Restaurant Review: Sea Pearl

Sea Pearl is a gem waiting to be discovered.

Ever since the opening of Sea Pearl in the fall of 2008, owners Sly and Ly Liao have been waiting for the crowds they hope will frequent their ambitious, 240-seat restaurant and lounge in the Merrifield Town Center in Falls Church. But business has been slow.

Considering all that they offer, that’s a shame. Chef Sly’s modern American and globally influenced cooking is serious, not off-beat fusion, and one of many reasons to book a table here. Ly knows how to make guests feel at home as they settle into the sparkling dining room, surrounded by cascades of shimmering seashells. Together, the Liaos share more than 40 years of hospitality experience.

A native of Kolkata, India, born to parents of Chinese decent, Sly worked for 23 years in the kitchens of New York-based Ark Restaurants group. That included a 14-year run as the executive chef of Sequoia in the Washington Harbour complex in Georgetown. His wife, Ly, Sea Pearl’s manager, is the eldest daughter of Kim Lai and Thanh Tran, owners of the most honored Vietnamese restaurant in the Washington area, Four Sisters (formerly Huong Que), which moved from Eden Center to the Merrifield Town Center two months after Sea Pearl’s debut. The Liaos also own Song Que, the largest Vietnamese deli at Eden Center.

So why all the empty seats? Perhaps because the pace of surrounding redevelopment has slowed. A few steps from Sea Pearl’s door, with a grand opening scheduled for fall 2012, is the 31-acre, town center-style Mosaic District—a massive urban renewal project that’s set to include retail, hotel, office and residential units.

“We are the pioneers, the first to change directions from fast food to fine dining in the area,” says Sly. He admits the ride has not been an easy one. “It’s an uphill battle. It’s not only hard to be first, but with the economy and recession, things were stacked against us.”

As far as I’m concerned, there is no reason to wait for the added draw of Mosaic’s theaters and shops. Sea Pearl brings to the table some of the best fish dishes in Northern Virginia, and a thoughtful list of microbrews and Napa wines to wash them down.

You can start with the kitchen’s generous and incomparable appetizer of delicate, yellow cornmeal-coated calamari, served with a roasted chipotle dipping sauce. (This is memorable squid in a world where breaded rubber bands are the norm.) Or choose a mound of briny mussels, bathed in the chef’s Cantonese brown sauce, with a shell to scoop up and slurp the bits of sautéed onion and red bell pepper.

I’m fond of the pumpkin pakoras— delicious, deep-fried Indian fritters accompanied by two dipping sauces: a mild cilantro and a spicy tamarind. And you can’t go wrong with the pickled red beet and pear salad, sprinkled with feta cheese, toasted almonds and baby arugula in a pomegranate vinaigrette.

The wait staff is attentive and engaging, refilling water glasses and answering menu questions with knowledge of ingredients. However, there is a glitch here and there. If only the otherwise nice appetizer of crab and corn soup were not so thick. One night, the lemon anchovy dressing on the pretty romaine salad lacked a flavor punch. And I’m not a fan of the pillowy onion focaccia in the bread basket. (Hot Indian flatbreads would be a welcome replacement.) But I haven’t tried an entrée here that wasn’t cooked to order and perfection.

I find irresistible the flaky, melt-in-your-mouth miso-glazed sea bass, which shares the plate with coconut-infused rice and still-crunchy Chinese broccoli. For me, this is bass at its best. Also, don’t overlook the seared sea scallops, propped atop a mound of creamy parsnip and potato purée, which work so well with the shaved fennel and baby greens.

Salmon can be boring, but not here. A sizable portion is placed on a raft of fresh wilted spinach, surrounded by fragrant curried lentils and a dash of cilantro sauce. And the menu holds more than great fish. One night, I joined my vegetarian pal in raves while sharing a spicy, Moroccan-influenced root vegetable/Israeli couscous casserole, served in a Spanish clay pot.

Also, I made two meals (that night and lunch the next day) of the softball-sized lamb shank, which was braised in Indian spices, red wine and tamarind, and accompanied by shredded cucumber and fresh mint as palate cleansers. Equal in heft is an over-the-top creamy mac, cheese and shrimp combo casserole, which can serve as a side dish for four adults or a main course for two teenagers.

The terrific desserts, which are assembled to order, are well worth the wait. That said, it’s best to make your choice early on, as some take 15 minutes or longer to prepare. Our friendly forks battled for bites of a heavenly, six-layer coconut torte of light sponge cake, topped with cream cheese icing. A homey pear-and-cranberry crumble, simple and satisfying, has accents of tongue-tickling candied ginger.

Right now, there’s time to linger. But the Liaos continue to hope that the crowds will come—and soon there will be others waiting in line for your table.

Walter Nicholls is a Washington, D.C. native and former staff writer for The Washington Post.

Categories: Food & Drink
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