture above.) I asked our server how the chef makes the wrappers, and the guy provided me with a delightfully detailed story. Chef Tran, he said, takes the rice batter in his hands and lets it drip from each finger, as he zigzigs his arms over a hot wok. At precisely the right moment, Tran peels these lacy wrappers from the wok and uses two sheets for each roll.
While the aforementioned Pig and Friends Crepe couldn’t match the autumn roll’s designer quality, its noodles, fresh and soft and delicate, were the perfect contrast to the rock-hard shrimp cake (which had the quality of a fossil, with its empty tail shells cemented right into the maroon block) and the thick slab of pork cake. The simple preparation of grilled pork over vermicelli was even better: Once all the ingredients (carrots, daikon, lettuce, peanuts, scallions, pork, noodles, summer roll, and sprouts) were all mixed together, I dug into what was one of the freshest, most flavorful entree salads I’ve ever tasted.
As good as the food was, the service surpassed it. Present takes a collective approach to wait staffing. Any one of several waiters may sidle up to your table during the course of your meal. They will all know what they’re talking about, and if by chance they don’t, they will actually go and find an answer —- rather than hoping you’ll just blow the inquiry off. One waiter even honored my tablemate’s request for an extra spicy “Gregarious Lemongrass Chicken” dish. The plate came loaded with sauced breast pieces, each laden with those tell-tale red-pepper flakes and more than enough lemongrass (and maybe sugar?) to give that considerable blast of heat a proper sense of balance. My dining partner was practically giddy that Present didn’t treat her like a gringo —- or whatever the slang term would be in Vietnamese.
To top it all over, the check even comes with a helpful tipping guide at the bottom. See picture below.