You pull up under the columned portico of the new three-story brick Georgian structure that has been home to the Mayton Inn, a boutique hotel in downtown Cary, since February. A valet greets you and takes your key.
Inside, the lobby is a study in refined taste: calla lilies in a large black vase, museum-quality glass art on mirror-backed shelves, deeply cushioned sofas, chairs upholstered in ivory damask. Walking through, you pass a bar on your right (dark wood, leather upholstery, more rich fabrics), then a cozy paneled library with a fireplace on the left. You begin to wonder if maybe you’re a little underdressed.
Then you arrive at the host stand and are relieved to see that Verandah’s dining room takes its design cue from the restaurant’s name. Granted, the platinum hue of the round-backed French style dining chairs lends a certain dramatic elegance to the place, as do bent-arm brass chandeliers suspended from tray ceilings. But there are no linens on the tables, and early evening light pouring in through windows with a view of a terrace edged in a brick lattice wall suggest the casual airiness of – well, if not a verandah, then at least a sunroom.
Like the decor, Verandah’s seasonally evolving, Southern-accented contemporary menu aims to strike a balance between casual and elegant. And executive chef Jeff Gompers, whose 20-plus years of experience include the Siena Hotel and Chapel Hill Country Club, is well-suited to the task. With just over a half dozen starters and a like number of entrees, the chef’s scattershot offering manages to hit every target from weary traveler to local foodie.
Either would do well to start with a velvety artichoke and sun-dried tomato soup, finished with a drizzle of smoked chile oil. The soup is comforting, with just a frisson of sparkle to keep things interesting – a theme that is repeated throughout the menu.
Cornmeal-fried oysters arrive beached on a succotash dune of smoked corn, hominy and Benton’s country ham, each oyster topped with a dab of poblano remoulade. Fried green tomatoes get an Italian twist as a caprese, paired with fresh mozzarella, extra virgin olive oil and balsamic syrup (though it’s probably time to retire the diced heirloom tomato garnish for the season).
A charred carrot-ginger vinaigrette adds zing to a salad of red quinoa, arugula, dried apricots, grape tomatoes and avocado, a combination you needn’t be a vegetarian to appreciate. Shrimp and Anson Mills grits with bacon, cremini mushrooms and oven-roasted tomatoes don’t stray far from the beaten path, but the dish is nonetheless satisfying.
The last time I dined at Verandah, I learned that chef Gompers had begun making his own charcuterie, notably duck ham and duck pastrami. I wasn’t able to sample these (they were still curing), but I did reap a happy windfall in the form of the night’s entree special: roasted duck breast with mushroom bread pudding and sautéed arugula. Juicy, rosy and crisp-skinned, the bird was so well executed I could almost overlook the dry bread pudding.
Roasted Ashley Farms chicken with pan jus is on point, too, as are the asparagus spears, charred grape tomatoes and celeriac whipped potatoes that accompany the half bird. Bonus points for the celeriac, an under-appreciated root vegetable and a natural flavor companion to potatoes.
Crab cakes, a traditionally seasoned mix of lump and claw meat (mercifully not overwhelmed by binder), are pan-seared to a lacy-crusted turn. Gompers recently presented the entree as a pair of hefty cakes, each perched atop a tower of Napa cabbage, haricot vert, asparagus and fingerling potatoes, served on a plate garnished with dollops of red pepper remoulade.
At the red meat end of the culinary color spectrum, braised beef short rib – served over coarse-cut collard greens and mushroom mac and cheese – is tender comfort on a plate. A grilled bone-in pork loin chop, on the other hand, was properly cooked but under-seasoned when I tried it.
Kitchen miscues are infrequent and generally minor, in my experience, though a dry, crumbly red velvet cake was wide of the mark. When it comes to dessert, the house-made corn creme brûlée is a winning bet.
As is often the case, it isn’t the kitchen but the front of the house that’s the weak link at Verandah. Finding and keeping good servers is no doubt especially challenging in downtown Cary, which is beginning to establish itself as a nightlife destination. As a result, the dining room appears under-staffed at times, and the servers who are there are widely varied in experience. This extends to the bar, where the craft cocktail menu is first-rate in conception but inconsistent in execution.
The extensive downtown Cary renovation project – especially the partial closing of Academy Street for several months – has certainly not helped matters. Now that the street has been reopened, things should start looking up for the hotel that could be described as the jewel in the crown of that project (the Mayton Inn is a public-private partnership between the Town of Cary and the husband-and-wife team of Colin and Deanna Crossman, backed by $1.4 million loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development).
Given the Crossmans’ track record as owners of the King’s Daughter’s Inn, a luxurious bed and breakfast in Durham, it’s a good bet that the jewel will soon be polished and shining bright on all facets. In the meantime, let’s call it a diamond in the rough.
301 S. Academy St., Cary; 919-307-7070
Cuisine: contemporary Southern
Atmosphere: casual elegance
Noise level: low to moderate
Recommended: artichoke and sun-dried tomato soup, fried oysters, shrimp and grits, crab cakes, roast chicken
Open: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily, brunch Sunday
Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; patio; complimentary valet parking (limited self-parking on Park St.)
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.