Friday, November 20, 2009

Court Square Diner & Cafe

UPDATE: Court Square Diner is CLOSED.

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I only have one question for myself: Why?

Why, in the name of all that is just and true, did I leave my comfortable home this evening, drive one mile north up Strawberry Hill Avenue, veer off to the left onto Prospect Avenue, and make that fateful stop at Court Square Diner & Cafe? Call it a hopeful diversion; call it an optimistic vision of deliciousness; call it stupidity.

I was so hoping that this little diner/cafe in the neighborhood would be so much more than it was. When I spotted it a mile from our house a couple of weeks ago, I was excited. Could it be that one quaint little place to frequent—a place that we could call our own; our very own Cheers—in such a convenient location? It could be, but it wasn't. In all fairness, Court Square Diner & Cafe felt like a neighborhood favorite, with folks greeting one another as if they had known them all their lives; I just don't think it would be my neighborhood favorite.

Oh, it's innocent enough looking. Split into two halves—a more formal (and I use that term loosely) dining room, and a separate bar area—Court Square fooled me with the delicious aromas escaping from the kitchen. So naturally, my expectations were buoyed by this. It didn't look like your typical greasy spoon diner. But when I first walked in, the bright harsh lights of the dining area nearly burned a hole clear through my retina. Either I would have been blinded from sitting in there, or I would have walked away feeling like I had been sitting in an interrogation room, so I took a seat in the bar area. There were already roughly ten people in the bar when I arrived, but they were surprisingly sedate for a Friday evening.

With thirteen chairs situated at the bar, and only six tables that would accommodate up to four, it wasn’t a very large room, but it was non-smoking so that was a plus. Behind the bar, there were a variety of wines, liquors and spirits, yet there wasn't a drink menu in sight. I guess it would be up to the patron to ask "Do you have this? Do you have that?" until he hit upon a match. I looked at the beer tap and ordered a Samuel Adams Boston Lager.

The special for the evening was a Seafood Crepe with Scallops and Crab Meat in a Cream Sauce. Mmmmm, that sounded good. But first, I needed to order an appetizer. Most of the items were what you would see on a typical bar menu—mozzarella sticks, buffalo wings, chicken fingers, calamari—but there was also jumbo shrimp cocktail and Boston crab cakes. My decision was made. Not many places can make crab cakes the way they do in Maryland, but I'm always on the lookout for that next great crab cake.

It didn't take long for the crab cakes to come out, which was surprising given the completely crusty and overcooked hockey pucks that had the audacity to sit on the plate in front of me; it looked like they had been cooking for hours. Did they taste as bad as they looked? You betcha! I guess they thought they were being generous by giving me three crab cakes for $9.95. And even though the menu stated the crab cakes were served over mixed greens with red pepper and fennel sauce, the "mixed greens" was actually a bit of shredded iceberg lettuce, and for the life of me those sauces tasted like paste and paste mixed with tartar sauce, respectively. [NOTE: This is an actual photo of the crab cakes]

Lord, was it going to be another one of those nights? I couldn't even finish one crab cake, let alone all three. Those things were, beyond a shadow of a doubt, horrible. They should call that dish "Crap Cakes". Had I actually sat in the dining area, I would have been twice as mad as I was; at least I sort of half expected bar food to be less than tasty.

By this point, I was ready to tell the bartender, who also doubled as my waiter, to cancel the order for the Farfalle Genovese but, lo and behold, here comes a steaming plate delivered right to my table. I have to say, I was a little afraid to even try the food. If it was just as bad as or worse than that monstrosity and insult to crustaceans that I couldn't stomach, I was going to get up and walk out just like the rebel that I pretend to be. I took a long swallow of beer and, with fork in hand, hoped and prayed for the best.

The Farfalle Genevose—sauteed chicken, sun dried tomatoes, scallions, fresh garlic and herbs in a very light cream sauce over bowtie pasta—was not as bad as I had anticipated by that point. [See photo at left of actual dish] However, the chicken was a little dry and chewy in some spots and the sundried tomatoes were a bit weird in a way that I can’t fully explain or put my finger on. It wasn’t exactly spectacular. It was okay. Just okay. When the bartender stopped by the table to see how things were progressing, I had to put my honest hat on and tell him the truth.

“This is okay, but those crab cakes weren’t good.” Seriously people, he had the nerve to look totally stunned. Come on, like he had never heard that those crab cakes could be used for target practice.

Still in shock, he said “You should have told me while the manager was here. I could have gotten him to take it off the bill.” Oh great . . . now he tells me!

I managed to get through most of the pasta dish, but in the end the plate was noticeably overrun with funky sun dried tomato shrapnel. By this time, I couldn't even work on the pretense that I was happy. In fact, I was downright glum. The bartender came over once again and offered me another drink, on the house, to which I politely declined. So great was my disappointment that I just wanted to get out of there.

When I paid the bill, as grumpy as ever, I started talking to myself out loud: "I have no clue why I didn't just stay in tonight. I would have been happier lounging on the sofa, watching crime TV with the dog, and eating a grilled cheese sandwich." And I meant it, too.

Would I recommend Court Square Diner & Cafe? Probably not, but if you have a good meal there, let me know; I may give it a second chance.

Is Court Square Diner & Cafe a good value or do you need to take out a loan to eat here? Whether you pay a little or a lot for a meal, it's not a value if you're not happy with the meal and don't particularly like the food.

What about atmosphere and ambience? Well, at least I can come up with something positive here. The bar area was adequate and not terribly noisy. I can see it being a nice little place to hang out and have a night cap.

Court Square Diner & Cafe

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