Customarily, the spot to look for the best (or worst – or just about any) Vietnamese in these corners is in Eden Center, the Da Nang of DC (if you want to be clever, maybe). So it was with a measure of skepticism that I went to Present – though of course when Tyler Cowen digs it (yes, the economics professor – but for ethnic food, good catch) I pay attention. The decor at Present is downright upscale for a Vietnamese place – this is not one of the strip mall holes in the wall, but a pretty elegant space. They even take reservations – though fortunately we did not wait despite not having one.
The service was pretty terrific and very friendly. Our waiter was good as explaining the dishes – and the menu itself has a “recommended” list in the back (although this struck me as funny – does this mean that the rest of the menu is perfunctory)? The recommended list was a little misleading though. I ordered the Green Paradise Spring Roll (shrimp and pork wrapped with rice paper) – frankly a disappointment. Granted, rolls are rolls, but the prawns were badly overcooked and the Vietnamese spring roll when not deep fried begs for some juiciness. The prawns were also badly overcooked in the lotus leaf salad, but the salad itself was delicious besides that. The crab and asparagus soup was very good – smooth flavour.
This all set up the main course, which was a hot pot tour de force. Here they gave us thin cuts of flank steak which cook quickly in the hot pot, and then you make rolls out of them with rice paper etc. The fixings were all there – vermicelli (avoid that), bean sprouts, mint, apple slices, young banana, and pineapple. The pineapple was the crucial step to give the rolls some juiciness that was lacking the appertizer portion. As a show and a fun way to socialize in a restaurant, this is a good deal. It helps that the rolls themselves were quite good. The cooking liquid was not fiery – but had good pineapple based, peanut infused, savory but a little sweet flavor. Usually these mild flavors are not my cup of tea for savory dishes – but that is a systemic quibble … the experience was excellent and the dish was well done.
The price is not the bargain that some ethnic holes in the wall can be. But the price was not unfair either. Overall present is a good solid Vietnamese place, and worth looking at again. Even if I ordered suboptimally for my flavor profile – the merit is clearly there.