Amid the maze of indistinguishable shopping centers sprouting in Bel Air is one that holds the enjoyable Pairings Bistro, which lives up fully to its motto: “Where the pairing of food with complementary wines is at the heart of our existence.”
I’d get even more enthused if that pairing came with complimentary wines, but you can’t have everything. What you do get is a recommendation of a libation to go with nearly everything on the menu.
Kudos to the establishment for discarding that fusty notion about reds being acceptable only with certain foods, whites with others. The pairings suggested the night we stopped by included chicken and seafood dishes complemented by red varieties, for example. Time was when sneers and jeers would greet such oenological egalitarianism.
You can devise your own pairings, of course. There’s a fine by-the-glass assortment to choose from, as well as a comprehensive collection of bottles (the restaurant includes a retail wine shop).
We drank a hefty sampling of the suggested wines, at one point accumulating so many glasses on the table that we must have looked in need of an intervention. But it sure was fun trying everything, especially a Mount Veeder cabernet from California, as well as some French and Argentine products. And our very personable server didn’t seem to mind guiding the continual libation traffic.
At Pairings, the menu undergoes periodic tweaks (the wine suggestions likewise vary); some of the things we sampled were retired a few days later. What seems to remain constant is the kitchen’s imaginative streak, touching on various cuisines and incorporating locally sourced ingredients.
The dining room gets a certain casual-cozy-chic ambience from dark yellow walls containing art for sale, and there’s a neighborly vibe that makes a newcomer feel welcome.
Before exploring assorted food and wine couplings, we sampled some spirits. A gimlet would have left more of an impression had the Plymouth Gin used for it been detectable; this was more of a super-sweet lime soft drink than a serious cocktail. But an old-fashioned, featuring Buffalo Trace bourbon, held up firmly.
Among our meal-launchers, a grilled romaine Caesar salad was so tasty — fried capers added an insouciant touch to the thick, piquant dressing — that we forgot all about the romaine lettuce scare.
The cream of crab soup proved winning, too. Lumps of crabmeat were placed on the spoon to be dipped at will into the smooth, hearty liquid. A cruet of sherry came with the soup, likewise to be poured at will.
We got an even bigger kick out of an appetizer you don’t see every day — chicken croquettes. Delicately fried, the meaty and peppery mounds gained extra character from a parsley pesto and anchovy aioli.
A crab and white sauce flatbread pizza had an unexpected, unappealing fish smell and overly thick tomato slices (chopped would seem a better approach). We enjoyed an order of rosemary truffle fries. They could have been crispier, but satisfied all the same; a cumin aioli dipping sauce provided abundant snap.
The New York strip steak lacked a robust searing and was overwhelmed by a smothering that included red peppers, zucchini, yellow squash, mushrooms and potatoes in a bordelaise sauce.
As for the chicken Madeira, the boneless poultry pieces gained considerably from the company of rich mushrooms and, especially, a beautifully made herby risotto, finished with a Madeira demi-glace.
Desserts included a “deconstructed” carrot cake that seemed more of an interesting experiment than a sweet success, but it had its rewards — a rum-raisin puree, for example, not to mention walnut granola and mascarpone.
First-rate ice creams from Keyes Creamery in Aberdeen offered abundant pleasure; I could have devoured a half-gallon of the luscious chocolate/coconut/almond flavor.
Whatever unevenness we encountered paled in light of how persuasively Pairings strives to provide a congenial match-up of food and wine in a comfortable place.
2105 Laurel Bush Road, Suite 108, Bel Air.
The vibe: There’s a welcoming, neighborly atmosphere that makes the food and drink all the more enjoyable.
You’ll fit in wearing: Casual attire
Don’t miss: The opportunity to pair each menu item with a well-chosen wine.
Best for kids: Although there’s no children's menu, the kitchen will serve up kid-friendly versions of such main menu items as sliders and flatbreads.
Handicap accessible: Yes
Price range: Appetizers $8-$11; entrees $19-$42.