The name Courtyard Grill doesn't reveal much about this Uptown restaurant, and a cursory glance at a menu stocked with items like hummus, grape leaves and kebabs doesn't do much to distinguish it from the casual Middle Eastern cafes this city already has in abundance. But I discovered Courtyard Grill is quite different, and the first evidence arrived in the bread basket.
Instead of the expected pita, it was filled with a sliced loaf of puffy, airy, house-made bread with a quilted, golden, crisp crust, along with a bowl of agili, a spicy, aromatic mix of tomatoes, garlic and olive oil for dipping. What followed was no ordinary kebab plate but the Iskandar kabab, a large platter mounded with strips of thin-cut crusty lamb and beef laid over hunks of crusty bread, all smothered in a mellow, buttery-smooth tomato gravy. Dessert was another surprise. Bypassing the baklava, we cut into a poached pear stuffed with walnuts and drizzled with chocolate.
Courtyard Grill serves a crossroads cuisine, specializing in regal dishes from both the Turkish and Persian traditions. While many items look familiar on the menu, they often turn out very differently on the plate. The baba ghanoush, for instance, starts as the usual smoky, creamy eggplant spread, but the special version here is served over layers of sliced, grilled eggplant and topped by a fresh mix of sauteed vegetables and sumac. Doner is the Turkish rendition of those vertically grilled meats common in Middle Eastern restaurants, and it's all over Courtyard Grill's menu. Here, though, the doner slices of beef and lamb are more artfully combined for traditional dishes that stand out. For the döner durum, the meat is wrapped in thin, lavash-like bread and sliced into thick cylinders arrayed around basmati rice, dabbed with yogurt and drenched with more of that buttery tomato sauce. For the hunkar begendi, pureed roasted eggplant and melted, stringy kashkaval cheese provide the foundation for a chunky mince of alternately rare and crusty lamb. Packed into the house bread, these meats also make sandwiches that beat the standard pita wrap hands down.
Courtyard Grill opened last spring in the building that had been Tee-Eva's praline and sno-ball shop for 16 years. Tee-Eva's moved up Magazine Street, and the bright, mural-covered shop underwent a complete transformation. The kitchen is in front, visible from the sidewalk, and the dining room is in a cozy, cloistered space far back from the street — accessed by an elaborate side deck, ostensibly the namesake courtyard.
Courtyard Grill is different than the local Middle Eastern standard, but the appeal of its hearty, robustly flavorful, attractively presented cooking is easy to grasp. To really do it up, order the gargantuan mixed kebab or the even larger kebab combo, which are both family-style feasts containing enough meat for four or more people. Work through your choice of wine (the restaurant is currently BYOB, but a bar is in the works) together with this collection of grilled beef, lamb and chicken and you're in for a dinner that affirms a unifying pleasure of the table that spans many different traditions.