Change is a constant. The 180-year-old building at 21 George St. in the ByWard Market has seen its share of it, and I’ve come back to the 30-year-old Courtyard Restaurant because of a change in the kitchen.
My last report was in 2007, when Marc LÃ©pine was the executive chef. Under his charge, the Courtyard’s banal continental cuisine was tossed out and a new menu of small plates – complex, fascinating and ultimately rewarding – was offered up, giving the old restaurant a new culinary identity.
But LÃ©pine left the Courtyard early in 2008 to open Atelier on Rochester Street (reviewed in this space in January). Michael Hay now leads the kitchen team, and though he’s kept a few LÃ©pine-like moves (olive oil-compressed this and liquid nitrogen-frozen that), his menu marks a return to a more conventional three-course progression and dishes that have more mass-appeal.
My first taste of Hay’s cooking was in January, and though there were some fine moments, there were more rough spots than rewards at that dinner. As well, we shivered in the dining room, most of the food arrived late and tepid, and the service lacked polish. I decided the kitchen had not yet found its feet, and gave it some time.
My second taste was five months later – a lunch on the Courtyard patio, filled and fun, with service that knew its business and food that was fresh and well-prepared.
I should have stopped there, because dinner last week was again a mixed bag of the delicious and the dreary.
Here’s what has worked well: Pristine oysters from Whalesbone. A lovely compressed brick of watermelon, served with strings of pickled watermelon rind and carpaccio rings of candy cane beets. Lovely, too, was the starter of perfectly grilled asparagus topped with a poached egg, thin shavings of black truffles and a scattering of bacon lardons. And we like the grilled calamari – the squid fresh and tender, nicely charred, served with spaghetti strips of marinated cucumber. In fact, other than the wan flavour in a chunky gazpacho (though the crown of cucumber sorbet is fun), the starters work well.
The main dishes are generally less successful. Halibut is overcooked and under-seasoned. The magret of duck is tough and dry (though we do like its carrot and ginger sauce, its side of braised beet greens), and the tagliatelle pasta is too thick and too gummy, the strips of smoked salmon that weave through them missing smoky flavour. The sauce, tasting of tomato and lemon, bombs.
A lunch burger was fine, though the side of fries and salad were nothing special.
Desserts are different and mostly work well. There are beignets stuffed with pastry cream, served with pistachio ice cream; strawberries cooked in verjus and basil, and a grown-up gorgonzola cheesecake with a nutty crust. The sound of the smores appeals more than it delivers; the chocolate cake, marshmallow ice cream and exploding truffle are each too ordinary, and the sum doesn’t have much appeal.
The Courtyard wine list remains an extensive document with fair prices.
One change is the electronic plasmatic screen that “welcomes” us and arrows us upstairs for dinner, or to the left if we are a private party.
Forgive an old girl for saying so, but when I’m about to spend upward of $120 for dinner for two in a 180-year-old building, could I please be greeted graciously by a real, live host?