Meals at Pairings Food & Wine Market include a gratis side of déjà vu. The cheese counter. The prepared-foods selection. The showy pizza oven. The point-and-serve salad bar. The adjacent wine and beer store. The dessert case. The small grocery selection. The meeting room, booked solid with events. The moderate prices. The swarms of staffers. The gigantic patio. Heck, even the communal dining table. Where have we seen all of this before?
Nowhere, and everywhere. When forging their contemporary canteen, owners Holly Damiani and Mark Peregory clearly pinched popular elements from a handful of familiar ventures, then cut and pasted a business plan together until the result suited the demands of its convenience-minded target audience.
Pairings' something-for-everyone menu isn't revolutionary, but behind its fast-casual formula lies an obvious commitment to consistency and quality.
The pretty plate-sized pizzas are a definite highlight, notable for their crispy-chewy crusts and attention-to-detail toppings (duck confit-butternut squash-arugula, chicken-pesto and red pepper-spicy pork sausage are three combos definitely worth eating). Salads are fresh and abundantly portioned, if occasionally overdressed.
Pastas are fairly boilerplate -- shrimp and pesto over linguine, four-cheese ravioli, fettuccine tossed with a Bolognese, to name a few -- but they do the trick. There are nearly a dozen hearty, well-stuffed sandwiches, and my only complaint is that the breads could be more distinctive.
Because Pairings aims to be a one-stop shopping and dining destination, grazers will enjoy the generous cheese and cured-meats platters, each laden with three ever-changing choices and paired with figs, olives, sun-dried tomatoes and other nosh standards. They're best during happy hour, when they're $5 cheaper (the price they should be in the first place).
Time-pressed drop-ins can choose from a dozen or so heat-and-serve options, but aside from a hearty turkey meatloaf and a robust lasagna, the majority would not seem out of place in supermarket deli case (think Byerly's rather than Rainbow).
To enliven the menu's test-marketed vibe, chef Carlos Olivar spices things up with several daily specials. After a pair of passable stir-fries, I struck gold in the form of an updated lunch-counter classic, an open-faced sandwich made with thick cuts of roasted turkey that actually tasted like turkey (that almost never happens) and a swipe of mashed Yukon golds, all swimming in a creamy golden gravy. In short, comfort-food heaven.
With a few exceptions (a gorgeous free-form berry tart, the fabulous chocolate-chip cookies), the bland desserts pray to the bigger-is-better gods, offering up gigantic slices of basics such as cheesecake, tiramisu, triple-layer chocolate cake, lemon bars and brownies. Not bad, certainly, but not particularly memorable, either.
The kitchen really springs to action during the "Today" show's time slot. Why put up with a humdrum Starbucks coffee-and-sandwich combo when Pairings does it better, and for just $4.99? There are also decent omelets, an ever-changing quiche, tender scones and cinnamon-packed, caramel-glazed breakfast rolls. Sunday brunch goes much more glam, including a swell potato cake Benedict, a fine eggs Florentine and decadent brioche French toast.
The adjacent -- and very nicely stocked -- wine shop acts as the restaurant's wine list: diners pay retail prices and skip corkage fees, and the staff makes both buying and pouring relatively painless. On its own, the shop would rate among the region's better wine-buying destinations.
But paired (yeah, that's where the name comes from) with the restaurant next door -- note the cafe-friendly half-bottle roster, the numerous $15-and-under bottles and extensive beer and ale options -- it's even better.
Two odd disconnects: Little emphasis is placed on actually pairing specific foods with wines, and the restaurant's by-the-glass list is relatively paltry, although with a bottle-friendly stash this good next door, does it need to be better?
Watch your step
Viewed from the street (beware the confounding tangle of one-way roads criss-crossing the vast Opus business park), Pairings doesn't exactly exude promise, as it resides within one of those sorry excuses of a concrete-block building that make the suburban landscape so drearily disposable.
Happily, the wide-open interior -- designed by Shea Inc. of Minneapolis -- contradicts the unspoken dictate that strip malls are style-free zones. There's a gleaming brown concrete floor speckled with tan accents, goldenrod-tinted hand-plastered walls, an eye-catching pizza oven faced in Indian corn-colored glazed tiles and rough-hewn tabletops fashioned from reclaimed white oak planks.
Still, for all its good looks, Pairings can be a tad user-unfriendly. "So how does this work?" asked a woman standing next to me on my last visit, and it wasn't the first time I'd overheard someone utter that exact exasperation-tinged question.
Even after some much-needed tweaks, it's not readily apparent -- at least to first-time diners -- how to successfully navigate the order-and-pay system. Two qualities worth crowing about: Pairings is a no-tipping zone, and the small but well-stocked fancy-foods inventory places an admirable emphasis on locally produced goodies.
Would I be a regular if I lived or worked in the area? Oh, yeah. Do I not-so-secretly wish that Damiani and Peregory would open a clone in my neighborhood? Absolutely.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757