Apparently 2,500 post offices across the country face closure in the next 18 months, which is making everyone feel a bit cross. My local post office bit the dust last year, in spite of the fact that there were always long queues streaming out of the door. Local celebrities protested, we all petitioned, but no correspondence was entered into. Bound to be a trendy wine bar, everyone grumbled. But now, in its place, we have... an empty, disused post office. So I can neither post a letter to my friends, nor invite them out for a drink.
The people of Banstead, Surrey, are a bit luckier. Their big, old-fashioned high-street post office has been transformed into a big, new-fashioned food store, brasserie and restaurant complex by Tony Tobin, the popular Ready, Steady Cook-er.
Tobin and his business partner, Peter Wood, the director of Esure.com, already have a large Surrey fan base, thanks to their successful restaurant, The Dining Room, in nearby Reigate. Post, however, is a far more ambitious effort, having taken a good year and £2.6 million to complete.
The street front is taken up with a glossy, well-stocked deli full of good-looking produce, including top-notch charcuterie, cheeses from the fabulous Fine Cheese Company in Bath, a variety of breads baked on the premises, and lots of preserves, pastas, and oils. Tucked in behind the deli, in what used to be the mail-sorting room, is a buzzy, open-plan brasserie with huge skylight, mirrored walls, wood-fired pizza oven, cocktail bar, smartly moulded chairs and bare, shiny-topped tables.
Instead of pigeon holes for letters, there are now tall, handsome wood-framed racks for wine. Beneath them, a good-natured crowd are drinking cocktails and tucking into a something-for-everyone menu of pasta, pizza, burgers, steak and salads.
Regretfully, I turn away and trudge up the office-like stairs to the smaller, more intimate restaurant. I suspect it is here that Tobin's heart really lies - as does the rest of him, clad in chef's whites, beavering away in the postage stamp-sized upstairs kitchen. The space used to be the postal workers' rec room, although back then, it probably didn't have double-clothed tables, waves of etched glass, handsome cream banquettes, swish swivel dining chairs and discreetly checked, somewhat cottagey curtains. Yes, we have landed on Planet Fine Dining, with all the drop in atmosphere and rise in prices that entails.
The trouble with fine dining is that you then have to do things to justify the tag. Tobin has done away with à la carte and instituted three seven-course, set-priced menus entitled Temptation, Desire and Seduction, at £28, £36 and £42 per head respectively. It sounds twee, but it succeeds in differentiating itself from downstairs and from the Reigate operation, which is probably the point.
At least it is flexible enough for two people to order two different menus on the table, which makes them more Tempting and Seductive. I won't do a bite-by-bite description on all 14 dishes, but both menus kick off with what the waiter calls "a Jerusalem of artichoke soup". Served in an angular Villeroy & Boch cup and saucer, it is a little froth of beautifully balanced creaminess that both tempts and seduces.
Ever more fanciful small platters arrive at a civilised pace, bearing mainly well-crafted, pretty little miniatures. From the Seduction menu, the highlights are a crisp-bottomed, oblong tart of confit tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella, a clever surf'n'turf combination of sautéed halibut on shreddy oxtail, and the "cheese course", a slab of a sensational, full-bodied triple cream cheese from Burgundy called Délice d'Argental, served with good damson purée and crisp oat biscuits. Lowlight is a bland, tightly cooked lobster ravioli in a creamy bisque sauce. Better is the hand-furled tortellini, or more correctly, pacchetti, of mascarpone, smoked bacon and pesto in a sweetly acidic tomato fondue on the Temptation side of the table, and a pig-out of pork medallions and black pudding served on tangy choucroute. A custardy little lemon and poppy seed "cassonnade" tastes a little oily.
Everyone is trying very hard to make this quite complex menu idea work - perhaps a little too hard. Does Surrey need all these bells and whistles to feel it has had a good night out? A gentle move towards a simpler, more classical style would not necessarily be a vote against innovation and imagination. Relaxing it a bit might allow what is already a good kitchen to do better, and could lighten up the atmosphere as well, which tends to be all hushed twosomes.
The wine list is small and a bit punishing, with prices that start where downstairs leaves off. There are only four bottles under £30, including a decent, clean, spicy Poderi Colla Barbera d'Alba (£29).
Post is clearly pitched at the more comfortable end of the Surrey fringe, extending their options from Pizza Express and Zizzi, and introducing a few trends from the big city. There is still some fine-tuning to be done with the concept, but I imagine it won't be too long before they get it sorted. s
Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 OK 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Post, 28 High Street, Banstead, Surrey, tel: 01737 373 839
Breakfast, lunch and dinner served daily in the brasserie. Dinner served Wednesday to Saturday in the restaurant, around £115 for two, including wine and service
Second helpings: More post offices-turned-restaurants
The Restaurant Bar & Grill Old Post Office, 3 City Square, Leeds, tel: 0113 244 9625 What was once the General Post Office is now one of Leeds' favourite meeting places, with a full-throttle bar scene and scatter-gun menu running from Thai curry to fish and chips.
The Old Post Office Greenwood Lane, St Fagans, Cardiff, tel: 029 2056 5400 It might sound cutesy pie, but The Old Post Office is actually a cool and minimalist restaurant, with chef Simon Kealy putting his stamp on things in the kitchen.
The Old Post Office Rosebush, Clynderwen, Pembrokeshire, tel: 01437 532 205 This time the quaint name is matched by an equally quaint 136-year-old slate cottage housing a cosy, family-run restaurant and tearooms.
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