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Friday, July 23, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Plenty of pleasures at pair's petite Pair

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Pair


5501 30th Ave. N.E., Seattle; 206-526-7655

New American

$$

***

Reservations: for parties of six or more only.

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays.

Prices: small plates $3-$10; desserts $6.

Wine list: Globally inspired and modest in price and scope, with many labels $30 and under and a lengthy list of by-the-glass wines (most in the $6-ish range) generously poured.

Parking: on-street, none provided.

Beer and wine only / credit cards MC, V / no obstacles to access / no smoking.

Sound: easy conversation becomes more difficult during peak hours.

Who should go: Couples, gal-pals, the Francophilically inclined. Anyone with a lust for comfort foods prepared with an elegant, understated twist and an eye toward the seasons.

Felix and Sarah Penn are the pair behind Pair. Never heard of them? Neither had I. But I plan to get to know them better now that I've been thoroughly introduced to the small-plates menu at this big-hearted venue.

This young couple has poured charm, creativity and know-how into their delicious little bistro, open since May. Enter off a quiet Ravenna corner where a rustic pine bench is flanked by geraniums set in galvanized tubs. Big double doors open onto a spacious dining room with pine banquettes and beamed ceiling — a Country French aesthetic that extends to the décor. Antique copper and pewter kitchen implements hang on the walls. Hardwood floors are accented with Oriental carpets. Windows are dressed in white cotton and gingham, letting in the evening light.

At the eight-seat bar, one can order a schooner of Manny's Pale Ale, a local brew out of Georgetown served with complimentary bar snacks. Wise men and women might continue snacking here, on warmed olives scented with coriander seed and orange zest ($3) or an array of charcuterie including Serrano ham and a hard sausage from Spain plus smoky bites of Bavarian landjaeger ($7).

Come evening, a dozen broad tables are set with French water bottles and pretty little tumblers. Each is graced with a tiny wooden salt-cellar and a peppermill — speaking to the chef's apparent lack of ego: such "luxuries" as salt and pepper are getting harder to find on Seattle's restaurant tables.

"How's that macaroni and cheese?" asked a man seated next to me as I brandished my peppermill over wavy campanile pasta, with mild fontina and crunchy toasted breadcrumbs ($6). "It's the best I've ever had," I told him. "I haven't eaten mac 'n' cheese in 50 years," he admitted, but before I could offer a taste, his very slender wife's half-raised eyebrow suggested I do no such thing. "You owe it to yourself to order this," I insisted. Instead, they shared tender leaves of vinaigrette-tossed butterleaf salad ($5), and he consoled himself with goat-cheese toasts (a $2 add-on).

Sir, if you're reading this: Come back soon — alone. Sit at the communal trestle-table, chat with your neighbors and take yourself back to your youth, then throw caution to the wind: Have the potato cauliflower gratin ($7). This earthenware crock wafting buttered breadcrumbs is a glorious meld of tender vegetables and Gruyère. Try the Cambozola fondue ($8), too. That creamy blue-veined cheese is turned into a silky soup, warmed by a tea-light and served with firm ripe fruit and croutons, for dipping. Finish with coffee-chocolate pot de crème ($6), a pedigreed pudding you might savor with a robust Rioja, among the many by-the-glass options generously poured.

While most diners will be thrilled at the opportunity to pick and choose among such fine fare, some might take umbrage to the willy-nilly listing of meats, vegetables, greens, grains, cheeses and chicken. I say, relax! Be creative. Your helpful server will suggest two to three plates per person: give or take a bowl of vibrant green peas-in-the-pod tossed with lemon and mint ($6), or a roast half-chicken perfumed with herbs and swimming in a rich bird jus ($9).

Start with a nosh and hope for the special bruschetta that I lucked into ($6): a simple, satisfying artichoke and fresh-pea schmear. Consider the herb-scented gougères ($4.50), heavier than the airy French ideal but no less enticing.

Then it's time to have fun and make mini-meals: of that gratin, perhaps, which pairs well with a salad Niçoise ($9). This summery composition of fresh seared tuna, crisp green beans, a sliver of hard-boiled egg and yellow fingerling potatoes offers daubs of a divine candied condiment described as "tomato vinaigrette." Gorgeous.

Roasted eggplant and crisp potato-moons sprinkled with cumin seed ($5) are a star attraction. Sided with harissa, this Moroccan-spiced dish complements sliced lamb loin with merlot-moistened tapanade ($8.50) and also does justice to the beef brisket slathered with horseradish cream ($8). The beef was too well-done for my taste, but deemed caramelized to perfection (and therefore heavenly) by my Midwestern-bred husband. Seafood fanciers can turn to fresh halibut ($10), steamed in poufy parchment with artichokes, leeks and cherry tomatoes: spare and stunning.

Having eaten my way through Felix's seasonal menu, while watching Sarah and her well-chosen crew work the door and the floor, it's clear these two have a gift for pairing food and wine. They've turned nothing into something and created a mood to go with their simple, elegant food, one that's winsome and welcoming, low-key and local. So, who is this talented pair?

A Seattle native who grew up in Mount Baker, Sarah has a master's in film production and spent the past dozen years in San Francisco, where she met her future husband while working at Kuleto's. They later moved on to other acclaimed restaurants in the City by the Bay while fantasizing about owning their own. When the time came to move in that direction, Seattle's siren call could not be ignored.

Last fall they leased this former photography studio, which lived briefly as a coffee shop, moved into the upstairs apartment out of necessity and convenience and settled in for the long haul. To their considerable credit, their new neighbors — and this delighted critic — are eating it up.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or taste@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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