Pairings Bistro has a gimmick. A good gimmick. And it seems to be working; Bel Air's newest wine bar seems to be doing very well, even in the middle of a recession.
The name refers to the fact that every dish on the menu is paired with a wine - and sometimes two or three. The wines, by the glass or bottle, are numbered. The numbers are printed under the dish's description. So, for instance, if you decide to order the crab cake with shaved fennel slaw and Old Bay chips, you'll find that Pairings recommends having with it either No. 206 (the 2007 Ile La Forge Viognier) or No. 209 (the 2008 Wild Rock Sauvignon Blanc).
The only downside for the customer is that most of the dishes are small plates, so you might have to choose from very different wine suggestions if you assemble a meal of three or four of them.
The concept is the brainchild of chef/owner Jon Kohler, who at one point worked as a manager for a wine distributor. He's created a bistro list of Old and New World wines, with many by the glass, and a good selection of beers.
The short menu has been well thought out to go with both wines and beers. It's mostly small plates, but there are soups, salads and cheeses from Spain, France and local farms. The small plates are divided into local, Mediterranean and French/Belgian. (Kohler's wife, Sandy, is from Brussels.)
Pairings' tiny dining room is somewhat at odds with the sophistication of the menu. It looks like any nice suburban shopping center restaurant, although smaller than most. The bar and open kitchen dominate the room, which seats 30 or so. There are more tables out front, but the view isn't great. They overlook the parking lot.
When we were there, the dining room was surprisingly warm. I'm not complaining, but a lot of people would want it cooler. The sun streams in the plate glass windows, and the open kitchen produces its own heat.
The place was packed on a weeknight, and I wouldn't be surprised if that's the norm. The staff are very personable, which is both a good and a bad thing. Our table was right by the kitchen counter, and our food was so close I could have served it myself by reaching over. Throughout our meal, dishes sat there a long time while our waitress chatted with customers at the bar and at other tables. If I were a regular, I'd like the personal attention. On a first visit, it was a little disconcerting.
For the most part, the food was worth waiting for. This is the place to share a cheese plate with friends, perhaps a selection of a sharp manchego, a semi-soft Saint Nectaire and a delicious creamy farmer's cheese from Trickling Springs Creamery. The server will make up a wine flight for you to complement each cheese.
You could have fat little sliders made from ground bison and chorizo, an odd but flavorful combination that works very well topped with manchego and caramelized onions. For something a little more like dinner, try the fresh local rockfish with a rich cream sauce and the best fried green tomatoes I've had in a long time. I fleetingly considered ordering more of the tomatoes with their cream sauce as a side - they were that good - but thought better of it. We had a lot of food in front of us.
Polenta adds a crunchy golden crust to ivory scallops, and their fiery corn relish is a happy counterpoint. But if I went back and could only order one dish, it would be the asparagus wrapped in thin slices of ham and covered in a smooth, extravagantly rich mornay sauce made with good cheddar.
Very little on the menu is what I think of as seasonal, but the fine gazpacho falls in that category. I loved the dollop of smooth avocado puree/creme fraiche on top, but the soup did need to be colder. That was the server's fault, not the kitchen's, because it sat on the counter too long.
And then there was the summer greens salad with crab, avocado, and orange. The crab on the salad is the reason the food didn't get three stars: It tasted mildly fishy. That's a problem in Maryland, where restaurants live or die on the strength of their crab dishes. I also wasn't happy with the Mandarin orange slices on the salad.
As long as I'm complaining, it's not a good idea to serve the cheeses with honey pecan toast made from baguette. Your server, I'm sure, will get you plain baguette if you ask, and that's what I'd do next time.
The kitchen redeemed itself with its desserts, which were all delectable: a simple but delicious tres leche cake, moist and fresh; a just sweet enough maple syrup-flavored creme brulee; and a bit of warm chocolate cake with what tasted like homemade coffee ice cream.
Pairings Bistro is one of those happy places where the whole is better than the stars indicate. It's a friendly, relaxed place with some of the best food I've had in the Bel Air area - an area that has more than its share of uninteresting restaurants. Maybe you wouldn't eat here when you're rushed; but if you have time to linger over a cheese plate and a glass of wine or two, or to stop in for dessert, I can't think of another place as satisfying as Pairings.
Address:: 2105 Laurel Bush Road, Bel Air
Contact: : 410-569-5006, PairingsBistro.com
Hours: : Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner
Price: : Soups and salads: $7-$13, small plates: $9-$19.
Food: : ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 STARS)
Service: : ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 STARS)
Atmosphere: : ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 STARS)
[Outstanding: **** Good: ***
Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]