Bennett Pointe Grill has been open since 1997, but chances are you've never heard of the place. Unless you're a history buff, that is, in which case you might have stumbled across the restaurant on your way to Bennett Place, the historic Civil War site nearby.
Or unless you happen to live near the restaurant, which is tucked away in an obscure strip mall on the northwestern fringe of Durham. In that case, I'm willing to bet you're a regular customer. Despite its off-the-beaten-path location, Bennett Pointe Grill has done so well that the restaurant expanded into the neighboring space a few years ago, doubling in size and adding a full bar.
And it's still packing them in -- even early on a Monday night, as I discovered recently when I arrived to a dining room full of young families and retirees. And again on a Friday evening, when the bar was heavily seeded with patrons whose Top-Siders and T-shirts announced their intention that, if they couldn't get to the beach this weekend, they'd do their best to approximate the experience with some fried oysters and a beer. Or maybe two beers, since the $2.95 draft special was Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
That's not to say that Bennett Pointe Grill is a seafood restaurant. It isn't, strictly speaking, though seafood -- a varied assortment ranging from fried flounder to shrimp and scallops sautéed with lemon, butter and wine -- makes up nearly half the offering. The other half consists of the usual steak, chicken and pasta suspects, with a sprinkling of modest surprises such as blackened pork tenderloin and Dixie chicken and grits.
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For my money, though, seafood is the main attraction. And, based on an informal count of dishes on nearby tables, I'd say many of those loyal customers agree with my assessment. I never saw a plate of chicken and grits come out of the kitchen, but I spotted several orders of Bennett Pointe's take on shrimp and grits. When I sampled the dish, which pairs plump shrimp with slices of smoked sausage over cheddar cheese grits, I understood why.
Those frustrated beach bums at the bar knew what they were doing, too, judging by the fat, juicy fried oysters I sampled. My only mistake was in not following their example and ordering the oysters as an appetizer. Instead, I got them atop an otherwise unremarkable Caesar salad.
Crab cakes are evidently a favorite, too, as they appear three times on the menu: as an appetizer (paired with a trio of fried shrimp), a sandwich and an entree. Their texture is too fine for my taste, though, and their deep-fried crust too dark a brown. Shoestring-cut sweet potato fries, on the other hand, earn their popularity with their addictive crispness and their generous shareable portion for $4.95.
I'll happily add my thumbs-up to the obviously popular fried flounder, as well. While I can't guarantee that the filets will always be as large as the pair of plate-spanning specimens I was served, I'm comfortable in assuring you that the fish will be moist in a crisp golden breading that gets a little extra crunch from panko breadcrumbs.
Grilled salmon is respectable, topped with a black bean and corn salsa and served with sautéed fresh vegetables and bacon cheddar mashed potatoes. If the fish itself isn't as impressive as the flounder, the dish is worth considering for the mashed potatoes alone.
The expansion of Bennett Pointe Grill's size isn't the only change the restaurant has experienced in the 12 years since Jonathan and Lisa Lark opened it. The menu has gradually evolved, with a growing seafood offering reflecting customer demand and Jonathan Lark's love of fishing (the trophy sailfish hanging on a wall in the bar is a release mount of a fish Lark caught in 2003). The Larks divorced in 2004 but remain partners in running the restaurant. When I asked Jonathan Lark if that was difficult, he said "We've both made a lot of friends here, so we just make it work." Indeed they do.