Culinary delights Abound For All at The Courtyard Restaurant & Tavern

By Amy Kane

Atlantic News, Thursday, September 7, 2000

[The following article is courtesy of Atlantic News.]

HAMPTON -- The Courtyard Restaurant & Tavern is an oasis of calm and a garden of culinary delights, tucked behind the Inn of Hampton. The inn fronts busy Route 1 but, in this quiet spot, diners are blissfully unaware of the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

This location has its drawbacks, admits MJ Bailey, general manager of the restaurant and the Inn of Hampton Conference Center.

"A lot of people didn't know we were here. Then they come in and say, 'Oh, my, this is lovely," she explains. "This restaurant is New Hampshire's best-kept secret."

But it's a secret that those who discover it are glad to share, especially since late last spring. That was when the restaurant hired two standout chefs — Executive Chef Andy Stratz and Executive Sous Chef Jeff Polizzo, who have both worked hard to strike the perfect balance between casual and fine dining. "New England-style," they call it.

"It's familiar, comfort food," says Stratz.

"But we do it even better," adds Polizzo with a smile.

Savory beginnings include crab cakes served with homemade cilantro-caper mayonnaise, a rich seafood chowder, Cobb salad with bleu cheese dressing, and a classic favorite, onion soup.

Entrées range from filet mignon, New York sirloin, and chicken picatta, to the popular seafoods of the region, often served with an extra flare. For example, a shrimp and scallop dish is sauteed with tomatoes, shallots, and fresh basil and served over baby spinach ravioli. Then there's the fresh haddock, stuffed scallops, and baked Atlantic salmon, sharing the menu with the Star Island Casserole, a mouthwatering combination of shrimp, scallops, salmon and haddock, baked in lemon and wine.

There's also a tasty kid's menu for the younger set, and after a sumptuous meal, guests may choose a selection from a dessert cart, the offerings of which vary from day to day.

Courtyard Restaurant & Tavern Chefs Polizzo and Stratz are young and full of energy and enthusiasm. But youthful doesn't mean inexperienced. Between the two of them, they share 27 years of experience in food services. Both chefs attended culinary schools and have worked in restaurants in other parts of the country — Polizzo at the Boca Raton Resort and Hotel in Florida, and Stratz at the York Harbor Inn in Maine.

Both are members of the American Culinary Federation (ACF). Stratz is a Certified Sous Chef (CSC), and Polizzo is working on his certification now. There are only approximately 2500 CSCs in the nation, according to Stratz, who along with Polizzo attends regular meetings of the Piscataqua Chapter of the ACF.

Polizzo and Stratz are both natives of the Seacoast area. Their local ties mean plenty of family and friends like to drop by to sample their latest creations, whether it's a new dessert, an entrée offered for a limited time, or a new feature on the breakfast buffet.

The skilled restaurant staff also caters meetings in the Conference Center, where business is booming. Recent customers have included Timberland, Unitil Corp, Highliner Foods, and Phillips Exeter Academy.

Since MJ Bailey began work as general manager last October, conference center business is up an estimated 85 percent. Bailey's work ethic leads to many repeat customers.

"We're big into hospitality. We meet customers' needs," says Bailey. "My goal is to make everybody feel comfortable. It's a really positive environment."

The Inn of Hampton & Conference Center is independently owned and operated. Barbara Blinn is the owner and president, and a well-respected member of the community. She completed a renovation, including that of the restaurant, just two years ago.

General Manager Bailey is pleased with the direction Polizzo and Stratz have taken the restaurant, shifting to more casual, recognizable fare, with occasions for the chefs' creativity and experience to shine.

"We're busier than ever," says Bailey. "But, we're ready to take it to the next level. We want to reinforce our presence. We're bound and determined to make this a local landmark." Then, looking around the dining room, Bailey spreads her arms wide and says, "We're ready to say, 'Welcome!'"

The Courtyard Restaurant is open for breakfast from 6:30-9:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, featuring a family-style breakfast buffet on Saturdays and Sundays from 8 a.m. to 12 noon. The restaurant and tavern are open from 5-9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and from 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The tavern offers a complementary hors d'oeuvres bar. For more information about "New Hampshire's best-kept secret," call 926-6771.