Wed 30 Mar 2011
We’ve owned the fact that we’re pretty green when it comes to Vietnamese cuisine. Sure, we can pho with the best of them, and we’re no slouches when it comes to enjoying banh mi, but sit-down Vietnamese is still something we’re learning as we go. If a recent visit to Present is any indication, this is going to be a delicious education.
Present had been on our radar for quite some time in light of Tom Sietsema and Tim Carman’s glowing reviews, but somehow it never quite broke through from our “some day” list to attain “gotta try it” status. Credit those group-buying sites for once again prompting us to shuffle our dining priorities: were it not for that discount we probably still wouldn’t have visited. It also allowed us to try more dishes than we otherwise might have, another big win.
When we arrived at Present, I made a mental note to give A LOT of credit to the reviewers who tracked down this hidden gem. A nondescript storefront in one of the countless strip malls that line Arlington Boulevard, Present doesn’t exactly shout “culinary destination.” Even so, we walked through the front door ready for a good meal.
A lot has been written about the beautiful, descriptive dish names, but we were soon in over our heads. Should we try the Smokey Petal, the Pilgrim on the Beach, or the Gregarious Lemongrass Chicken? We wanted a meal that represented some of the best of what Present had to order, so we turned to the expert: we asked our server.
Her recommendations and the feast that followed after the jump.
We knew we couldn’t just ask “What’s good?” and expect our server to magically guide us to the perfect meal. You know how frustrating that kind of vague question can be; more often than not, it leads to an equally unhelpful answer (“Everything!”) or a drawn-out series of leading questions. So we explained that we were looking for two lighter appetizers and two more substantial entrees. We wanted to try one pork dish and one with more of an emphasis on seafood, and we were open to more adventurous flavors (though our server’s smile suggested previous diners had made similar claims that had proven false).
She suggested we start with one roll and one salad, and she specifically pointed to the Jewel-Green Papaya Salad as a worthy option. The dish combined the sweetness of the finely chopped fruit with a tangy, salty dressing. But there was a deeper element, something decidedly “funky.” It was the jerky atop the salad, which Present makes from beef liver. It grounded the dish in an unexpected way that had us both smiling. Our Green Paradise Spring Roll was exactly what we expected from countless other versions, though it was clear that these ingredients were all of above-average quality.
For our pork entree, we were encouraged to try the Warm Heart Piglet. This is one of several “clay pot” dishes that highlights the Vietnamese approach to low-and-slow cooking. The sauce is reduced until sweet and sticky, coating the pork slices and binding the accompanying scallions and vegetables so that each forkful offers a variety of textures. The sauce was a bit heavy for our taste, but it lived up to its menu description and the pork was undeniably tender.
The second dish was a bit more of a stretch, and perhaps the best example of the kitchen’s familiarity with dishes that rarely appear on local Vietnamese restaurants’ menus. Our server suggested we check out the Rich Folks Golden Crepes, a crackling-crisp pancake wrapped around a filling of shrimp, pork, sprouts, and onions. We were told it was a “Saigon-style” dish that the chef was especially proud of. Although it was a bit unwieldy to manipulate the crepe sections without losing sprouts and other fillings, we found it delicious and delicate. The bite of the fish sauce that came with it woke things up nicely, and we both found ourselves impressed by the fact that the fried crepe managed to avoid feeling oily or otherwise heavy. Even our leftovers the following day felt light and fresh.
Overall, our impression was one of fine-tuned technique and big, bold tastes. The decor, the demeanor of the waiters and the overall attention to detail sent a clear message: Present aspires to represent high-end Vietnamese in a way that many of its competitors don’t. Color us impressed.
But how did we do? Was our meal a good tour of the flavors and textures that characterize sit-down Vietnamese cuisine? Where should we go next, considering how many good and not-so-good Vietnamese restaurants there are in the Washington area…and what should we be sure to order when we’re there?