Steaking a claim: Bartender Gene Springstroh and the crew at Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar can compete with the big boys.
Steaking a claim: Bartender Gene Springstroh and the crew at Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar can compete with the big boys.

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Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, 6333 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 4805968265. Hours: Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

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.


Fleming's Prime Steakhouse me brle


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.

The other cuts display considerable charm, as well. I was particularly impressed with the filet mignon, whose tenderness is often offset by a corresponding lack of flavor. But this butter-soft model made more of a beefy impact than I ever reckoned on.

(However, I had to scratch my head over the pricing: The eight-ounce filet is $19, while the 12-ounce filet comes in at $22. You don't need an M.B.A. to figure out that ordering the smaller filet makes no financial sense.)

The massive, 40-ounce porterhouse for two can give you a cholesterol rush that will last until Labor Day. The meat -- sirloin on one side of the bone, filet on the other -- is carved off and cut into smaller hunks. Then the server swirls the beef in bubbling hot butter, which has been ladled on your plate. Diners get the best of all worlds -- the steak and the sizzle.

Two steak specials occasionally make a menu appearance, and both deliver a huge dose of animal-protein pleasure. The T-bone is similar to the porterhouse, except the filet side of the bone is smaller. If you have your heart set on a porterhouse, but can't find someone to share it with, this 22-ounce cut is the way to go. The 20-ounce, bone-in New York sirloin, meanwhile, is a powerful specimen, the most flavorful steak in Fleming's arsenal.

While the outstanding steaks pleased me, they didn't surprise me. After all, when you're paying between $19 and $29 for an àla carte slab of beef, you have a right to expect the best. What did surprise me, however, was how two other non-steak entrees showed no drop-off in quality.

There's no reason to be silent about the lamb. You get two juicy, enormously flavorful, seven-ounce chops. And Fleming's Australian lobster, a pair of eight-ounce tails, is so sweet and succulent you may never order steak here again. (Make sure you order the lobster steamed, not broiled -- there's less likelihood that the kitchen will overcook it.)

Despite the high cost of prime-grade beef, that's not where steak houses make their profit. Their own wholesale price can run $15 a pound. That's why you see $4 baked potatoes and $7 sides of mushrooms on fancy steak-house menus.

Fleming's à la carte accompaniments are no different. But at least these side dishes are just about as good as can be, and ample enough for two or three diners to share without quarreling.

The kitchen handles spuds beautifully. The huge, thick-cut steak fries are expertly done, hot, crisp and starchy. The lyonnaise potatoes have no defects, crunchy chunks sautéed in butter and gilded with lots of fried onions. And if you'd like to hear your arteries harden while you eat, consider "Fleming's Potatoes": It's a skilletful of scalloped spuds drenched in cheese and cream, then goosed up with leeks and a touch of jalapeño.

Your mom won't have to encourage you to eat the side-order veggies here. That's because the creamed spinach is practically rich enough to qualify as a dessert. And while the crown of vibrantly green steamed broccoli is no doubt bursting with nutrients, the marvelous hollandaise you can order with it pretty much cancels out the health benefits.

Desserts aren't weak. But they're not nearly as strong as the other parts of the meal. All except two of them are made elsewhere, and Fleming's ought to reconsider the subcontracting policy. The house-made crème brucirc;lée is perfectly satisfactory, but this hackneyed dessert won't inspire the "wows" that the appetizers and main dishes do. The apple-berry cobbler is pleasant enough, but it won't leave you gasping, or even make much of an impression.

In contrast, Fleming's steak-house competitors play up their signature desserts. Morton's, for example, offers an unforgettable Chocolate Godiva cake, erupting with molten chocolate. The whiskey-soaked bread pudding at Ruth's Chris is another dessert treat that sends diners home talking. But I can't imagine anyone leaving here chatting up Fleming's sweets.

You won't want to linger over espresso, either: $3.95 for a second-rate espresso -- or even first-rate espresso -- is way out of line.

Steak isn't something we routinely eat anymore, especially at home. Worried about calories, cholesterol and fat grams, more and more Americans treat it as a special-occasion dish, a restaurant reward for otherwise virtuous culinary behavior. At Fleming's, you can count on getting the reward you deserve. Steaking a claim: Bartender Gene Springstroh and the crew at Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar can compete with thebig boys.


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