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Dining Review: Postmaster's seasonal local fare elevated, thanks to culinary team

The Honeycomb Oysters are a half dozen oysters, gently warmed and finished with honey butter, apple mignonette, espelette pepper, and a garnishing crown of Honeycomb cereal.
The Honeycomb Oysters are a half dozen oysters, gently warmed and finished with honey butter, apple mignonette, espelette pepper, and a garnishing crown of Honeycomb cereal. jleonard@newsobserver.com

“We’re bringing downtown Raleigh to Cary.” This from our server, in response to my comment — she had stopped by to see how we were enjoying our meal — that I’d never seen terms like “honeycomb oysters” and “gnocchi’d grits” on a menu in Cary. My wife added that, as longtime Cary residents, we found Postmaster a refreshing change of pace.

Our server seemed genuinely happy to hear our comments. As enthusiastic and knowledgeable as she was attentive, she gave the impression that she sees herself not as merely an employee, but as a member of a team with a mission.

Turns out there’s a very good reason for that impression. Many of the Postmaster staff — both dining room and kitchen — are veterans of Ashley Christensen’s empire of downtown Raleigh restaurants. Among industry insiders, Christensen is nearly as well known for her ability to foster a team spirit among staffers as she is for her James Beard Award-winning culinary skills.

And Cary has been reaping the windfall since last December, when Pharmacy Bottle + Beverage owner Tyler Watt opened Postmaster in that town’s burgeoning downtown district.

Team captain, you might say, is executive chef Chris Lopez, who most recently helped Sunny Gerhart (another Christensen protege) open St. Roch. Working with sous chef David Cain (a veteran of Christensen's Chuck’s and Joule), Lopez is waking up the town’s taste buds with his inventive seasonally changing offering.

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Postmaster executive chef Chris Lopez, who most recently helped Sunny Gerhart open St. Roch, is waking up the Cary's taste buds with his inventive seasonally changing offerings. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

As luck would have it, the spring menu is slated to come online just as this review comes out. And, since Postmaster doesn’t just pay lip service to the locavore ethic, many of the dishes I enjoyed will be gone or substantially changed. That said, based on my experience I think it’s safe to say you won’t be disappointed, no matter what you order.

But you might want to try a couple of items that have already earned a permanent spot on the menu. Consider hominy hushpuppies, a fine nibbling companion for the tasty beverage of your choice from a small but thoughtfully curated list of craft beers, wines and cocktails whipped up by bar manager Patrick Dunmire (yet another Joule alum).

Or Hot Hot Wings, which owe their name to their double-barreled source of heat: Carolina white sauce, a riff on the Alabama original spiked with local chocolate habanero, and a generous sprinkle of crushed red chiles.

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Postmaster's Cast Iron Chicken Leg is made up of sofrito rice, vegetable broth, black eye peas and soppin' bread. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

A white strawberry mignonette is replacing the apple mignonette in the small plate offering of honeycomb oysters. But the basic presentation — half a dozen oysters, gently warmed and finished with honey butter, espelette pepper, and (are you ready, Cary?) a garnishing crown of Honeycomb cereal — remains unchanged.

Among large plate offerings, smoked sausage with gnocchi’d grits (a toothsome mashup of Italy and the South in the form of gnocchi made with grits) is making way for a lighter presentation of smoked andouille with red pea salad, buttered rice, country ham broth and bread and butter pickles.

You can practically feel a warm spring breeze in the air as you look over the new menu, which is expanding to accommodate a greater emphasis on seafood and seasonal produce. There’s a small plates offering of petite lamb tomahawk chops, served with mint, horseradish aioli and pickled red onion. And embered vegetables, a seasonal cornucopia of fennel, carrot, spring onion, asparagus and pioppino mushrooms with a boiled peanut hummus. And fried snap peas with a vibrant green goddess dressing, harissa mustard, pecorino and green onion vinegar. And pan-seared catfish with a spicy grit cake, sorghum BBQ sauce, squash chips and charred onion. And — well, you get the idea.

Regardless of the season, the market catch (“market” translating to “Locals Seafood,” generally speaking) is sure to be a keeper. I recently landed a striped bass “taco kit” featuring a whole roasted fish and roll-your-own fixings that was almost as much fun to assemble as it was to eat. On another night, you might net anything from pan-seared monkfish to vermillion snapper to swordfish with gin-pickled root vegetables and fried leek straws.

Desserts are so good they may fool you into thinking that Postmaster has a dedicated pastry chef. Lopez and his crew work their magic by keeping the list short, sweet and seasonal, typically just one or two options. I suppose I’ll have to wait another year for an encore appearance of the chestnut spoonbread that still haunts me. In the meantime, my mouth is already watering over the new menu’s tantalizingly terse description of an Arnold Palmer tart: “almond frangipane, lemon curd, sweet tea meringue.”

A streamlined urban decor — stained concrete floors, barrel back barstools and brushed metal chairs, a stark abstract black and white mural behind the bar — contributes its share to “bringing downtown Raleigh to Cary.” In fair weather, garage doors open onto a patio.

Postmaster’s name is a nod to Cary’s founder, Frank Page, who established the town’s first post office. Like Pharmacy Bottle + Beverage (whose name is a tribute to Mitchell Pharmacy, longtime occupant of the space where the bottle shop now stands), the name is tangible evidence of Watt’s appreciation for the history of a town whose downtown area he is helping to revitalize.

But by no means is his vision stuck in the past. One visit to Postmaster makes that abundantly clear.

Postmaster

160 E. Cedar St., Suite 100, Cary

919-378-9493

postmastercary.com

Cuisine: contemporary Southern

Rating: 4 stars

Prices: $$

Atmosphere: streamlined urban contemporary

Noise level: moderate

Service: attentive, knowledgeable and enthusiastic

Recommended: take your pick, it’s all good

Open: Dinner Tuesday-Saturday (Sunday brunch coming soon)

Reservations: accepted

Other: full bar; get a sitter; modest vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot.

The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.

The dollar signs defined:$ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.

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