Nestled in Old Seabrook just off 4th Street is a warm welcome, a romantic atmosphere and a meal so delicious you would swear you traveled all the way to Thailand. We shouldn't have been surprised—after all, our friends assured us it was one of the best restaurants in the Clear Lake area—but there's something unexpected about Merlion Thai Restaurant & Lounge. Perhaps it's the small cottage in which it's housed. Or maybe it's the rarity with which you encounter a perfect meal anywhere, let alone a little Thai joint in Seabrook.
Upon entering the cottage, we immediately noticed a bar area with shelves holding an assortment of adult beverages. Colorful lights underneath illuminate the bottles at night, setting the tone for the evening. The bar, which is generally full of locals, is great for people-watching or casual conversations, but we were there for a full meal. A friendly hostess asked if we had a reservation, which we thankfully had made; we knew better then to go near Merlion without one.
We were shown through French double doors and into a room that exuded character. The dim lights matched those of the bar, while the walls were decorated with works from local artists (which are also for sale). We were seated near windows that looked out onto the patio, which also offers dinner service. Just beyond those tables is a lounge area complete with a fire pit—perfect for those cool, starry nights.
Tucking that away for future reference, we began to peruse the menus and wine lists. Yes, lists. Merlion boasts a substantial wine list that includes 209 bottles of wine, 203 of which are also offered by the glass. “I personally pick all of the wines," says co-owner Brooke Villanueva, adding with a laugh: "It’s a tough job and someone has to do it.” Villanueva is not a sommelier, but rather a wine enthusiast who strives to offer guests endless options, including her own red blend, Little Hot Mess; she's already sold 24 cases since last November. She's releasing another wine, a rosé, in a few weeks, this one called Tickle Me Pink.
However, the wine list is just the start of the dining experience. They say cooking is a form of science, but co-owner and chef Andrew Lobeck has elevated it to an art form. Lobeck, a second-generation Thai chef who moved here from Bangkok in 1984, takes great pride in serving not just a taste of Thailand, but also an experience. All of Merlion's seafood is purchased locally from Rose’s seafood in Seabrook, while each dish made from scratch—and in a kitchen that is only 184 square feet, a marvelous thing in and of itself.
The dinner menu is full of savory curry and wok options, but every meal here should start with the soft-shell crab, tempura-fried and served alongside caramelized green apples and a white wine-butter sauce. For your main dish, try one of my personal favorites: the pad med mammuang in a hoisin-based sauce filled with mushrooms, onions, snow peas, cashews and water chestnuts. (Pro tip: ask for a side of extra water chestnuts, just for the added crunch.) For your protein in the pad med mammuang, you have a choice of beef, fish, poultry or vegetables. Each dish is also served with a generous portion of jasmine rice.
“The biggest misconception people have when they come to Merlion is that it's Asian food, so it’s going to be fast food, which is not the case,” says Villanueva. “We don’t have pots of curry sitting in the kitchen. We physically make each dish in its own pot with its own meat, fish or poultry and veggies as the ticket comes through to the kitchen. We don’t want to mess with the integrity of the food.”
But while the food at Merlion remains wonderfully consistent on each visit, don't get too attached to the little cottage itself: The restaurant is relocating to a new home in 2017. In order to accommodate more guests, the team decided it would be best to expand that 184-square-foot kitchen and therefore the restaurant. The new location of Merlion will only be a few streets over, at 2nd Street and Bryan. Villanueva ensures us the new spot is designed to still provide the same cozy atmosphere with an added bonus: waterfront views.
If you’re a newcomer to Merlion, it is wise to make a reservation either online with OpenTable or by calling ahead. If you fancy a drink at the bar and some nibbles, take advantage of the happy hour specials. Between 5 and 7 p.m. you can enjoy half-price appetizers and $5 wine; these deals are only offered at the bar, apart from Sundays when the offer extends to the entire restaurant.
“We’re all adulting on a daily basis, so when you’re out to dinner you should be allowed to enjoy yourself," says Villanueva. "At Merlion, we encourage you to relax and enjoy your night.”