FOOD: Heard All the Hype over Present Restaurant? It’s True!

jimmy-thumb(Page 1 photo: Owner Gene Nguyen.  Photos by Jimmy Scarano) 

Few restaurants in the area have received as much buzz in the last year as Present, a sleek Vietnamese spot tucked away in an unassuming strip mall off Route 50 just west of Annandale Road. (Click here for map.)

What began as glowing reviews from bloggers and chatters all over the local message boards grew into a spot on both the Washingtonian’s Best Restaurants list and its Best Bargains list (a rare feat). Then in late May the Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema dished out high praise with a three star review.

Well, now it’s my turn.

With so much already being said I was tempted to keep it short and sweet, but that just wouldn’t do it justice. Present is a destination restaurant deserving of all the attention it’s gotten — perhaps more.

The service is on par with a fine dining establishment, yet there is also a casual, easy- going vibe that the wait staff exudes so that you never feel like you’re being uncomfortably pampered. And the atmosphere is cool and clean, complete with a bubbling waterfall and tastefully decorated walls.

But what really lingers on the mind after a meal at Present isn’t the smiling waiters or the décor. It’s the food. Few kitchens are capable of putting out such memorable and original dishes.   

Chief among these are the much hyped Silken Shawl Imperial Autumn Rolls. Fans of the typical Vietnamese spring rolls will barely recognize these delicate fried cigars of pork and shrimp wrapped in thin sheets of a hand-woven rice flour batter. They are shatteringly crisp and perfect rolled up with the accompanying mint, lettuce, pickled vegetables, and nuoc cham. Get them.    

Texture and contrast also play a key role in the other-worldly green papaya salad, which combines thin strips of the unripe fruit with beef jerky, beef liver jerky (trust me, it’s good), crushed roasted peanuts, and Thai basil. Chewy, crunchy, and nutty, the salad is made even more complex when tossed with the accompanying soy, vinegar, and chili based sauce. Throw in some of the crispy shrimp chips it comes with and I can just about guarantee that you’ve never had a salad like this in your life.

Even simple, more common Vietnamese dishes are given special attention here. The ubiquitous stir fry of chicken with lemongrass and chilies, so often cloyingly sweet and bland, is fiery and fragrant with copious amounts of fresh lemongrass. It’s the best version of the dish I’ve ever had.

One thing you can be sure of is that whatever dish you order, it’s going to look fantastic. Artful presentation is a huge part of the Imperial-style cuisine that head chef Luong Tran brought with him from Vietnam. A minced clam appetizer comes out in a gargantuan edible sesame rice cracker bowl meant to mimic a shell. And the refreshing seafood salad with fine-diced pineapple, calamari, carrots, red onions, and plump shrimp arrives in a hollowed out pineapple.


Justifiably famous Silken Shawl Imperial Autumn Rolls. . .

The artistry on the plate goes hand in hand with the whimsically written menu, in which each item is given a creative name. A knock-out rendition of the Vietnamese classic shaken beef is called “Cow on the Open Field.” “Mosaic Pathway” is an elegant stir fry of cellophane noodles, veggies and jumbo lump crab meat. Reading a menu has never been so much fun.

But the playfulness of the plating and the flowery descriptions of the food can’t hide the precision and technique that goes into every dish. The cooking at Present is carefully composed and constructed with a level of care seldom seen in a place where you can eat for less than 20 bucks a head. This is the sort of restaurant you want to go to with a big group of adventurous eaters so you can get a bite of all of the different textures and flavors the kitchen can coax out of so many unique and exciting ingredients. It’s an experience as well as a meal.

And that’s exactly the aim of owner Gene Nguyen.

I had a conversation with him and General Manager Austin Pham last week and they both talked about changing the perceptions of Vietnamese cuisine with their restaurant. They want to show people that authentic Vietnamese food is worthy of a refined setting with excellent service.

“I want to bring Vietnamese food to a higher level,” Nguyen said.

He’s doing it by recruiting masterful chefs like Tran (as well as talent from as far as California and the Caribbean) and maintaining a professional wait staff that knows the menu backwards and forwards.

The entire staff, Nguyen and Pham included, routinely tests out the menu items to make sure they are consistently good.

“If I don’t like something I take it off,” said Nguyen, who takes pride in personally picking out much of the produce, meat, and seafood used for the restaurant.

Something tells me that occasion is rare. Chef Tran’s attention to detail is staggering. He uses seven types of fish sauce in the kitchen and even imports some from Vietnam that take as long as 45 days to get to the U.S.. And his sauces and garnishes are so complex that even Nguyen doesn’t know the process behind making them all. I asked him how the beef liver jerky in the green papaya salad was prepared and he just shrugged his shoulders.

“The chef has so many secrets,” he said.

And to think, Present could have ended up somewhere else. Nguyen said he had many suitors in the D.C. area — and even one in Charleston, South Carolina (gasp!) — when he was looking for a location for his restaurant.

Now that it’s found a home, Pham, who usually greets people at the door and has chatted with many a happy customer, said people are coming from Baltimore and beyond to get a taste.

But all we Falls Churchians have to do is venture half a mile outside the City and we’re at the doorstep. How lucky are we.

July 10, 2009 


5 Responses to “FOOD: Heard All the Hype over Present Restaurant? It’s True!”

  1. Mary on July 10th, 2009 8:10 pm

    I love the reporting in this piece. How cool that the reporter took the time to find out how the chef operates. I love the details about the sauces! Thanks for the inside scoop on a great new place!

  2. Jim Breiling on July 10th, 2009 9:54 pm

    Owner Gene Nguyen has a fascinating life story, including escaping from Viet Cong ruled South Vietnam on the 2nd try, his perception of how wonderous LA would be like after experiencing the modern buildings and good order of Singapore, his 20 some years of restauranting, and how stress led him to a Zen master and through the master to mindfulness and to the restaurant name, Present.

  3. Laurel on July 11th, 2009 4:27 pm

    I would also like to praise these new food reviews. So great to know where the hidden gems are in our little city! I’m definitely going to check out Present very soon.

    I’d like to make one suggestion for future articles: Please include the restaurant’s address, and maybe even a link to its location on Google Maps. That way, those of us who aren’t good at finding places “off Route 50 just west of Annandale Road” won’t be a hazard to others as we drive around trying to find a good meal.


  4. George Southern on July 11th, 2009 4:45 pm

    Laurel — Thanks for reminding us of this capability! We have done it in the past but somehow forgot more recently. You’ll note the first paragraph now has a map link. And clicking on the map link provides a link to the restaurant web site itself, as well. We’ll try to remember to provide this in all future reviews. Thanks again for the suggestion.

  5. vlfrance on July 13th, 2009 1:04 pm

    I was excited to hear about Present, being a fan of Vietnamese food. I’ve been a couple of times and have really enjoyed it and it’s a slightly more upscale effort than Four Sisters which moved from Eden Center to Merrifield. It’s surprisingly nice inside (and the outdoor area isn’t bad either) for the location. The food is good and the presentation impressive. I’ll continue to dine there. If you don’t go have a reservation, go early so you don’t have to wait in line. Even our City of Falls Church’s finest in uniform had to wait in line the last time I was there!

    If you don’t want to go to the map, it’s in the small strip mall on the corner of Annandale and 50 where the Baskin Robbins is and Chilis was…

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