Folk Art

A year and a half after opening to big buzz, Pair continues to charm.

I'll admit the association is a little strange, but Pair, the sweet, homey, and somehow otherworldly small-plates restaurant in Ravenna, puts me in the mind of a subgenre within modern folk/rock called New Weird America. Outré enough to engender resurgence in harp music and vocal styles stranger than Nico's or Joan Baez's ever were, and pervasive enough that I'm pretty sure I can slip it by my editor and use it to describe not a barefoot, bearded guitar strummer but a cuisine type, New Weird America is really just a return of Old Weird America. Music critic Greil Marcus used the latter to describe the early, intimate folk music of Bob Dylan and the Band. In Old Weird America, expression and individuality mattered as much as tradition and shared sounds; with New Weird America, originality and style take another step forward—but they step to the beat of stand-up bass, jug-band rhythms, and timeworn melodies. At Pair, owners Felix and Sarah Penn offer food that is entirely old-fashioned and anti-haute—halibut in parchment, cassoulet, beef brisket, Brussels sprouts—but the elegant expression of these familiar flavors, coupled with the experience of sharing them as small plates, makes the experience utterly chic. The kitchen uses produce from Helsing Junction Farm's Community Supported Agriculture boxes—another example of old methods catching up with the modern world. American favorites yield, here and there, to their European ancestors; at present, for example, polenta accompanies pork sugo ($11), a sweet and salty slow-cooked dish that pushes its cinnamon even as it gives way to the briny bite of Kalamata olives. There is a pleasant scruffiness even in the specials: On my last visit, pancetta-wrapped ling cod ($13) sat on top of modest garbanzo beans and braised endive. Nothing sexy about endive or garbanzo beans, but underneath the lavender-brown high ceilings of the Early American–style dining room, the overall dish manages to achieve a stylishness and allure not at all unlike the one hiding in the warble and yarn of today's expressionistic acoustic rock. From the top to the bottom of Pair's one-sheet menu, chef Felix Penn's preparations are simple and restrained so that even bold flavors become relatively soft-spoken—and vice versa. On my last visit, the soup of the evening was a celery root puree ($6) that made us wish Lay's would make celery-scented potato chips. Together with the tartly rippled but otherwise soft and subtle cambozola fondue ($8), the soup was an ideal start. Pair's much-lauded macaroni and cheese ($6) is made with campanile pasta (they look like little calla lilies or trumpets) and fontina cheese. The nutty, dry flavor of the cheese comes in at the choruses, but for the most part the dish is creamy, milky, and oddly light. Again, it's a little strange, but I swear that the light, crunchy onion and breadcrumb topping of the fantastic potato and leek gratin (made with Yukon golds and Gruyère for $7) reminded me of that feeling you get when you walk on a thin, icy dusting of snow after it sticks to the sidewalk for the first time. Brussels sprouts ($7) are cooked until tender and then liberated from their cabbagelike coils, then tossed with bacon and pecans. Talk about the mundane blossoming, the ugly duck becoming a swan. The bucolic mood of the open, welcoming space (when you hang up your coat in the small entrance area as you walk in, you'll fight the urge to kick your shoes off at the same time) was created by Sarah Penn, with a nod to her great aunt's home in Cape Cod. She runs the front of the house with a team of knowledgeable, friendly-but-not-chummy servers. Ask them to recommend a wine to go with your assortment of choices, and they won't be stumped regardless of how random your selections are. Served swiftly in sturdy brown ceramic ramekins, dishes are generous and very fairly priced. Two can indulge in about six of them, plus a few glasses of wine, for about $100 including tax and tip. You might even take home some leftovers. FOR A TIME, talk of Pair was characterized by the gripe that it was almost impossible to get in. While you might still occasionally encounter a wait, the rush of the crowds seems to have subsided. Neighbors, diverse Seattleites, and tourists (the Penns and Pair were featured in Bon Appétit, so the secret is out) now form more of a steady stream. Special-menu dinners are imminent now that day-to-day operations are running so smoothly. In a world where comfort from chaos and crisis is increasingly coveted—but, at the same time, where expression and individuality are more critical than ever, Pair's artful respect for tradition truly hits home. lcassidy@seattleweekly.com Pair, 5501 30th Ave. N.E., 206-526-7655, www.pairseattle.com, RAVENNA. 5–10 p.m. Tues.–Sat.

 
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