5501 30th Ave NE, 526-7655
Tues-Sat 5-10 pm.
I used to hold my breath whenever I went by a graveyard, but that would be hard to do at the new Ravenna restaurant Pair, since it is planted right across from Calvary Cemetery. Fortunately--even though Andrew and I ate there on a night when the full moon hung over the headstones--there's nothing particularly creepy about the restaurant itself. In fact it's cute, decked out in stripped-down farmhouse chic with throw rugs on the wooden floors, beadboard along the bar, copper pots hanging in the kitchen's breezeway, and long wooden benches stretched along the tables. The décor would make Martha (may she incarcerate in peace) cluck with approval.
Pair is yet another small-plate restaurant (as such, I might have gone with "Pare" myself), part of a trend that I generally like, although it does force servers to ask the question, "Have you ever eaten here before?" Even though I know that waiters have to warn people that they won't be getting giant Buca di Beppo-sized servings, I find the ensuing discussion about how to order an awkward one. In this case, it was only the first of many questions our waitress would ask.
She popped her head around the column next to my shoulder and asked, "How is your salad?" just as I was shoving a big piece of butter lettuce into my mouth. I nodded and mumbled. It was very good, actually--lightly dressed in a thick mustard vinaigrette ($5), it was just a plain green salad with no distractions, and none of that god-awful half-wilted "spring mix" that stands in for salad in most of the restaurants I visit. It was even good enough that Andrew, normally salad averse, seemed downright bunnylike.
I was also properly delighted to see gougéres ($4.50) on the menu--they're the little French cheese puffs designed to put a smile on the face of even the gloomiest existentialist. Hell might be other people, but they're a lot easier to put up with when there's a tiny gruyere-laced bun in your mouth. "How are your gougéres?" quizzed our server about a minute after she delivered a napkin-lined dishful of them. In truth they were all right, a little chewy and dry, but still warm and permeated with cheesy vapors, as gougéres should be.
I'd tried to order healthfully (halibut steamed in a little packet with leeks and tomatoes, $10), but fortunately, the kitchen had just run out of the fish, and I was cornered into ordering what I really wanted, the macaroni and cheese ($6), a move which pleased our inquisitor. It was a very good call. The macaroni was not the thickly bound stuff of cafeteria steam tables (not that there's anything wrong with that), but a loose association of ruffly noodles tossed with a light, creamy fontina sauce, then ever so briefly broiled. Clearly Pair's kitchen has admirable powers in the dairy world of cream and cheese (and we didn't even have a chance to order the cauliflower gratin, the buttered spaetzle, or the Cambozola fondue), and that realm is where the small-plate business really helps--letting you bask in lavish delights without overloading.
"How are your lamb, tuna, and mac and cheese?" Do people respond to this kind of question honestly? Ever fearful of confrontation, I tend to speak up only when things are distressingly bad, not when they're just okay--like the seared tuna niçoise salad ($9), whose sparse niçoise elements (olive, egg, green beans, potatoes, and tomatoes--in this case tomato vinaigrette) seemed more like garnishes for the seared tuna loin than an integral part of the dish. And I also didn't tell the waitress that despite its nice lemony olive topping, our lamb loin ($8.50) was on the cool side of tepid. Most of all I didn't tell her that while I appreciated her concern, I would have felt more comfortable with more observation and less interrogation.
Come dessert, we ordered the banana bread pudding ($6), a puffy round of custard-soaked bread, edged in burnt sugar and topped with caramel ice cream. It had a nicely understated banana message, and like the mac and cheese it was as light-handed as it was rich. Andrew preempted our server: "How is that bite? What about that one?" By this point in the meal, I'd learned my lesson. I kept my head down and kept on eating.