When chef Luong Tran arrived from Vietnam this year to cook at Present (6678 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church; 703-531-1881), he asked owner Gene Nguyen two things.
The first was to see how Americans eat. Nguyen, the owner of Pho Hot, a popular soup shop in Annandale and Centreville, obliged him. He treated his new hire to meals not only at Huong Viet and Four Sisters—pillars of the local Vietnamese food scene—but also at such top restaurants as 2941 and Citronelle.
The next question came as Nguyen was outfitting the serene dining room with oak lattices and a trickling waterfall. Why, Tran asked, did they need a freezer? The kitchen was promptly overhauled.
Tran, who built a reputation in kitchens from Saigon to Hue to Hanoi, is as demanding of himself as he is of others. It’s one thing to favor fresh lemongrass over frozen stalks and insist on soup bases made from bones instead of bouillon cubes; it’s another to stop each plate that’s ready to exit your kitchen so you can carve—to order—a blossoming-rose garnish from a radish or carrot.
Perhaps the best example of Tran’s perfectionism is the Silken Shawl Imperial Autumn Roll ($3.95). Spring rolls are as common on Vietnamese menus as French fries at American fast-food joints. They also tend to be oily. Tran takes care of the problem by sheathing a filling of minced pork and prawns with not one but two wrappers, both house-made. The first is the standard rice paper. That’s encased in a lacy web made from rice-flour batter Tran has painstakingly woven through his fingers. When the rolls emerge from the fryer, their skins are so greaseless and delicate that they nearly shatter to the touch.
Equally impressive are his soups, which have an earthy richness. Cubes of silken tofu, long-cut chives, and minced pork bob in a generous bowl of pork broth ($10.95) sweetened with rock sugar; some bits of meat are so flavorful that they call to mind cracklings. A shareable appetizer salad called Treasures From the Sea ($14.25) is a generous array of calamari and plump shrimp served in a halved pineapple. The fruit’s julienned meat is tossed in with the seafood, and its sparklingly sweet juice flavors the dressing.
Those big, high-quality shrimp also turn up in two terrific entrées, both large enough to share. Fried rice takes an elegant turn with fresh prawns and hunks of sweet lump crab ($11.95). Shell-on shrimp ($18.95), perched on yet another halved pineapple, get an airy salt-and-pepper coating, a side of grilled pineapple, and a shower of frizzled garlic and onions. I like the added crackle of the shells, but if you don’t want to munch on them, a subtle slit lets you slip them off.
When the kitchen falters, it tends to be with dishes that lean toward the cuisine’s Chinese influence. A stir-fry of rubbery squid ($10.95) isn’t helped by a gluey, garlicky hot-and-sour sauce; the tamarind glaze on hacked, bone-in pieces of duck ($13.95) has a candylike sweetness; and seafood-filled egg rolls ($3.95) are unpleasantly fishy.
To drink, there’s everything from Vietnamese “33” beer to milky iced coffee to orange juice. No surprise—the juice is freshly squeezed.
This review appeared in the December, 2008 issue of The Washingtonian.