Frank Beamer’s American Grill: An Incomplete (Grade: B-)

[UPDATE]  Well, rather than re-tool their offensive strategy, Beamer’s made like the Texas Aggies and just up and quit the conference after a losing season.  They closed their doors on the second of January, 2012, which pretty much sucks since I was kind of hoping to score one of their pizzas tonight.  Talk about a fumble.

Coach Beamer’s restaurant team strides smugly onto the field only to find themselves limping back to the locker room by the end of the first half.  Frank Beamer, who has coached Virginia Tech’s football team since 1986 (and prior to, that military academy wannabe school, the Citadel – which, honestly, I didn’t realize even had a football team), has decided to make his foray into the dining world with his eponymous restaurant in Hampton’s new fake neighborhood:  Peninsula Town Center.  Rather than the shut-out Beamer probably envisioned, Beamer’s American Grill makes a few first downs and the occasional touchdown, but can’t quite rally for the win.
According to their website, “Beamer’s is a place where fine dining meets the spirit of Lane Stadium,” and the recipe for the ambiance is:  “Take one part upscale dining experience, one part sports grill, and sprinkle in a little Hokie spirit.”  To their credit, these descriptions are fairly accurate (save the part about Lane Stadium, which I presume serves hot dogs, $4 bottles of water and no alcoholic beverages) if you view them from a certain perspective.  And to be honest, it took me a few visits to really nail this dichotomy down.
See, Beamer’s is in this horrible alternative universe called Peninsula Town Center.

Okay … wait just a second … we have to back up first.

Zoom out to Hampton Roads until you’ve got Hampton, Newport News and a little bit of Norfolk and Williamsburg.

There you go.

Now zoom a little closer into Hampton.

See, Hampton just celebrated its 400th anniversary as the oldest continually English-speaking city in America.  Cool, eh?  Zoom in a little further and check out the historic downtown and Wythe neighborhoods – brick storefronts, grand Victorian houses, all on the marina.  Hampton has been trying to reinvigorate its fledgling downtown and direct development towards some of its more depressed neighborhoods.  So it just makes perfect sense that Beamer’s, a putative local chain, would try and help support that effort and plop itself down nowhere near downtown, but, instead, several miles north in a giant Target parking lot next to the freeway with all the character of a quick-e-lube.  I mean, where else would you put a “local” restaurant?

It’s okay, Frank, I know you’re just in it for the money, but fercryinoutloud, couldn’t you have just … no, of course not.  What was I thinking?

And that’s the throwdown.  It’s fine dining versus tailgate fare at outdoor shopping mall stadium.  Steakhouse versus sports bar.  Cirque du Soleil versus Ringling Brothers.  Formula One versus NASCAR.  Hudson Trail Outfitters versus Bass Pro Outlet.  It’s practically a lifestyle deathmatch, a brutal struggle for the core of America, with hopelessly misspelled “deth to the muslins” signs on one side and “my other car is a broom” on the other.

So, yeah, Fine Dining meets Tailgating.  Ambiance-wise, we’re on Fine Dining’s home turf here in the strictest steakhouse sense, with burnt orange upholstery and dark wood throughout.  The Tailgaiters pull an effective feint with three giant flat screen TVs, visible from every corner of the restaurant (and audible on the slower nights).  Coming up the middle is the Beamer art collection, replete with a Warhol-esque collage of Beamer’s mug and a triptych of Tech’s stadium.  The Met should be calling any day now.

Out of the gates, the Tailgaters suffer a bruising – there isn’t a nacho or mozzarella stick in sight.  But Fine Dining’s spinach and artichoke dip is a tasty, yet weird and soupy mess.  What was branded as “crab” dip is all cream cheese without a morsel of crab to be found.  The Fine Dining offense limps off the field because it just couldn’t move the ball (not because the other team had anything better to offer).

With the entrees, the Tailgaters up the ante – we’re talking burgers and pizzas.  Neopolitan-style thin-crust pizzas.  With house-made toppings.  The fancy-pants Fine Diners are quivering in their stretch pants and looking to take a beating until the first white pizza hits the Astroturf.  The ingredients are top-shelf (kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, crab, shrimp), but the overall pizza is dry and uninspired (here’s some advice:  try healthy shots of both olive oil and garlic next quarter).  Whatever oven they’re cooking the pizza in, it can’t quite get that vanilla-spiked char that makes Neopolitan pizza, well, Neopolitan pizza.  Over time, they’ve got a little closer to cooking the crust right.  Problem is, they totally douse it with their fire-roasted tomato sauce on their “red” pizzas, which means the otherwise thin-and-crisp crust is kind of soggy.  The sauce itself is tasty, but the balance is completely off – just keep thinking football, not ballet, and it will all work out in the end.  The “Mercury Boulevard” pizza sports huge slices of spicy pepperoni and thick cuts of Italian sausage.  The advertised money shot?  The cappicola, salami and prosciutto?  All buried under a thick layer of mozzarella – it might as well be luncheon meat under there.  And naming it Mercury Boulevard?  After the street that is nothing but strip malls, tire stores and the occasional fast food drive-thru?  Really?  C’mon, Frank.  Work with me, here, bud.  (No, the restaurant is not on Mercury Boulevard.)

Beamers’ pizzas shine in very unlikely territory – in the vegetarian’s end zone.  Here, I didn’t even expect Beamer’s team to even show up.  But they do with the “Herbivore” pizza, with huge quarters of succulent artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes and the secret weapon:  caramelized fennel.

YGBSM.

Caramelized fennel?  In non-northeastern Virginia?  This here is a pizza that rocks.  Forget the white sauce they want to serve it with, and go the fire-roasted tomato sauce.

Pizza at Beamers’ isn’t perfect, but, at ten bucks?  This is the only pizza worth buying in Hampton Roads at any price.  Unexpected touchdown for the Tailgaters.

The extra point should be a given at this stage, so the Tailgaters serve up their California Burger, the ultimate “sure thing.”  Whimsically presented, the burger arrived suggestively set between a glazed brioche bun underneath a pickle spear threaded onto a six-inch skewer that had been thrust straight in the middle of the sandwich so that it looked like a condiment-inspired Dubai tower.  Alongside the burger came a miniature deep-fry basket full of deadly good fries.

But the burger, oh the burger.  Ordered medium-rare, it showed up in a state that would more accurately be described as “seared.”  The center was deeply red, gelatinous and uncooked.  Just recently coming off a if-it-ain’t-raw-it-ain’t-beef kick, I was unphased by the burger.  What I couldn’t get beyond was the fact the rest of the burger – brioche and all – was stone cold.  I don’t know if the heat lamps were out or what, but the ball went wide of the goal posts.  Hell, I’m not sure the kicker even made contact.

When it came to the steak, Fine Dining made a first down, but couldn’t score.  Beamer’s seems to be trying to take the playbook from Bennigan’s/Chili’s/Cheddar’s/Otherawfulcasualdiningjoint and doing them one better by only slightly improving upon their business model.  Problem is, the team needs to do a lot more before stepping foot onto the turf.  The restaurant’s $22 Black Angus ribeye (“Black Angus” being one of the larger marketing scams perpetuated by the segment of the beef market unable to make USDA’s “prime” grade) lines up perfectly seasoned with beautiful black grill marks, even though it takes the field without so much as a parsley sprig to run interference.  A cut to the left reveals a thick vein of fat.  A cut to the right finds the same.  When I do find meat, the “medium rare” steak is cool and exceedingly rare.  Cutting into another part of the steak, I find it more medium-well and less rare.  What we’ve got here is a combination of mediocre meat, an unevenly heated grill (with a cook who doesn’t realize it), and amateur technical skill (they need to rest the meat before serving it).  It tasted well enough, but I really shouldn’t be leaving a quarter of a steak’s worth of fat behind.  And if I do, it surely warrants a query from the staff.

And, oh … the staff.  Beamer’s waitstaff is young, pretty, super friendly and utterly clueless.  Taking another page from Bennigan’s, Beamer’s apparently enlisted the local high school junior class as its employees.  Don’t get me wrong – they’re absolutely nice enough, but when a waitress shows up with notes scribbled across the back of her hand, I don’t think, “Wow, how cute!  Ding!” … instead, I start getting the Sarah Palin “God, we’re screwed” heaves.  Sports Bar, yes.  Fine dining?  Not a chance in hell.

In the middle of dinner (mouth full, no less), one waitress asks if I want dessert.  Halfway through a pre-dinner martini, I order a glass of wine only to have the waitress ask me to hand over my (not empty) martini glass.  On another evening, two thirds of the table got their entrees.  Ten minutes later, our waitress skips over and cheerfully asked how our dinners were (oblivious to the fact one person was still sans dinner), then promises the missing entrée will “sprout wings” and fly from the kitchen.  About twenty minutes after that, when the rest of the table was nearly finished with their meals, the M.I.A. entrée made its appearance.  I guess when she said wings, she meant a penguin’s wings.

When I asked one waitress about the pale ale they had on tap, she reflexively nodded, “Oh, it’s really good.  It’s a dark beer, just like that one,” pointing at the copper colored IPA my friend was drinking.  Now, I’ve heard IPAs described as a lot of things, but “dark beer” just isn’t one.  Another said the drunken ribeye was dipped in beer, but she couldn’t remember what it tasted like.  (really?)  The ultimate collision of honesty and eagerness came when I asked about the “house-made” catsup that came with the onion rings.  “Oh, that’s just Heinz,” the waitress said.  “If you order the onion rings as an appetizer, you get the catsup we make here by stirring Cajun seasoning into it.  [see annotation, below]”  I wasn’t quite sure why ordering the most expensive entrée on the menu and then paying an extra two bucks to swap the standard mashed potatoes with the onion rings didn’t merit the “upgrade” catsup, but so it goes.  I’m really still just wondering how it is that stirring Cajun seasoning into Heinz catsup merits a “housemade” label, nevermind how stingy the restaurant is in handing it out in the first place (the D.C. burger joint Good Stuff puts their mango catsup, Siracha mayo, and Old Bay mayo out in Wendy’s-style pumps, so that customers can take as much as they want, no matter what they order … and Good Stuff’s burgers brutally shame Beamer’s in every way a burger could possibly be judged, but given the three-hour drive, Good Stuff just isn’t a realistic option, now is it?).

Now, those onion rings are pretty good, being super crunchy and all.  If you’re willing to plunk down the six clams or so for the appetizer variety, you get their “housemade” catsup, which is Heinz + garlic + cayenne + dried red pepper + lemon juice (one waitress said it was just Heinz + Cajun seasoning).  Go ahead and shoot me, but when I see “housemade catsup” on the menu, I’m envisioning someone in the kitchen cooking down fresh tomatoes.  Nevermind the fact the last time I went to Beamer’s, the “housemade catsup” was plainly nothing more than Heinz with dried red pepper and bottled habanero sauce.  Snootiness aside, it’s tasty.  Spicy, tasty, and you get very little of it.  Six bucks tasty per tablespoon in D.C.?  Maybe.  Six bucks tasty in Hampton Roads?  Nope.

The “macaroni and cheese” is the real sleeper on the menu.  First off, forget that there’s no macaroni involved (they use penne).  Second, it isn’t orange (it’s a white béchamel sauce with browned cheese on top).  Third, it’s killer.  It’s listed as a side and clocks in just under four bucks, but it’s easily entrée sized or a side for four (or two really hungry guys).  Let us just take a moment and honor this calorie and carbohydrate bomb of the ages, because Frank may have just stumbled onto some true genius here.

Beamer’s wine list is good.  And by good, I mean you can get some interesting stuff by the glass for under $10 (temperanillo and muscadet?  Yowza!).  Lately, they’ve been running a killer McLaren Vale shiraz that I can’t get enough of, and their whites are nothing to sneeze at.  But the 2007 Caymus cab by the bottle at $97?  We ain’t in LA, folks.  The bottle retails around $60 … but good luck finding it in Virginia.  Ultimately, the price isn’t completely out of bounds, but what are you going to drink it with?  Pizza?  A burger?  A mid-grade steak?  Honestly.  My recommendation is just stick with the by-the-glass wines.  Save the splurge for a killer steakhouse venture, or – better yet – a I-cooked-this-myself affair with good friends at home (honestly, all you need is some great grass-fed beef, kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper and a good thermometer).  Anyone ordering a wine like that at a place like this is going for sheer snobbery see-what-I-can-afford-that-you-can’t appeal, and we should just leave those poseurs up in the commercially-sponsored “VIP” box where they belong.  Closer to the field, it’s what hits home that matters, so, yeah … that shiraz by the glass.

There’s no double wishbone when it comes to cocktails – these guys are strictly old school, and there’s nothing wrong with that, even if it catches you by surprise.  These days – Churchill jokes aside – it’s almost disconcerting to get a martini with vermouth in it.  I mean, I was struck wondering if I needed to send it back.  Then I thought, “You know, maybe there is something more to a martini than a glass of cold gin,” and I settled down for what was simply a damn good drink.  Your typical sports bar joint relegates the bartender to place-kicker status – after all, how much skill does it really take to pour rum-and-cokes and vodka-red-bulls and the occasional whisky-and-sevens?  We’ll call you when we need ya, bub, and no, you won’t be earning minimum wage.  Martini?  Jesus.  Anyone seen the bartender’s guide?  How much Sprite goes in a martini, anyway?  Beamer’s bar guy, on the other hand, is a confident pro who hits field goal after field goal.  Hell, you could win the game with this guy alone.  What do you think his throwing arm is like, anyway?  ‘Cause neveryoumind that college trashcan-punch stuff – Beamer’s martini is Superbowl fare.

So there it is.  Fine Dining left the field in shame and the Tailgaters are wondering when the fifth quarter is supposed to start, while the cheerleaders are trying to understand how the whole “upsell” thing works.  Meanwhile, what’s left of the crowd pours out into the streets to see what’s on sale at Express.  The bartender is holding court with the hardcore fans in the VIP box.  The managers, in their striped polos and khakis, wonder if they needed their own agents.  And a few miles away, some accountant starts adding up the day’s profits.

It is the name of the game, after all.

Isn’t it?

Grade:  B-

Address:  2150 Allainby Way

Phone:  (757) 827-0349

Website:  http://www.beamersamerican.com

Don’t believe me?  Check out what the fine folks at Urbanspoon say:

Frank Beamer's American Grill on Urbanspoon

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