Sea Pearl

What compelled Sly Liao and his wife, Ly Lai, to spend $2.5 million to open Sea Pearl—a 240-seat restaurant with mother-of-pearl accents and live jazz on Friday nights—in Falls Church’s Merrifield area, a place whose restaurant scene has been largely defined by the likes of Five Guys?

The couple live there, for one thing—and they say their restaurant is nothing like anything else around.

Its closest competitor is the newly relocated Four Sisters, which is in the same strip of shops as Sea Pearl. That’s also where Ly Lai’s story begins.

Lai calls Four Sisters, long the area’s most popular Vietnamese restaurant, a “complement” to her place. She has to say that: Four Sisters is her family’s restaurant.

The oldest of the four sisters for whom the restaurant is named, Lai is the one who cared for her siblings (three sisters and two brothers) while her parents, Vietnamese immigrants, worked long hours to save money to open the restaurant.

Last year, her parents handed the business off to their children, who moved it to Merrifield. That’s when Lai and her husband broke off to open Sea Pearl.

Was she betraying her family? Just the opposite, says sister Lieu Lai, the second-oldest: “Our parents wanted us to have our own business because they’re business owners. That’s the ultimate goal. Ly and Sly have American contemporary cuisine, and we need that—we don’t have that in the area.”

Sea Pearl serves California cuisine, a school of cooking born in the ’70s that dresses up simple presentations of fresh ingredients with Asian accents. Liao, born in Calcutta to Chinese parents, learned the California way from pioneers Wolfgang Puck and Jonathan Waxman: “They made me comfortable with my heritage,” he says, “and taught me to use it as a strength.”

Liao follows the rough guidelines laid out by his mentors. Most of his fish is very fresh—the Sea Pearl Platter, a $29 appetizer, earns its hefty price tag with fresh, briny oysters, a half lobster, flavorful, warm mussels, and a shrimp cocktail. The Asian influence is strong in many dishes, including an excellent miso-glazed Chilean sea bass with baby bok choy and a cilantro-flecked salad that could have come straight from Four Sisters.

A tuna tartare, however, suffered from a mushy texture and bland accents. And a grilled flatbread with smoked salmon—Liao’s own take on a Puck creation—had predictable garnishes: a dill-horseradish sauce and chives.

When Liao strays from surf into turf, he excels—and stumbles—in much the same way. A plate of beef short ribs was wonderfully tender, but the rest of the plate—root vegetables and potato purée—was just okay. The excellently cooked petit filet of beef featured the same unimaginative potato mash and was lost in its pool of Szechuan-chili sauce.

Sea Pearl’s customers are an all-over-the-map mix: families with small children, elderly couples, twentysomething women in flashy high heels. Perhaps feeling the need to be all things to all of them, the restaurant also serves entrée-size salads and cheeseburgers. The cheeseburger—Black Angus beef and a slice of cheddar on a brioche bun—is good and satisfying and a far better option than Five Guys.

Sea Pearl is gorgeous, ambitious, and out to dazzle. It’s also inconsistent. But it shows great promise.

This appeared in the July, 2009 issue of The Washingtonian.