When you step into Sea Pearl, you can’t help but be impressed. The stunning flower arrangement in the expansive entry, the cozy couches in the lounge, the hushed dining area—it feels more like a posh downtown restaurant than a suburban eatery. Sea Pearl is where a couple might celebrate a romantic anniversary or treat themselves to date night. The elements are all here for an evening to remember.
I asked Chef Sly Liao how he and his partner/wife Ly Lai created such a stand-out dining experience, and he explained simply, “We like to do what we like to do.” The independent-minded husband and wife team took no investors when they designed Sea Pearl, a one-of-a-kind restaurant located in Merrifield at the entrance to the bustling Mosaic District. They were pioneers; the first to bring fine dining to what had been an industrial neighborhood with a few fast food places. Six years ago, when Sea Pearl opened its doors, the restaurant blazed a new trail with an eclectic menu, soft, alluring interiors, and attentive service.
Questioned about why they chose Merrifield, Sly says, “It’s where we live. This is our neighborhood. We know our neighbors have disposable income, and there was nothing like this here before. So I thought it would be great for us,” he pauses, “Maybe it’s time for the suburbs.” Agreed.
Sea Pearl has many loyal customers who know and regularly patronize the restaurant, but in some ways, it’s still a hidden gem. “We are still waiting to be discovered,” notes Liao. “We have full confidence in what we do—it’s all from our passion. We’re making what we like to eat. People have recognized that, and they love us for it. We get most new customers from word of mouth.”
The design is sleek—black, grey and orange furnishings—with cascades of pearly white shells hung in strategic spots. The lounge can be lively, but the dining area remains serene, an ideal place for meaningful conversation. Additionally, the private dining room seats up to 100 people.
Exotic sushi rolls; Moroccan root vegetable stew; hefty braised lamb shank—Sea Pearl’s menu defies categorizing. The wide range of ethnic influences is a result of the partners’ impressive pedigrees. Sly was born in India to Chinese parents, and his world involved eating different cuisines. Growing up, he sampled a wide range of spices, and that exposure continued when he cooked in New York City for ten years before heading to Washington DC to become the regional chef for Ark Restaurant Group. Before opening Sea Pearl, Sly was headquartered at Sequoia in Washington Harbour.
Sea Pearl’s manager, Ly, is the eldest of Northern Virginia’s famous Four Sisters, a Vietnamese restaurant dynasty that has provided her with serious food cred. Sly and Ly (pronounced Lee) endeavor together, side-by-side with their enthusiastic staff members. “We feel like a family,” says Sly. “It’s great for them. They see us working here every day. They are involved; we explain things. It’s more personal, hands-on. You can’t substitute that.”
What to order? That’s a conundrum when you peer at this menu for the first time. Ideally, you would go a few times to explore all they have to offer. But a good start is the signature sushi. These are not your grocery store sushi rolls. Besides the clever combinations of the freshest seafood, each plate looks as good as it tastes. I recommend their popular Firecracker, Paradise or Hell rolls.
The First Course dishes are just as imaginative—the Spicy Tuna Tartar features velvet slivers of tuna, accompanied by pickled vegetables and Yuzu Kosho emulsions, a citrusy, spicy aromatic. For a main course, if you’re up for more seafood, order the Cobia. Considered sustainable, this fish has as many nutrients as salmon, and Sly grills it perfectly. He places the cobia atop squash, sugar snap peas, and freshens it with lobster curry emulsion. Which brings me to the sauces. They are part of what makes Sea Pearl exceptional. Sly deepens the features of each dish with his complex drizzles. They mix their spices in house.
For a dish guaranteed to warm a cold winter night, consider the Macaroni and Shrimp—it is rich and satisfying. They also serve classic beef short ribs and Amish chicken. You might add a side of Kai Lan, succulent Chinese broccoli in garlic oil.
Sea Pearl serves lunch, and their weekday happy hour features drink specials and a selection of appetizers, including Cornmeal Crusted Calamari, Mosaic Crispy Rice Cakes and American Artisan Cheeses. Weekend Brunch consists of Asian-inspired dishes, salads and American breakfast fare too. Adventurous diners should check out the blackboard. It lists daily specials like live uni, spiky black sea urchins, or live scallops in their shells, all imported from Japan. “We have some guests who really appreciate these,” says Sly.
With daring cooking like this, and the growing enthusiasm for the Mosaic District, Sea Pearl will not remain a hidden treasure much longer. Maybe it is time for the suburbs.