Cool Waters Sea Pearl tries ambitious cuisine in tough times.

Eat, Drink, and Make Merrifield: Liao and Lai bring zing to the nascent burb.
Darrow Montgomery

No matter how hard I tried to tamp it down, one thought leapt immediately to mind when I walked into Sea Pearl and saw the ocean of empty seats: This place is not going to make it. Not in this economy. Not at this location. Not with Four Sisters right around the corner to suck in Merrifield diners looking for a decent, non-chain meal.

The reason that thought bothered me is because I have history with one of Sea Pearl’s owners. In 2006, while reporting a story on Lo-Ann Lai and her struggle to separate from her parents’ popular restaurant in the Eden Center (“Exit From Eden,” 8/25/06), I spent a fair amount of time with the Lai family, including the famous quartet behind Huong Que/Four Sisters. They told me a lot of things about themselves and the sacrifices they made to become the first family of Vietnamese cooking. I ultimately wrote some things that they didn’t like, but here’s something I didn’t include in the piece: I grew to respect the hell out of the Lais.

Sea Pearl is co-owned by Ly Lai, the oldest of the four sisters, and her husband, Sly Liao, who’s also the chef. Ly Lai arguably had the toughest assignment as a child; she had to take care of her siblings while her parents worked two jobs to provide for their children and save enough cash to launch their own business; then she gave up a career as a hair stylist to work in the family business, last managing Song Que before launching her own place in October. How can you not root for someone like that?

This is a subject food writers and critics don’t like talking about. When you do this job long enough, you develop relationships with the people you cover. You can’t avoid it: Most are not friendships, but they’re business relationships based on interviews, meals, and the occasional off-color joke. I mean, it’s not like I party with Lai and Liao on the weekends. But Lai still recognized me whenever I walked into Sea Pearl, and she even tried, in a sign of Vietnamese hospitality, to comp some of my meals, which I rejected every time.

And now I’m about to review her place. Consider yourself warned.

As I alluded to earlier, Sea Pearl is a practically continental in size, with room for 240 diners when at full capacity. For such a cavernous spot, the place has a tranquil air. Credit the cool aqua colors, the walls carved to resemble ocean waves, and the Miles/Brubeck soundtrack set on endless loop. The space is broken up with what looks like a massive blue support beam that’s surrounded on all sides with long strands of thin, translucent, shaved mother-of-pearl shells. It gives the impression of a waterfall in the middle of the dining room. It’s best to focus on these interior details since the view out the windows is of a Texaco station.

True to its oceanic theme, Sea Pearl does its best work with seafood. During my three visits, I ordered a small school of fish entrees, including the sea bass, salmon, and Alaskan cod. Each had something to recommend it, but to my surprise, my favorite was the sea bass, the one in which Liao’s preparation did the most to conceal the mild flavors of the fish. Funny, I had never thought of myself as an ingredient hatchet man. The buttery sea bass was coated in a miso glaze, which would have been too sweet had it not been for Liao’s delicate application of thinly sliced jalapeños on top of the fillet. When paired with a forkful of the accompanying jasmine rice, the fish was a sensual pleasure, soft and moist on the tongue, as its sweet-heat flavors started worming their way onto my palate.

The salmon was, by contrast, a study in simplicity. The thin strip of pink salmon, with nary a nasty dry spot, was dusted with freshly cracked black pepper and drizzled with a light application of butter-curry sauce, its heat muted to better compliment the fatty fish. The luxurious cod was the weakest of the three, but only because I couldn’t taste any of the sour citrus in the yuzu-butter sauce, an inexplicably MIA note in an otherwise agreeable dish.

Perhaps you notice a trend here? Like many contemporary chefs, Liao weaves Asian flavors, and sometimes the occasional Asian dish, such as his tasty-but-greasy spring roll, into his New American menu. Unlike a lot of these fusion-minded toques, though, Liao has a birthright to the flavors. He was born in India to Chinese parents. Still, he didn’t embrace his past until he worked with Jonathan Waxman, the pioneer of California cuisine. For three years, Waxman was the corporate executive chef for the publicly traded ARK Restaurant group, which also employed Liao to oversee the kitchen of its D.C. properties, including Sequoia and America.

During a phone interview, Liao says Waxman convinced him “to be more comfortable with my heritage and to take advantage of it, because that’s what they’ve been doing in California.”

Asian accents can be found up and down Liao’s menu, from his pretty-but-too-pungent tower of tuna tartar topped with wakame seaweed and pickled ginger to his Szechwan peppercorn-encrusted petite filet. I ordered the latter primarily for one reason: I wanted to see how it compared to the Szechwan “au poivre” filet at the Source by Wolfgang Puck, who also influenced Liao’s cooking. While Liao’s kitchen overcooked the tougher shoulder cut, more medium than medium-rare, his sauce proved to be more forceful, more complex, than his former mentor’s. Be forewarned: The numbing heat of the peppercorns lays in wait behind the initial sweetness of the sauce.

But Liao and Lai no doubt wish they had Puck’s resources to throw into other parts of their operation. The dessert menu, for starters. Liao serves as his own pastry chef, and his finishing courses are passable but not exciting, even his tempting brûlée banana split, which would have benefited, I think, from a strawberry puree or something to help brighten the treat. Their wait staff could also use more training on points of service so that the servers don’t ask if we want wine right after we’ve ordered martinis. But most of all, they could use Puck’s marketing clout to help fill their space.

When I spoke to Liao about the long-term prospects of Sea Pearl, he was genuinely optimistic, despite sinking $2.5 million into the build-out of his restaurant during a down economy. He expects Merrifield Town Center will be developed into something resembling the Reston Town Center. I just hope Sea Pearl can survive until then.

Sea Pearl, 8191 Strawberry Lane, Suite 2, Falls Church, (703) 372-5161.

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 221.

Our Readers Say

I am quite disappointed in this article. There are a few points that I definitely don't agree with. First off, the opening paragraph is quiet harsh, not to mention uncalled for. This is a new restaurant. I doubt that any new restaurant would have hordes of people in it, especially in January.

Secondly, as for the Four Sisters being around the corner, I don't feel that has any relevance. Four Sisters is asian food whereas Sea Pearl is more seafood. Both restaurants have a different clientele base.

I don't think you're giving them a fair chance. (And who couldn't use Wolfgang Puck's marketing clout?)
Your first paragraph was enough to stop any one from reading further on. You gave a blow to a young business in troubled economic times. As a reader I believe your first responsibility as a restaurant reviewer should be about the food (which you mainly praised later on in the review) and then the atmosphere. Sea Pearl was conceived in a time when there was a promise of a cosmopolitan redevelopment in Merrifield and was on a fast track to become a highly populated shopping and entertainment area. The owners had vision (like the rest of us) of a robust future. It hasn't turned out that way for many business owners. I have been to Sea Pearl many times and have greatly enjoyed every meal I have had there. I think the food has a sophistication that you rarely find anywhere outside of Tysons Corner in northern Virginia. Restaurants of any level of imagination are missing from this growing community. In your review you have also neglected to talk about the other half of Sea Pearl which is a bar and lounge with a lively later night crowd. There is no place like this in the area that you can go to and meet with friends, have a few drinks and some food. People during a stressful time need a place to go to and get together in a community that is sparkling with life. Sea Pearl offers that along with a great restaurant. It has a lot to offer the community and I pray for their success. So stick to what you are suppose to review and not start off the article with some "doom and gloom" that has nothing to do with the quality and what they offer which is good food, a great atmosphere and a wonderful host in Liao and Lai . Which in my opinion is a lot.
the impression I've had after many visits is a unique atmosphere,unique and very tasty food,and very friendly staff.Yes, there were some empty seats,but so what - they are new! As for the Texaco station -dumb and needless comment! Across from the Willard,homeless people!!! from the Inn at Little Washington,a broken down pickup truck!!! from the nicest restaurants all over town and beyond,dirty construction sites!! no parking!! loud,stinky buses!! Back to Sea Pearl - good food, fun place!
yeah, food critic, make sure you NEVER talk about anything except exactly what is on your plate.

NEVER consider food/restaurants in larger context, NEVER speculate on the human beings behind the food who are dealing with difficult economic times.

NEVER mention that you have fears for a place that -- your review makes clear -- you think deserves to survive based on the quality of its food and the people who run it.

write boring, boring, boring reviews that say only nice, nice, nice things. that's what being a critic is all about!

make sure NEVER to write a complex review because there are plenty of readers out there who will read to the first graf, get pissy, and fail to notice that they're getting pissed off about a very positive review that gives plenty of credit to the owenrs and chef.

thanks!

- your illiterate local reader who can't handle two thoughts at the same time

p.s. I've been to Sea Pearl several times now. The food is really good. The owners are really nice. And the place is really empty. Why there's anything wrong with noting that in a review, I cannot for the life of me imagine.
We have eaten at Sea Pearl at least eight times, by ourselves, with friends, and in a group, and each time our meals were excellent, and the service was good. The restaurant has a sophisticated ambience with a great bar and Happy Hour.

A friend who knew we enjoyed Sea Pearl happened to see Tim Carman's review in the Washington City Paper, and was disturbed by it because it contradicted what we had said about it.

Quite honestly, I thought the review was cruel and unnecessary. These are tough financial times for us all. A fine dinner at a fair price is what Sea Pearl delivers. It also provides jobs for a lot of people.

Why try to ruin a new restaurant with an unfair review?

City Paper is free, which must mean that it is entirely supported by its advertisers. It makes me wonder if Sea Pearl would have gotten a better review if it had slipped Tim Carman a large tip, or had agreed to buy ads in the paper.

Don't pay attention to Carman's review. If you do, you'll be missing out on a good thing. Go, eat at Sea Pearl yourself.
I would have to agree with everyone else's comments so far. This is by far one of the worst reviews I have ever read! Hopefully people will read what US the "real people" have to say rather than what Carman wrote. Im curious as to what day he based his review? The first week of January? On a Monday night? And do you notice he spends half the article not even talking about Sea Pearl? It seems as though he rushed to write this review and wrote down whatever bogus thought came to his mind! I was there 2 Saturdays ago and it was PACKED! We even had to wait 5 minutes, which was well worth it!

Anyways.. as far as my experiences with Sea Pearl... SUPER! First of all.. its about time that we get a beautiful, new, trendy, modern restaurant in our area! Its so beautiful, please go check it out for yourself! And the food? The chef has impressed me every time that I have gone there! I had to meet him the last time we went in, and he actually came out to talk to our table! Such a nice guy!
If I could tell you 3 dishes off the top of my head.. start with the mussels! I brought my mother in JUST for those mussels, and she ended up ordering 2 just for herself! Has a little kick to it.. which I love! Dont be shy to ask for extra bread to soak up all that yummy sauce, its a must! I would have to say the Sea Bass is out of this world! I order sea bass wherever I eat and this one is definitely one of my faves. The Tilapia is amazing too! It has this Moroccan-like spice that I cant put my finger on.. its just WOW! And as far as the dessert... despite what Tim Carmen said about the banana brulee.. its actually the best dang dessert Ive ever had. Maybe his nose was congested and couldnt get a good taste.. but Ive ordered it 2 out of the 5 times Ive been there, its it is perfect! The banana, the ice cream...perfect! The chocolate pudding cake is so warm and yummy... and they have yummy sorbet there too that I had the one time I wanted something sweet and didnt want something too big.
I brought a few coworkers in last Thursday for happy hour. And I was so excited to see that the bar had a fantastic selection of happy hour munchies for only 5 bucks each!!! Im talking about sushi rolls, an out-of-this-world flat bread... chicken wings... My coworkers loved it so much that I think we may make a weekly tradition every Thursday!
Everyone I have brought there has loved it and 2 of the couples have returned there without me! I love Sea Pearl, I love the food! THANK YOU Liao and Lai! I think your restaurant is going to kick butt! Anyone that knows the Merrifield area knows that your just there ahead of the game.. everything else will catch up to you and Sea Pearl will be the King of the block!

I would have to say the only bad experience I have had is.... READING TIM CARMANS REVIEW!
Sea Pearl is one of the (relatively) few restaurants listed in Arlington that is participating in Restaurant Week but I had never heard about it. I also had not read any reviews yet before deciding to visit solely by looking at the pictures on their website. Despite this, I have to disagree with the comments about Mr. Carman's review, which I really liked. Although a restaurant critic is directed to talk about the food, there are obviously so many secondary attributes that will help or hinder a place and contribute to it either becoming a permanent contribution to its community or not. Mr. Carman's overall favorable critique of the food ensures that I want to try this place but more importantly, his concern about its lack of patrons and his history with one of the owners made me realize how a restaurant is as much about its ability to make an enduring connection to us as it is about the food. Ambiance, location, hard-working and committed owners, etc., are the very things that can make me want to support a place even if everything is not perfect every time, and particularly in tough economic times. In my mind, I can overlook a sub-stellar banana dessert if I have some reason to keep coming back. There are just too many "good food" restaurants in the DC region so there has to be something "human", unpretentious, and different about a place for me to return over and over again. I hope Sea Pearl is all that....
Nice, but...
Okay in the restaurants defense, the order changed a signifcant number of times and many things were last minute. But ultimately, I was charged for 3 meals that weren't served. I told the owner when she went over the bill, that I would pay her, but would review the bill in detail when I got home because I wasn't sure about the numbers. In short 21 people ate, we were charged for 24... I called her 30 minutes after leaving the restaurant just like I said I would. She denies everything... The food was good. The service was decent. One particular server was awful. She didn't want to provide the party with a pitcher of water... The hors d'oeuvre hour had two other parties hanging out while my party was gathering... Overall a decent experience except for the $150 over charge! Hummm... Probably won't go there again with a large party... Really don't think they handle complex groups. They wanted me to keep track of the orders... Would have been better if they had just refunded the money... I would use them again. There are too many restaurants in DMV to take a party.

Leave a Comment

Note: HTML tags are not allowed in comments.
Comments Shown. Turn Comments Off.
...