4430 Magazine St.,
New Orleans, , LA 70115
Napoleon's Rating - ***/*****
Looking at its name, I initially pegged Courtyard Grill as the sort of everyday restaurant you'd find inside an airport hotel. Looking just a little closer, this time at a menu with items like hummus, falafel and kabobs, and I assumed Courtyard Grill was akin to the casual Middle Eastern cafes this town already has in abundance.
Both assumptions were dead wrong, however. This place is about Turkish and Persian food, and it took just one meal here to discover the difference this makes.
The address for Courtyard Grill was formerly the home of Tee Eva's, that colorful praline and sno-ball shop that moved up the street a few years back. The space is hardly recognizable today. The namesake courtyard is really a modest, attractive deck running alongside the building, while the cozy dining room is tucked away far back from the street.
Waitresses here have been efficient enough, and also enthusiastic about the menu, which is important since so many items will likely be unfamiliar to most diners. They do a good job of explaining the differences and characteristics of what you're considering and it's always nice to have someone as excited about serving certain dishes as I am about trying them.
Right from the start, we could tell we were in for a different sort of meal at Courtyard Grill by the basket of bread brought to the table. We automatically expected pita, but instead discovered a homemade loaf of puffy, golden bread, closer to focaccia, and a bowl of a spicy, oily tomato and garlic dip called agili.
Portions are very large here, and after the complimentary bread it's not really necessary to do first courses. Still, the savory pies make a small indulgence, with a bit of seasoned beef wrapped in flaky layers of dough. The "courtyard baba ghanoush," a house specialty, was set apart by a bed of grilled eggplant slices beneath the smoky, creamy eggplant dip itself, adding structure and texture. The regular hummus wasn't nearly so exciting, lacking the seasoning and citric spark of better versions.
Much of the menu here is divided between kabobs, doner and sandwiches. Kabobs are kabobs, but at Courtyard Grill the Iskandar kabob is different. It's a huge platter mounded with sliced lamb and beef, all built over more of the crusty house bread that has been soaked in a tomato and butter sauce.
Doner is the Turkish equivalent of the pressed, grilled meats you see rotating in the kitchens of Middle Eastern restaurants everywhere, and like those other renditions doner is sliced for platters and sandwiches. At Courtyard Grill this doner-style beef and lamb is also wrapped in thin sheets of bread, sliced into disks, sauced with yogurt and arranged around basmati rice for the doner durum.
The sandwiches sound conventional enough, but most are made on that wonderful house bread again, which makes them much more interesting than yet another pita wrap. The meats are packed into these sandwiches, which also boast profusions of very fresh vegetables and pickled onions. The falafel is herbal and chunky, coarse and loose with a thick crust and bright green interior, though it proved dry and needed a dose of yogurt sauce to revive it. This doesn't seem like a great place for a burger, but the burger here is indeed very good, made with a half-pound patty of organically-raised beef on a French bread bun.
Skewers of grilled chicken, beef or lamb make more familiar presentations, though it's worth experimenting and branching out a bit. That's how I discovered the hünkar begendi, which was a platter of chunks of lamb over baba ghanoush all held together by stretchy, mellow kashkaval cheese.
Baklava would seem like the default dessert, but there are different and more interesting options. Try the poached pear, which is cored, stuffed with walnuts and then dressed up with an eruption of whipped cream and chocolate sauce for a cool, light and refreshing finish.
The bar stocks some unusual Greek-brand beers, along with some more conventional domestic choices. The tea and even the water get dashes of orange blossom water for an extra bit of Mediterranean flavor. The yogurt drink looks like a dessert, but it's light enough and its sour flavor goes very well with the grilled meats and vegetables.
Courtyard Grill is a serious bargain, especially when the amount of food per dish is properly understood. Two people could split one appetizer and one entrée and leave perfectly satisfied. Most entrees are between $13 and $16, while sandwiches are under $10 and most appetizers are $6.
Middle Eastern restaurants tend to follow the same script so closely you can usually order without so much as looking at the menu. But Courtyard Grill is a much different experience. While the fundamentals of grilled meats, hummus, yogurt and olive oil are much the same, it all comes together in a different and exciting way. It's worth taking a little time with the menu to pick unfamiliar items. By all means come here with a few people to sample around the impressively large platters and uncommon specialties.