Harford County is a burgeoning exurb, better known for its family-friendly chain restaurants than its locally owned fine-dining venues. That’s why wandering into a polished gem like Pairings Bistro in Bel Air is like discovering gold in the New World.
The seasonal cuisine by chef/owner Jon Kohler, a Johnson & Wales University culinary grad, is shaped by classical Mediterranean and Belgian influences (his wife’s family is from Brussels), local farm ingredients, and the Chesapeake Bay. We appreciate the list’s division into basic categories: hors d’oeuvres, from the garden, mussels, and main courses. A four-course, prix-fixe menu is also available.
Given the restaurant’s name, Pairings—and Kohler’s background as a former manager for a wine distributor—a suggested wine for each dish is no surprise. Dozens of other selections are available, and the restaurant has a wine shop on the premises for more choices.
Pairings’s chic dining room is tiny—as in only 30 seats, a bar with a handful of stools, the aforementioned wine shop, and an open kitchen to the rear. But we didn’t feel cramped. Bare wood tables with crisp white napkins are lined up along a curved banquette backing to a wall. Shades of fawn, cocoa, and gold open and subtly divide the space.
If Mother Nature is on your side, 15 more seats under umbrellas are available outside in the restaurant’s small strip-center location.
The two servers, casually clad in jeans and black shirts, strive to be helpful about the food and wine. When we asked our waitress to explain the choices on our charcuterie plate, she was stumped by one of the meats (it was prosciutto) and hurried to the kitchen (not far to go here) to find out the answer.
The rest of the plate featured fat-cigar-sized wild-boar sausage, smooth house-made duck pâté, and smoked salmon mousse with squiggles of spicy mustard, cornichons, baguette slices, and crackers. Good to share, or not.
You don’t usually see coq au vin offered as an appetizer, so we were curious. The experiment paid off. The single, tender plump chicken leg in a light wine sauce padded with sweet red peppers, zucchini, and yellow squash teased rather than quashed our appetite.
Entrees soon followed. We were thrilled with the delicate crêpe (the size of the plate) wrapped around bounteous hunks of lobster and scallops. The double-rib lamb chops, crusted with chèvre and garlic, and accompanied by a crispy risotto cake also packed a flavor punch. The meat was more rare than our requested medium-rare but hardly a downfall. Both dishes came with sautéed green beans.
Of course, we had to fuel up with coffee (High Grounds free trade—it’s that kind of place) and dessert before heading down I-95. We recommend the made-in-house chocolate bouchons (cork-shaped brownies), nicely warmed and served with nearby Broom’s Bloom Dairy coffee ice cream, and the tres leche cake, a whopper, one-layer slice that is so airy and light it doesn’t overwhelm.
As we leave, we wonder if we can somehow hitch this little gift of a restaurant to our car and take it home with us.