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I have to have an excuse to order food when I go out to hear music. Whenever I’m at Blues Alley, for example, I allow myself a sandwich, figuring that an extra 10 bucks or so is nothing compared to how much I got taken for at the door. It’s crucial to arrive early to get a good seat at the Birchmere, so I usually order a burger to kill time before the show starts. I had some vegetarian chili once at the 9:30 Club, because a friend gave it to me. At a gospel brunch, I order Bloody Marys.
The point is that I don’t expect clubs to run exceptional kitchens, or restaurants to put on entertaining concerts. Doing just one thing well is hard enough.
Nowhere has this been more apparent to me than at the Courtyard, a folk club/cafe in Falls Church. Folkie communities are famously small and tightknit. But while the clubs, coffee shops, and restaurants that cater to such groups are generally unpretentious shoestring operations, the Courtyard has been designed to look like a castle on a Mediterranean island.
Compared with everything else in the strip mall it’s located in (Petsmart, Montgomery Ward), the Courtyard is alien and wild. It’s full of foliage, trellises are painted on the high windows, and beams are made to look like tree trunks. During the cold months, a fire rages in both the main dining room/concert hall and the attached bar. The dreamy scene of hills, sky, and water painted on the wall behind the stage is just a goblin and a sorcerer away from Dungeons and Dragons territory. In short, the place is as cheesy as a bad fantasy novel. One night a folk singer onstage comments that she could “see Billie Holiday playing in a place like this.” Yeah, whatever. Try a Yes cover band.
The atmosphere is supposed to reflect the “rustic” Mediterranean cuisine, both “New World” and “Old World,” that comes out of the kitchen. At least I think that’s the idea; the weirdness at the Courtyard is enough to be disorienting. On my first visit, the strangest experience isn’t taking in the scene, or listening to the new-agey sounds of a harp-and-lute duo while watching the basketball game on a television in the bar. What I can’t fathom is that this place could serve such an exquisite meal.
Buried underneath the salad fettunta’s Stilton and chopped veggies are two oversize, freshly toasted croutons that serve as crunchy flavor centers, soaking up whatever trickles down in the Dijon vinaigrette. The risotto is simple, its richness derived from a few hunks of lamb, several tender cremini mushrooms, and some fresh shreds of parmesan. I later tell friends how great the Courtyard could be if only someone would break in and vandalize the place.
I spoke too soon. The Courtyard is nothing if not ambitious, and that’s its main problem. The kitchen seems intent on inventing its own cuisine, and the skills just aren’t there, much less the ideas. Take the nachos: slivers of sweet potatoes cut and then burned to resemble ripple potato chips and covered with white rice, jalapeños, onions, cheese, and spicy mayo. The dish is also available with maple sausage. One starter item is described on the menu as “catfish goujonettes with red pepper sauce.” It’s actually a salad with the red pepper sauce as dressing and a few scrawny pieces of fish thrown on top. A couple of appetizers, like the black-eyed pea falafel and the crawfish bisque, kind of work. But why are the french fries and onion rings both served with honey mustard sauce? Must be one of those “New World” Mediterranean things.
One nice feature is that all the salads and specialty entrees are available in half orders, the perfect size for trying one of each. I recommend, however, sticking with the burgers and sandwiches. It’s dangerous to toy with the products of the kitchen’s creative impulses.
In one dish, pasta is combined with pistachio pesto, green beans, and potatoes; in another, it’s iffy mussels, tomatoes, and Old Bay cream sauce. Venison stew, seasoned with cinnamon, orange zest, and thyme and served over burly noodles, is almost impossible to eat. Even the salads are overdone. One involves vegetables, bulgur wheat, and an acrid lemon-tarragon vinaigrette. The spinach saladmushrooms, tomatoes, raisins, pistachios, salty ham, deviled egg salad, and sherry vinaigretteis like some horrid health drink that never made it to the blender. Not even the waiter can tell us why one insipid pasta dishwith goat cheese, whole olives, asparagus, and green tomatoeslooks purple. The dessert menu grants no relief. Our beignets are burned.
In the spirit of fairness, most of the service I encounter at the Courtyard is first-rate. When I call, I always get someone breathlessly endorsing the evening’s artist, and the waiters seem proud of what they serve. The Courtyard is big enough that I doubt the management will ever consistently fill it up without tapping name talent or bringing the food down to earth. But I never find the place empty. In its own preposterous way, the Courtyard fulfills its mission. It’s suburban, laid-back, a touch new-agey, very much tackya monument to awkward middle age. One night, I ask a guy, a regular who enjoys the food and the atmosphere, what he thinks is the idea behind the place. To summarize, he says that he doesn’t believe in marriage and that the Courtyard offers something for “everybody.” It’s frightening to imagine that “everybody” is probably out there.
The Courtyard, 6108 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church. (703) 533-2828.
One of Lazy Sundae’s owners encourages dropping by his ice cream shop after having “some Vietnamese food down the street.” If you do as he says, I recommend eating a light dinner, especially if you order the monstrous four-scoop/four-topping sundae that’s the house specialty. Among the flavors, I’m partial to the perfectly tart key lime pie, with its crunchy bits of graham cracker crust. The ice cream is firm, rich, and, as I found, impressively resistant to melting. A woman behind the counter says this is due to the product’s being homemade. It could also be that I eat fast.
Lazy Sundae, 2925 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. (703) 525-4960.
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to
firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.