Postmaster Restaurant & Bar
160 E. Cedar St., Cary
It’s 8:00 p.m. on Halloween, not the time most people are thinking about creative New American cuisine.
But that’s exactly what I venture out in search of, and exactly what I find, having roamed a mostly empty I-40 and a series of moneyed suburban boulevards to downtown Cary. My destination is Postmaster, the two-year-old establishment helmed by Christopher Lopez, an alumnus of Ashley Christiansen’s now-shuttered Joule who brings with him the skills, bona fides, and community of her Raleigh-conquering empire.
I have a reservation, but Postmaster is mostly empty, which I chalk up to the holiday and the line of thunderstorms soon to move through the region. The dining room, even depopulated, is exquisite, slotted into a corner of an invitingly modernist shopping center.
From the outside, the restaurant looks utopian, like a 1950s postcard depicting a clean-lined and fashionable future. Inside, it’s all warm wood and burnished concrete, every surface sparkling in a tasteful, dappled glow. If nothing else, it’s one of the prettiest restaurants in the Triangle.
I sit at the bar and await my dining companion, a longtime friend and gastronomic collaborator. His arrival changes the vibe; the empty dining room suddenly feels warmly conspiratorial, laconically and welcomingly louche, like a dive bar kept open after-hours. He takes his seat and joins me in a glass of vermouth.
Moments later, the sky opens up and sheeting rain blurs the outside world. Postmaster, glassed-in and cozy, is a sudden and unexpected haven.
The first dish to arrive should grab your attention, especially if you’ve ever been a child in search of after-school snacks: Ants on a Log. It’s a thoroughly deconstructed presentation, and would be almost annoyingly clever if it weren’t pulled off with such aplomb. We’re invited to dip celery into a smear of tahini-hazelnut butter flecked with pickled currant “ants.” The spread’s mild sweetness is offset by the savory celeriness of the celery and punctuated by the crunch of popped farro. The dish is both familiar and arrestingly exotic, a touchstone of Postmaster’s cooking.
A ridiculous salad follows, local seasonal greens tossed with candy-sweet peanut brittle and topped with a three-inch snowfall of manchego.
In my experience, the archetype for local salad transcendence is a singed-lettuce example from Death & Taxes that I sampled a few years ago. The salad from Postmaster doesn’t quite reach those heights, but it certainly matches its intensity, with a blinding vinaigrette and earthy cheese punching against the pop and crumble of sugary peanut brittle. It’s a bit much—even shared between two people—but it’s admirably ambitious.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is Postmaster’s traditional take on baba ganoush. It’s nothing if not reverent, the eggplant nebulous and creamy, tinged just so with smoke and lemon. My advice: Order this dish first. Its subtlety makes it easily pushed around by the eye-watering piquancy of the salad.
A recommendation from a group of late-arriving regulars leads us to the seared N.C. scallops. The mollusks themselves are fine—delicious, actually—but the accompanying curried collard greens steal the show. They have the sense of coiled explosive potential that comes with perfectly cooked greens, juicy layers coated in a ferocious, lemony curry.
Postmaster often enhances its dishes with out-of-left-field bursts of sweetness, perhaps in homage to the subtle influence of Middle Eastern and North African cooking in its cuisine. This is a deft way to add little pops of surprise to otherwise savory preparations, but it’s taken to an extreme with the duck confit. A generous duck leg comes shellacked in a not-quite-sticky glaze reminiscent of canard a l’orange. The leg rests atop sweet potato “gnocchi” (more like crispy little yam dumplings) affixed in whipped Cambozola and a wild, brambly gastrique of muscadine grapes.
It’s pretty sweet, but it works. Every drag of crispy duck through the foxy, grapey sauce makes me wonder if it’s too sweet—before I dive in for more. In the end, we gnaw the bone clean; call it a grown-up Halloween sugar binge.
We enjoy the duck alongside a Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Cooper Hill, one of several decent choices on the short wine list. As usual, I want more options, but the list is affordable and contains its share of small-production wines. The cocktail menu isn’t particularly exciting, but the aforementioned pre-prandial vermouth came from the bartender’s expert recommendation—always a sign of a healthy drinks program.
And now, dear reader, the highlight of the evening, which is also the menu’s most conspicuous outlier. Among the passionate experimentation and odes to global cuisine’s deepest cuts is a humble cottage pie.
It’s not a visually inviting dish, nor even a particularly attractive one. It looks, in fact, like a carpet of instant potatoes draped over a plate of stew.
Mashed potatoes. Slow-cooked short ribs. Roasted carrots. These are not difficult ingredients. This combination shouldn’t challenge an average home cook, let alone a professional chef. A cottage pie should be a no-brainer, an afterthought, a bone thrown to unadventurous diners.
But that makes the stupefying succulence of Postmaster’s cottage pie so thrilling.
The potatoes, defying first impressions, are cloud-like and diaphanous, evidently suffused with a small dairy’s worth of butter. The meaty, shallot-sweetened, jus-drenched filling is as warming as an electric blanket.
It’s a big, dumb, obvious slab of comfort food, just executed flawlessly and with unfathomable attention to detail.
Eventually, the rain stops. The remains of a pumpkin cheesecake decorate the bar top, alongside two drained glasses of Fernet and the occasional stray lentil. My friend and I part ways. I drive back to Durham through the storm-scoured evening, a lightly steaming to-go box on the passenger seat.
That cottage pie might be delicious, but, man, is it ever huge.
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