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

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