By Heather Hoch
By Eric Schaefer
By New Times
By Rachel Miller
By Eric Schaefer
By Heather Hoch and Lauren Saria
By Robrt L. Pela
By Heather Hoch
Move over, Morton's. Move over, Ruth's Chris. Move over, Don & Charlie's. Move over, Harris'. Move over, Grill at the TPC.
The list of topnotch Valley steak houses has just gotten a little bit longer. Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar is quickly showing it can play with the big boys in the Valley's highly competitive, high-steaks league.
It's not easy for a new restaurant to hit the ground running, with the bugs worked out. But after just a few months, Fleming's is operating on all cylinders, a steak house already so finely tuned that you almost never feel the wheels touching the road. (This is the second branch. There's another in Newport Beach.)
But it takes a lot of effort to sustain the illusion of effortlessness. The credit here probably should go to proprietor Paul Fleming.
He's no Johnny-come-lately to the business. He's the man behind the wildly successful P.F. Chang's China Bistro. He was one of the principals who started up Z'Tejas Grill. And, until recently, he owned several Ruth's Chris Steak House franchises, including the two local ones.
His experience and knowledge have come together here. All the steak-house components -- service, atmosphere, food -- are in synch.
It starts with the staff. The enthusiastic young women who work the hostess station greet guests with a smile and send them home with a "Thank you for coming." The servers are pros, with a friendly way that suggests there's nothing they wouldn't do for you. The manager will stop at your table once, checking to make sure everything is going right.
The place has a polished steak-house look. The designer must have chopped down a small forest -- there's enough wood here to make Robin Hood and his Merry Men feel at home. The lighting is subdued, but bright enough to read a menu. The tables are set with thick white linen and hefty cutlery. You can see and hear the bustle in the open kitchen, which is set along the back wall.
The good-time vibes are equally palpable. This is not your grandfather's clubby, testosterone-heavy steak house, where graying men in suits wave cigars, sip Scotch and occasionally show off a new trophy wife. Instead, there's a more youthful, 50-50 gender mix.
If you're a guy, leave your tie at home. Shorts, tee shirts and even baseball caps aren't uncommon. Women, on the other hand, tend to dress up, not down. But the mix seems to work -- Fleming's bristles with energy. "It can be a real meat market here, especially on weekends," said our waiter, scanning the dining room and bar. And the USDA prime he was admiring didn't have four legs.
The meal doesn't get off to as fast a start as it might. That's because on each of my three visits, the bread was mushy. There are many excellent bakeries in this town producing wonderful artisanal loaves. Fleming's needs to get in touch with one of them.
But that's about the only outside help this kitchen requires. The appetizers are pricey, but they're also superb. Somebody here is clearly sweating the details.
That's surely the case with the smashing onion rings, a pile of big, crisp, puffy beauties, dipped in a buttermilk batter and seasoned breadcrumbs. There's plenty on the plate for three or four diners, but I may just come back alone, order my own plate, get a cold brew and call it a day.
Ruth's Chris may have provided the inspiration for the BBQ shrimp appetizer, but Fleming's is responsible for the quality. Try not to think about the $2.25-per-crustacean cost, and concentrate instead on the four meaty critters themselves, sautéed in sizzling butter and touched up Cajun-style.
Someone also has paid a visit to Vincent's. The smoked salmon flatbread is a virtual clone of his signature starter, layers of dill-accented smoked salmon and goat cheese spread over lahvosh-type bread. Give Fleming's credit, though, for having the good sense to "borrow" a great idea and keep it up to standard.
At 10 bucks, the Dungeness crab cocktail is the most expensive way to edge into dinner. But Fleming's has gotten hold of some of the sweetest, most luscious Dungeness crab this side of Fisherman's Wharf. Although there's enough for two people to share, this starter will test the strength of just about any relationship.
If you don't want to use up quite as much belly room on pre-steak eating, the caesar salad is a winning alternative. The version here is first-rate, with an anchovy and garlic kick so potent it could send your taste buds into a frenzy.
The outstanding appetizers boosted my main-dish expectations, and Fleming's didn't disappoint. The restaurant serves USDA prime, the highest grade of beef, and the cooks know what to do with it.
Honors go to the stupendous rib eye, which is the Platonic ideal sprung to life. It's 16 ounces of perfection -- beefy, juicy and done up with just a touch of grilled char for an extra bit of flavor. It's a real conversation-stopper, in the best sense of the term.