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Food & Drink High steak dinner game


Bet on the beef at Fleming’s and don’t sweat the sides

Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse has been open less than two months and is that the moon-surface terrain of Gregg Popovich’s face shining over the bar? Whispering in his ear is epicurean gadfly Harold Wood who we last met over lunch at Andrew Weissman’s Sandbar when that restaurant, too, was a mere babe. Wood already has made a nest in one of the bar’s cozy booths and discovered a favorite champagne on the elephantine wine list.

We hear you knockin’ but you can’t come in: The big-box exterior of Fleming’s belies a warm, stylish interior. But you’ll have to take our word for it. Although a hostess told our photographer to come on down, when he arrived the manager told him he hadn’t jumped the right corporate hurdles. Culinary domination has its pitfalls, says our critic. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

The entire restaurant glows with warm rosy tones, but particularly the bar, which is just dark enough to confer partial anonymity without obscuring the filets and strips. The décor is nondescript contemporary with a hint of Asian conferred by the vaguely pagoda-like light fixtures over the bar. The light fixtures in the dining area hint at something else: They’re smaller versions of the massive convex amber fixtures at P.F. Chang’s, where the P.F. stands for Paul Fleming, a restaurant entrepreneuer who has figured out how to feed the stomach of middle America.

The strengths and weaknesses of this financially lucrative approach are embodied in Fleming’s signature cocktail, the Fleming’s Classic. The drink is a martini made with the pleasantly innocuous Ketel One vodka sweetened with vermouth and garnished with two olives stuffed with blue cheese. It’s the essence of Fleming’s: Take the edge off of something too pure to have mass appeal and give it a twist that belies its middle-of-the-road makeover. The national chain (40 locations and counting) has taken the steak house, that burly, oaken monument to kingmakers and crooners since the 18th century, and polished it into a gender-neutral dinner club, complete with 100 wines available by the glass.

Wine Director Marian Jansen Op de Haar has the enviable job of developing all Fleming’s wine lists, a combination of local stars and national standard-bearers. The list is arranged in a particularly helpful manner, designating wines by grape, dryness, and intensity. But the bar hums kinder-gentler Rat Pack, and stemware — martini glasses excepted — seems out of place, so despite the presence of a 2000 Renwood Old Vine Zinfandel whose heavy, forward fruit is magic with medium-rare steak, we stick to cocktails.

Later in the week we return with a third companion. Settled into a booth in the cozy bar we are presented with Fleming’s warm-up, a tray of crisp toast and two spreads, which have names — one is flavored with smoked cheese; the other tastes vaguely of sun-dried tomatoes or dried fruit — but don’t make much of an impression. Not so, the Fleming’s Classic which, if you say, “easy on the vermouth,” will be one of the most pleasant martinis you’ve had in town.

Dinner Companion orders the Prime New York Strip (a bone-in version is also available for $4 more, and the extra flavor drawn from the savory fat next to the bone is well worth the fee). I think the texture is a little tough although he’s happy with the marbling. The Petite Filet Mignon (8 ounces), which I’ve had on previous occasions, is meltingly tender, but too lean for his taste. Special Guest orders the Tuna Mignon, which the menu promises is “seared rare with poppy seed au poivre.” Rare it is, but the pepper overwhelms the poppy seeds and almost the tuna; its fresh, clean taste manages to shine through only because of the thick cut.

Fleming’s rejects subtlety throughout its menu and in some cases this aesthetic works well — the Fleming’s Potatoes, an au gratin dish with cream, cheddar cheese, and a little jalapeño, are rich and pillowy — and in other cases, such as the classic wedge salad, it’s an avalanche waiting to crush you. The namesake wedge of iceberg lettuce is the size of a human head, and the cherry tomatoes bob like lonely bouys in the sea of blue-cheese dressing. The chef could focus some of this wasted energy on the basics: The shoestring potatoes we ordered on one trip were limp and dripping oil. Bad form, especially when J. Alexander’s offers a perfect specimen across the parking lot.

Fleming’s over-the-top approach might bode well, we thought, for the Seafood Tower, a decadent dish that should whisper in your ear of the days when America’s oyster beds ruled the world and New York’s Delmonico’s gave birth to lobster and steak dishes that made America the culinary peer of France. But Fleming’s tower is merely modest where pride is called for. The shrimp (prawns, maybe) were large and flavorful, but the crab legs were too salty, and the squid in the seafood salad could have been miniature bicycle tires for the way they resisted my attempts at puncturing them.

Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and wine bar
255 E. Basse
5-10:30pm Mon-Thu; 5-11:30pm Fri-Sat; 5-9:30pm Sun
Credit cards
Wheelchair accessible

But if a steak house, even a steak house as ingratiatingly overbearing as Fleming’s, ought to be measured by its steaks and martinis, this hail-fellow-well-met American chain still gets high marks. Medium rare means medium rare, and of the half-dozen steaks I’ve eaten at Fleming’s since they opened their doors, only one was less than perfect. They also serve a mean lamb chop, delicately textured and savory with fat. If they would just add a full porterhouse — and easy on the vermouth in that martini — I could become a regular, too.

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