When it first opened, Present was terribly overrated by the major publications in this town. It was never great to begin with, and after several weeks (perhaps several months), each of my visits seemed to get a little more gloppy.
I hadn’t been in a long time for two reasons: there are other fishes to fry, other dishes to try, and I don’t like Present’s use of MSG in their cooking (they will leave it out upon request, however).
On a Sunday night, I went in with fairly low expectations, that fell even lower when I entered the restaurant and saw almost no Vietnamese-Americans. I opened the wine list, and there was a Torrontes by the glass ($7), of all things.
But you know what? This Torrontes – which may have been Chilean – is exactly what you should be ordering here. It’s a big glass for seven dollars, was varietally true, and had both ample body and supporting acidity – try this wine, whatever it is, and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. I was less risky and got a 33 Beer ($4.50), and when I finished it, I also ordered a Torrontes for myself.
Present has funny, somewhat silly, English names for its dishes in order to cater to it’s Angloglot clientele. For appetizers, we started with an order of #2, Blue Paradise Seafood Summer Rolls ($3.95, Chả Giò Tôm Cua), shrimp, mixed pork, and crabmeat rolled in a thin rice wrapper and fried; and also #3, Silken Shawl Imperial Autumn Rolls ($3.95, Chả Giò Rế), hand-made rice thread wrapper, filled with marinated mixed prawn and minced pork, and deep fried until crispy. As they have been in the past, the Autumn Rolls were the better of the two, although they weren’t quite at the high level that I’ve experienced (this is one dish here that I’ve always loved).
The entrees, however, were both good enough to stun me into coalescence. #37, Hard-Working Piglet ($11.95, Sườn Heo Ram Mắn) is a fairly standard dish: caramelized pork ribs cooked in a clay pot, and was notable for a couple things: there was an actual clay pot – burning hot to the touch – which kept everything warm for the duration of the meal, and the little riblets were wonderful, both fibrously chewy and also falling off the bone.
There were Rockfish specials of several varieties offered on this evening, including two whole-fish dishes (priced at $40 (!) and $50 (!!) depending on size); we went instead with a Rockfish Filet ($26.95), and thought we’d be penalized for being cheap. Not the case! This was a huge filet of fish, flopping across an entire oval plate that was probably ten inches in length, thick-cut, served skin-on, and bathing in a sweet-ish soy-based sauce. It was outstanding, and tasted as fresh as could be. Maybe these whole-fish specials weren’t so expensive after all.
A great night for Present which also served as an attitude adjustment for me. I really thought I wasn’t going to like the food going into this meal, but I was proven wrong.