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[whitespace] Craig Schauffel
Photograph by Michael Amsler

Craig's wine list: Pairs owner Craig Schauffel savors a sample from the restaurant's extensive selection of wines.

Feng Shui Kitchen

Pairs reopens in Napa with Zen-like style

By Paula Harris

THE SLENDER sticks of incense burning in the bathroom are an immediate tip-off. The spot Pairs' restaurant owners, Keith and Craig Schauffel, have chosen for their newly expanded eatery may have once been a Denny's greasy spoon, but the location now is all pure and peaceful feng shui grace.

The brothers recently revamped and relocated their former restaurant, Pairs Parkside Cafe, from St. Helena's main street to this expanded home on Solano Avenue in downtown Napa. The entire look, like the food, is elegant Asian-fusion.

Apart from the chic bathroom--worth a trip in itself just to meditate amid the dark walls, stainless-steel sinks, oversize mirrors, and aforementioned sticks of incense burning in a sand-filled platter--there are other signs of Zen-like style. Note the tranquil Oriental water garden screened by bamboo as you enter the restaurant. And the dining-room dividers fashioned from rows of silver birch tree saplings. Or the curvaceous bar made from stacked dark polished river rocks, where loose-faced patrons are sipping sake-based cocktails like Killer Cosmo (sake, cranberry juice, and orange juice) or Kitty's Milk (sake, coconut milk, and pink lemonade) in relaxed abandon.

Pairs boasts three dining rooms; one with a fireplace and circular paper lanterns dancing above a wooden-trellis false ceiling; another, a dusky and romantic eating area near the bar; and a private room tucked away behind a sliding wooden shoji screen. The walls are decorated with kimono-quilt artwork.

The tables are set with candles, white paper, and squared-off oval plates set with folded napkins with a pair of wooden chopsticks slipped inside. And the competent staff slink around in navy blue tunics with mandarin collars.

Dinner begins with complimentary and completely addictive housemade grilled garlic focaccia. These warm chewy triangles just three bites big have a tasty batter flavor like pancakes, and are wonderful dipped into the accompanying piquant sugar, white wine vinegar, and chili dipping sauce. Unable to stop ourselves, we allow the server to bring us two more basketfuls.

The vegetarian spring rolls ($5) come with another chili pepper-based dipping sauce and are crisp, hot, and crammed with shredded veggies like carrot, bok choy, and bamboo shoots. These babies are served on a bed of refreshing fresh cilantro.

If you're a bivalve buff, don't miss the wonderful roasted mussels in a tomato coconut broth ($12). The small sweet mussels are fanned around a pile of cilantro lime fettuccine, and the broth is both tart and creamy, flavored with delicate coconut and flecked with tomato and garlic. An excellent appetizer or light main course.

The entrées include exotic fare, such as grilled tilapia with tropical fruit salsa and sweet crab jasmine rice ($18), or more mainstream dishes like golden garlic grilled ribeye steak with fluffy mashed potatoes ($22).

One quibble is the total lack of vegetarian main dishes. Noncarnivores can either opt for a grilled vegetable and smoked mozzarella sandwich ($8.50), or else order a couple of vegetarian side dishes.

These are hit and miss. A side of Parmesan herb fries ($4) consists of passable shoestrings served with a container of tomato ketchup; but a side of gingered sweet-potato risotto with shiitaki mushrooms ($6.50) fights bitterly with the accompanying pickled ginger; whereas a side of garlicky broccolini with oyster sauce ($5) is super-fresh, completely garlic-infused, and delicious.

The restaurant's signature tamarind tangerine rack of lamb with sweet potato risotto ($23) features three perfect lamb chops, but the risotto's pickle-like flavor (from the tamarind) is odd, and the thick coins of sweet potato are too undercooked to enjoy.

The wine list is varied and international, with some excellent selections offered by the glass. If you can't decide, let the well-informed staff come up with some inspired wine and food pairings--the place is after all called Pairs with this in mind.

As for desserts, we find the mandarin chocolate macadamia nut torte ($7), a cake sandwich wedged with mandarin flavor, to be a bit heavy-handed. But the banana tarte Tatin with candied walnut ice cream ($7) is a delightful orgy of warm banana, toffee, ice cream, and sweet cookie.

As we leave, the incense is still smoldering in the bathroom, but the dining room's ambiance of peaceful elegance is rudely disrupted by a large raucous party that has invaded the private dining area and is beginning to make dinner hellish for the poor souls seated at nearby tables. A few diners ask to be moved away from the shrieking emanating from behind the wooden screen.

Hmm, a little Zen-like sound proofing may be in order, but even so, this new Pairs is an enlightening culinary experience.


Pairs
Address: 4175 Solano Ave., Napa; 707/224-8464.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily
Food: California-Asian
Service: Good, knowledgeable
Ambiance: Zen-like elegance
Price: Expensive
Wine list: Expansive, including international selections
Overall: 3 stars (out of 4)

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From the April 12-18, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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