Our waitress looked worried, clearly at a loss for a reply. ``I'll go ask the manager,' she told us.
I watched as she queried two men in the open, visible kitchen. They looked confused.Finally, she returned. ``That starts Monday night,' she replied.
Later in the evening, I double checked the advertisement, which appeared in last Friday's News & Record. It clearly offered complementary appetizers 5-7 p.m., and it did NOT say anything about starting Monday night.
Unfortunately, that experience, or variations on it, characterized all too many visits to Courtyard Cafe.
One evening, my party ordered a bottle of wine. The list is well-chosen and fairly priced, with good selections by the glass for as little as $2.75. Our server, earnest and pleasant, simply did not know how to serve it. On another occasion, we waited at length for the first course to arrive, then just as long or longer between courses. We gave up after three hours, never getting a chance to order dessert.
In the restaurant's defense, the staff consistently and cheerfully corrected every misstep. This was not special treatment. If they had recognized me, the mistakes would not have kept recurring. Alas, the faux pas were not confined to service.
Once the appetizers arrived in their correct form, they were excellent.
Fried Calamari ($5.95 for a portion easily large enough for two) ranks among the best in the Triad - crusty-crisp, yet with tender, tasty rings. On two of four occasions, however, the cucumber-yogurt sauce arrived in a liquid state, tasting essentially like buttermilk. The other two times, it lent a subtle, pleasant complement to the natural flavor of the calamari.
Grilled Sausages ($3.50) showed the mark and flavor of the grill, with a tomato salsa and champagne mustard vinaigrette as accents. Grilled Vegetables ($2.95) included zucchini and eggplant, the sharply scored areas adding another dimension to their natural, unadorned flavor, along with Fried Onion Rings - crisp and delicious.
Courtyard Cafe earns special points for value among the entrees, with several in the $6-$10 range.
Meat Calzone ($6.75) was outstanding - a wonderful, yeasty crust surrounding ground beef, sausage and pepperoni, all resting in a rich tomato sauce. We're talking street-corner Rome, here! Grilled Scallops ($6.95) represent one of the best bargains in the Triad - medium-large sea scallops, butter-tender, placed in a green salad dressed with balsamic vinaigrette, plus fresh-cut french fries.
Cheese Tortellini ($8.95) - spinach and egg pasta stuffed with cheese - justified similar praise. Grilled Pork Tenderloin ($8.95) had been accented with ginger, mustard and lemon - a striking, vivid dish. On one of two occasions, the meat was dry, however.
In only a slightly higher price bracket, Angel Hair Pasta with Shrimp ($10.95) included eight medium-size shrimp, perfectly cooked, in an herbed wine-tomato-mushroom sauce, plus cheese. Shrimp Scampi ($10.50) constituted a traditional preparation, broiled in white wine, garlic and butter - one of the better renditions of this classic I have had lately.
Lamb Shish Kabob ($12.50) benefited from subtle herbing. This, too, suffered a bit from dryness, although I would order it again, anyway, for the flavor.
During the summer, Courtyard Cafe's pizzas ($7-25-$9.95) were ranked in the top category. These remain highly recommended, with better quality ingredients than those found in pizza parlors, at generally better prices. Three steaks have been added to the menu since the restaurant (formerly Agora) changed ownership.
The look of the interior remains downright vibrant - colorful and novel, with the ambiance of an arbor, enclosing a Greek outdoor cafe-market. Original art decorates the walls. Sometimes live piano music adds to the pleasant ambiance.
In compensation for the problems enumerated above, servers often brought a complimentary slice of cheese cake. That cheese cake is excellent - a creamy version. I found myself hoping for another mistake on each visit so I could get some more.
That note pretty well summarizes my overall reaction to Courtyard Cafe. I wonder who's in charge, or if anyone is. Whatever the problem, a pleasant staff always makes up for it. And the food is better than just about anywhere else in the Triad, at the price.
The overall rating, of course, reflects my reaction to the food, although I have enumerated caveats.
I found myself regretting having to report the problems. I like this place, and I would readily go back. I just hope they last long enough to polish their performance.
John Batchelor's restaurant reviews appear the first four Fridays of each month in Weekend. If you have a comment about a restaurant, write him at P.O. Box 583, Graham, N.C. 27253.