Raleigh and Durham have reaped a bonanza of topnotch seafood restaurants lately, starting with the opening of St. Roch a year ago. The Cortez, Saint James and the Saltbox Seafood Joint (a second location, this one with indoor seating) have since landed on our shores.
Then why, you might ask, would I drive to the outer reaches of the Triangle to eat at Postal Fish Company in Pittsboro?
I can think of lots of reasons, actually, some of them surprising. How about a daily changing menu (which, commendably, is kept current on the restaurant’s website) that frequently includes one or two fish varieties you won’t find elsewhere? And seafood that’s as fresh and expertly prepared as you’ll find in these parts?
Oh, and because chef-partners James Clark and Bill Hartley take turns driving to the coast to buy seafood directly off the boats, it’s a bargain to boot.
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This “cut out the middleman” strategy is at the heart of a long-held dream for the partners, who met a decade ago while working at the Grande Dunes resort in Myrtle Beach. They continued to refine their plan after both took jobs at The Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill, where Clark was executive chef and Hartley was executive sous chef.
The opening of Postal Fish Company last October was the realization of their dream.
They call their style “coastal cooking in a Piedmont kitchen,” which translates to a varied offering of small plates, steamed and raw shellfish, “Dinner Plates” (a Southern-accented handful of seafood and other main course offerings) and “Hand Selected From the Docks.”
Drop your line into that last category, and you might pull up a Sunburst trout from the cold mountain waters of western North Carolina. A generous fillet, grilled to a sweetly succulent turn, the fish recently landed on the plate half submerged beneath a tangle of shaved fennel, radish, red onion, arugula and cornbread crumbles in a charred citrus and burnt honey vinaigrette.
Or you might hook a fish seldom seen this far inland: wood-grilled Southport cobia, or black drum, or pan-roasted N.C. sheepshead with sugar snap peas, cardoon and carrot puree, and a crab roe velouté. The unusual variety of the offering is palatable proof of the owners’ passion for showcasing underappreciated fish — which, precisely because they’re unfamiliar to the general public, also happen to be bargains. Based on my experience at Postal Fish Company, they’re all keepers, too.
On the other hand, if you prefer to sail in familiar waters, you’ll find plenty to choose from. Peel ’n’ eat N.C. shrimp are fat and flavorful, whether you opt to get them chilled with Old Bay, cocktail sauce and lemon, or wood-grilled with garlic butter. Littleneck clams, steamed in beer, butter and scallions, are exemplary.
Oysters on the half-shell — typically four varieties are offered from the waters of Virginia and the Carolinas — are flawlessly fresh and expertly shucked. And, not to sound like a broken record, they’re a bargain at $24 a dozen.
Shrimp and grits with country ham madeira gravy is a plateful of Southern comfort with a touch of Old World elegance. Blackened Carolina catfish, likewise, gets a dressing up in the form of dirty risotto and tomato jam.
But if it’s Southern comfort, Carolina style, that you’re craving, look no further than the Cedar Island Fry. Catfish, oysters and jumbo shrimp, all perfectly cooked in a light, crisp breading, are piled onto a parchment paper-lined plate with hushpuppies, house-made potato chips (a welcome twist on the usual fries) and crunchy icebox slaw.
The house recipe seafood breader is so good you may be surprised that it’s gluten-free. The seafood is fried in a dedicated gluten-free fryer, too, and (at least in part because Hartley’s mother and sister both suffer from celiac disease) the menu is liberally sprinkled with a “GF” denoting gluten-free options.
Vegetarians won’t go hungry, either, with options like butterbean hummus, spinach and local strawberry salad, and the excellent asparagus salad that was offered recently, served over mixed greens in a sparkling Creole mustard vinaigrette and topped with goat cheese crumbles and a sunnyside-up duck egg.
You can also count on a vegetarian option under the Dinner Plates heading, too, a frequently changing selection that — depending on the local harvest — might be anything from fresh linguine with stewed Haw River mushrooms and dandelion greens to spring carrot and goat cheese ravioli with “Sugar Ann” peas and mint basil pesto.
Still, Postal Fish Company is primarily and unapologetically a seafood place. The menu typically offers just one nonseafood animal protein, and although I understand a red meat dish is sometimes offered, I have yet to see one listed. That said, I recently enjoyed a smoked onion barbecue chicken dish that proves that these guys can flat out cook even if what they’re cooking wasn’t pulled from the water somewhere.
So can James Clark’s wife. Pastry chef Marcey Clark trained at the New England Culinary School in Vermont (where she met her future husband) and was previously pastry chef at Elements in Chapel Hill. I would give serious consideration to driving to Pittsboro just for an encore presentation of the black walnut tart I enjoyed a few weeks ago, or the superb, flaky-crusted strawberry hand pie I had more recently.
In the unlikely event that I haven’t already given you sufficient reasons to rack up a few extra miles on your car, you can add the fact that Pittsboro is a charming historic town, and Postal Fish Company is a five-minute walk from the landmark county courthouse and an eclectic collection of shops. Located in the old post office, the restaurant is a casual contemporary space with a few vestiges of the former occupant’s presence — the polished concrete floors still show the shadowy outlines of the tiles that were once there — to give a sense of history.
Service is small-town friendly, and at the same time, well-trained. If you aren’t familiar with one of the fish varieties on the menu, there’s a good chance your server will be able to describe its flavor and texture. Or you can sit at the counter where you can ask one of the chefs as you watch your food being cooked.
OK, now that you’ve decided that it’s worth the drive, one word of caution. Get reservations, especially if you’re going on a weekend. Judging by the crowds when I’ve been there, a lot of people have already discovered the place.
Postal Fish Company
75 W. Salisbury St., Pittsboro
Rating: 4 stars
Atmosphere: casual, contemporary makeover of a former post office
Noise level: moderate to high
Service: welcoming and well-trained
Recommended: pretty much everything — and don’t skip dessert
Open: dinner Tuesday-Saturday, brunch Sunday
Reservations: strongly recommended on weekends
Other: full bar; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; parking on street and in the lot across the street
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.