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August 13, 2009


Silken Shawl Imperial Autumn Rolls Dominic Armato

Has kind of a tiki nightmare vibe to it, huh?

Rest assured, I haven't been downing mai tais and sniffing sterno at Trader Vic's. This isn't Halloween in Polynesia. It's just that at Present, they sometimes get a little... flamboyant.

Golden Gems of the AtlanticDominic Armato

Back in April, an invitation dropped into my inbox that was pretty much impossible to refuse. A crowd of Don Rockwell folks had a blowout Vietnamese extravaganza on the docket, and one (1) chair had opened in last-minute fashion. I was advised that there would be 13 courses. I was advised that it would be prepared by an award-winning chef from Vietnam. And I was advised that if I wanted any shot at it, I'd better respond quickly. I took a look at the website and responded in six minutes. This was a Vietnamese I didn't know. I'm accustomed to pho, goi cuon, chao tom, bun bo hue, banh mi... the simple stuff. But this looked different -- refined, upscale, carefully presented. It was, in other words, vaguely familiar but for the most part completely new to me. And there were thirteen courses of it. Yes, please.

Lobster Swimming in Coconut GroveDominic Armato

This was shorly before Seitsema visited and the DC press started falling over themselves to praise the place, so this dinner was, for my host Joe H, a mission to get the word out. In that sense, given that it's now August, I suppose this means I failed. Today, Present couldn't be less of a secret. Seitsema has raved, the Washingtonian has put it on their 100 best of 2009 (88... of course), and the blogs and boards have been all aflutter. On this particular Thursday night, however, it was dead. From our vantage point in the back of the restaurant, I saw no more than a few tables filled throughout the evening. The scene was, however, easy on the eyes. A large space, clean and modern, pale wood throughout, this is not your typical Vietnamese strip mall joint. Nor is it your typical Vietnamese strip mall staff.

Treasure from the SeaDominic Armato

Over dinner, owner Gene Nguyen told the story of how he essentially badgered his lead chef into moving from Vietnam. An award-winning chef for best restaurant in Vietnam four years running (though I never did quite catch the judging body -- nor, I suppose, would it have meant anything to me if I had), Tran Luong was a hot commodity, and though it took over a year and countless phone calls, Gene finally got his man. Three other chefs -- all of whom are responsible for their own preparations -- share the kitchen, though one of them, if I'm not mistaken, is almost solely responsible for garnish and presentation. This wasn't the Western theory of kitchen staffing, where a lone auteur designs the menu and trains a crack team of underlings to execute his vision with the utmost precision. This was the kind of thing that seems far more common in the East, where it becomes a matter of assembling as much talent under one roof as possible. Point being, Gene wasn't hiring a staff, he was assembling a dream team.

Smoky PetalDominic Armato

What's more, he clearly wasn't going for your typical vibe. For starters, the menu is billed as "Imperial Vietnamese Cuisine", which does a lot to set expectations right there. Second, the menu is filled with the kind of metaphor-laden dish titles that always seem a little corny and awkward when they occasionally appear in a typical Asian restaurant, but are bordering on comedy when they comprise the entire menu. When your choice of dishes is between "Northern Gentleman", "Being Here and Now" or "Calling the Mountain Dewdrops", that's when you start scanning the kitchen to see if you can catch a glimpse of the magnetic poetry kit on the door of the walk-in. And then, of course, there's the restaurant's name, a high-concept double entendre meant to relay Gene's belief that his guests are a present, and also to encourage his guests to savor the moment, living not in the past or the future, but the present. So, to review, pedigreed staff from the mother country, overly poetic dish names at every turn, swanky space, thirteen courses... these fellas were setting expectations rather high. And how did our dinner measure up?

Medallions of the Seven SeasDominic Armato

To be honest, it had me a little off-balance from the start. Maybe it was the fumes from sitting on the freeway for two and a half hours, but the thirteen courses were a truly dizzying procession of dishes that threw a number of unfamiliar elements at me. I've mentioned it before, but sometimes when you have a meal, your mind is sharp, you taste every little detail and you know exactly what works and what doesn't and why. Other times, there's simply too much to process and you're just along for the ride. This meal was definitely one of the latter. As such, we may be a little long on impressions and a little short on detail for this one. Plus, a number of them were off-menu items made especially for us. But hopefully I can give you some sense of what to expect.

Pilgrim on the BeachDominic Armato

Our first dish, Golden Gems of the Atlantic, was a simple, if luxurious, start. Halves of bok choy, large mushrooms and huge slabs of abalone were simply braised in a warm, comforting sauce that felt very Chinese to me. I love abalone, and while I don't think I'd ever had it Stateside before this evening, I didn't come away the least bit disappointed. It was exactly what I've come to adore -- dense and meaty but possessing a hint of that subtle, unmistakable aquatic mollusk funk. There was nothing that wowed in this dish other than the ingredients themselves, which is probably for the best. Up next was the zany tiki totem meets Hellraiser presentation called "Silken Shawl Imperial Autumn Rolls". This was a hit and miss dish at the same time. While the unorthodox wrapper -- a light and crispy lattice of fried rice noodles -- was exceptional from a textural standpoint, that was pretty much the dish. The filling, comprised of shrimp and pork, was largely unremarkable. The most frustrating thing about the dish, really, was resisting the urge to turn off the lights and pop in some disco.

Shrimp in the Fresh OceanDominic Armato

"Lobster Swimming in Coconut Grove" was up next, and it would have been something of a revelation to me if not for the fact that I'd prepared a very similar sauce for the first time just a few weeks prior. It's done -- I believe -- by frying up a seasoning paste, adding coconut milk and cooking it way down until it gets extremely thick and creamy and takes on a bit of an almost caramel-like flavor. Though this particular dish was an off-menu special, if they do a similar sauce on anything else, I recommend it. Downside? The lobster arrived somewhat cold. Not their last such problem of the evening. Though, in their defense, they were throwing a number of unusual dishes at us that evening

Fish in Emerald RiverDominic Armato

"Treasure from the Sea" was a fairly typical Vietnamese salad, atypically good, made with slivered pineapple, carrot, onion, lemongrass, peanuts, thin slices of squid and large poached shrimp. It was nicely balanced, very enjoyable, but the shrimp puzzled me, looking pretty perched on the edge of the pineapple, pale white and tied into little knots, and not dressed or integrated into the dish in any way. It would be the first time I thought the food took a bit of a backseat to the presentation. No such issues with "Smoky Petal", which was in the running for my favorite of the evening, if for no other reason than because it was completely foreign to me. An enormous puffed rice bowl -- think taco salad shell -- was filled with a warm salad of minced baby clams and ground beef, seasoned and tossed with peanuts and plentiful herbs I couldn't begin to identify. Though I lack the frame of reference to fully describe what I was eating, it was fragrant, a little funky, very much unlike anything I'd tasted before and I really, really enjoyed it. Long after the rest of the table had moved on, I parked it in front of myself and cleaned up.

Basking in the Summer SunDominic Armato

"Medallions of the Seven Seas", at least the one of them I received, was a lovely, understated little bite. It was a perfect silver dollar-sized scallop, lightly charred on the edges, tender and sweet in the center, with peanut and scallion and a lightly salty sweet sauce that served simply to bring out the seafood. I could've torn through two dozen of these without breaking a sweat. "Pilgrim on the Beach" saw the return of the oddly aloof poached shrimp, this time sitting atop a fried rice with lump crabmeat. My initial impression was, okay, fried rice. That's all fine and good. But this was unusually compelling. Most fried rice -- at least in my experience -- is made with chilled rice that's reheated in the wok as it's cooked, serving to help separate the grains and make them easier to stir-fry without turning them to mush. This fried rice, as Gene explained when I commented on the incredibly light and fluffy nature, was made with steaming hot jasmine rice, and the fact that it had never cooled allowed it to maintain that feathery texture. It was a surprising dish, beautifully executed.

Imperial Delicacy TreasureDominic Armato

From there, we moved onto the fried seafood portion of the evening which, sadly, came up short. "Shrimp in the Fresh Ocean" were flavored salt and pepper fried shrimp atop chunks of pineapple and under a pile of fried shallots. The flavor on the shrimp was fine if unexceptional, but the shrimp shells weren't nearly as crisp as they should have been, leading many of my dining companions to peel when they should've just been popping the whole thing. "Fish in Emerald River", an enormous whole fried Rockfish, was a big disappointment. It was overfried, tough and heavy, and I'm not convinced that Rockfish is a good choice for this preparation at all. I adore whole fried fish, and I know others have spoken highly of this dish, so perhaps it was an off night. But it was definitely off.

Golden Tropical Orchard Winter RollDominic Armato

"Basking in the Summer Sun" was another of the evening's weak links, though it was not without drama. When the serving container arrives slathered in sterno, it's best to take cover. Once the smoke had subsided, however, we removed the beef in "chef's special sauce", rolled it in typical Vietnamese style with vermicelli, fresh herbs and vegetables in lettuce leaves and rice wrappers, and dipped it before consuming. The beef was fine, a sort of dark caramel flavor, but a little cloying and a little muddy. The star, in truth, was the dipping sauce. I couldn't begin to identify what was in it (well, okay... fish sauce... go!), but it was exploding with all kind of flavors, fresh herbs and aromatics in a sweet, salty and sour base. Too bad it wasn't served with a different dish. The "Imperial Delicacy Treasure", the last savory item of the evening and another off-menu special, was simultaneously one of the simplest of the evening and probably my favorite. It arrived, a whole duck with a deep bronze color, submerged in a huge tureen of dark duck jus, scented with a mix of aromatics that put bright highlights on the duck's sweet, mellow scent. We each received a small bowl of the jus and chunks of fall-apart tender duck. It was really, truly wonderful. It was the kind of dish you could spend ten minutes just breathing in before you even bring a spoon to it. And it was one of the least ostentatious of the evening.

Banana Fritter with Coconut CreamDominic Armato

Dessert was one of the rare ones that I've found compelling. The first, "Golden Tropical Orchard Winter Roll", was one of those "Oh, wow" bites. A hot, crisply fried wrapper that encircled a frozen and exceptionally sweet filling, like a tropical ice cream with chunks of exotic fruit. The temperature and textural contrast was an absolute showstopper, and that they managed to somehow maintain that perfect balance in one package was an impressive technical feat, to say the least. Our last dish, though not nearly as showy as is predecessor, combined a simple banana fritter with a sweet coconut cream. I've had this and similar many times before, but rarely executed as well.

Cucumber CarvingDominic Armato

Reading back, I think I've given a slightly more positive impression than I had. I did, indeed, have some really wonderful dishes. I'm not sure I found any of them transformative, and it said something to me that the simplest of them all was the best of the night. But these folks are bringing an angle to Vietnamese that I've certainly never come across (though that's undoubtedly a function of my lack of experience). Gene is trying to do something really special with Present, and that was simultaneously the meal's greatest strength and its greatest weakness. At times, it made for some rather inspired dishes. At others, it seemed like a lot of superfluous window dressing that at best (cute carvings like the lobster to the right) did nothing for the food and at worst (the uninvolved shrimp) actually distracted from it. I'm not sure they really need a chef who spends so much time carving. I'd rather the lobster come out hot and the fish not be leathery in places. But you have to appreciate the moxie, and when it works it really works. It's hard to get a handle on what a regular meal here would be like, since ours involved so many off-menu items and such careful attention was paid to our table. But these are passionate, friendly people and it's clear they can do some truly excellent things. I suppose this write up may have been more meaningful four months ago when the place had barely been covered, but hopefully it drives home the idea that Gene is stretching and trying to achieve great things. If this dinner was any reflection, he doesn't always succeed. But the successes make me very glad he's trying.

6678 Arlington Boulevard
Falls Church, VA 22042
Mon - Thu11:00 AM - 3:00 PM5:00 PM - 10:00 PM
Fri - Sat 11:00 AM - 11:00 PM
Sun 11:00 AM - 10:00 PM


Wow! If there's anything I love more than your character in the Monkey Island series, it's finding out about your foodblog! Great job!!

As usual, a great write up Dom! I drove right by there yesterday. If not for that fact that I was on my way to a party where lots and lots of roast baby pig was about to be served, some of that Smokey Petal would have been a real treat.

More pictures of the dinner: http://share.shutterfly.com/share/received/album.sfly?sid=9AcM3Ddo0cMiW&startIndex=0&fid=3bc607c05e3b7cb5

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