They all have the same dark wood trim and padded dark leather where butts are parked. They drown themselves in California cult cabs and French Bordeaux that cost as much as a Bud-swigger's house payment, and they store them in showy wine rooms or temperature-controlled mausoleums. To hammer home the red-wine opulence, they assemble little clusters of magnums, double magnums and jeroboams gathering dust next to the posts and between the banquettes to serve as little subliminal beverage cues. The menu bulges with the same creamed spinach, sautéed mushrooms and roasted garlic mashed potato renditions, and appetizer rosters all include shrimp cocktails, crab cakes, fried calamari and the ubiquitous wedge, a severed iceberg lettuce head wreathed in tomatoes, onions and crumbled blue cheese.
Blindfold your average steakhouse fly and he would be hard-pressed to identify where he is. Restaurateur Paul Fleming pronounced this male-centric meat maelstrom boring, and he proceeded to duplicate it, right down to the post-hugging double magnums. Yet there are subtle differences between Fleming's and the typical steakhouse. The paneling and leather are a little lighter and a little redder. The amber lighting refracted from huge alabaster chandeliers is a little brighter. The steaks are a little cheaper, too; there are only two 30-plus-dollar steaks on the menu, one a massive 22-ounce porterhouse.
The tuna is different, too. Not simply because the seared ahi tuna appetizer is cool, delicately silky and rich. It's because the word "Fleming's" is perfectly scripted, to match the logo, in spicy mustard just below the half circle of deep-red oblong tuna slices assembled across the plate. It's an arrangement that would get Martha Stewart hot and bothered. The only drawback to this little arrangement is that it no doubt had to be pre-prepped and parked in a cooler somewhere instead of being seared and assembled to order. It tasted that way anyway. Thus there was no heat to the meat.
Temperature also proved to be a problem for the seared scallops in orange tarragon vinaigrette. The dish was beautifully arranged with three scallops sealed in crisp, scaly crusts planted in a thick, spicy, pink sauce. Four potato chips were arranged on an edge of the plate opposite a tight pinch of cool greens sown with tomato slivers.
But everything was deeply chilled: the sauce, the greens, the potato chips, and most distressingly, the scallops. Our server informed us the dish was supposed to be chilled. But a short time later the sous chef, dressed in black, visited our table and explained that the scallops were supposed to be warmed and that they'd give it another shot for us.
The redo wasn't much improved. These scallops, buttery and firm though they were, needed heat to effectively transport their delicate flavors. The vinaigrette, an amazing balance of sweet, spice and tartness, might have served those scallops better if it had been warmed, instead of suffusing them in a blanket of chill, drawing off whatever heat they might have retained in the kitchen. The chips could have used some warmth as well.
Yet it's always a risk venturing into the fish and fowl arenas at a steakhouse, though many of them can do at least one of them well. Still, I should have taken the not too subtle hints from our server, who tried valiantly to steer me from the salmon in cabernet butter sauce to the tuna mignon with peppercorns and tomato vinaigrette. But the thought of rich fish in cabernet butter got the better of me. It arrived as two pieces of pale pink under a tangle of fried leeks arranged on a square plate. The cabernet butter sauce was a clear emulsion with dark globules, sort of like a typical balsamic vinaigrette. The salmon itself was tight and dry save for a few patches that were modestly flaky and moist. And though it was ordered medium, most of it was overcooked.
This is not to leave the impression that Fleming's is mediocre, because it most certainly is not. The wine list features 105 wines by the glass in a modest $5-$15 range, which means you can mix and match different wines with each course without sweating a narrow selection of hellacious house pours. Wines are arranged progressively, descending from light and inoffensive to gripping tannic intensity within each category. And the wines arrive in little decanters, which imparts a little ceremony to corkless by-the-glass monotony. You can even construct your own 2-ounce flights and pit a Caymus Conundrum against a Pine Ridge cab for kicks.
The only annoying glitch in this Dionysiac dossier is the glassware used for the sparkling wine: tall, thick-lipped glass cylinders obviously designed to emphasize bubble ascension rather than bouquet and flavor. Toasting with these clumsy things is about as alluring as heavy petting with work gloves.
Like the wine program, Fleming's service is virtually without flaw. When making reservations, the hostess repeats every detail back to you, not robotically, but with charm. Managers make eye contact and acknowledge guests instead of single-mindedly rushing around the room, oblivious to who is paying the freight. Servers recite menu and wine-list features slowly and attentively instead of in a rapid-fire liturgical drone. Plus, they pay attention. On one visit we neglected to put in a drink order for the tyke at our table. Our server took just a few steps from the table before returning to get a request for two dozen maraschinos suspended in a Shirley Temple. It's all so smooth you hardly even notice the TLC being slipped in.
Until the steak is slipped under your chin. Fleming's bone-in New York strip (this strip also tops 30 bucks), a craggy piece of thick black meat, is so juicy, tender and rich that modifiers like buttery and silky fall flat on their face. It's prepared simply, with a little salt, pepper and butter and served on a plate heated to 350 degrees. Yet the meat and its effect on the mouth are really hard to describe. It's chewy without being gristly; it's packed with flavor without being fatty. Fleming's prime steaks are wet aged, which is supposed to be a few steps below the more expensive dry-aging process in tenderness and complexity. But these steaks rival any dry-aged slabs I've ever chewed.
And it's not only beef that sheens with this luster. Fleming's Australian lamb chops rise to the same pinnacle: perfectly seasoned, mild, juicy, chewy and slightly sweet. They're exceptionally tender without the livery taste that can sometimes encroach. The flavors are simply clean and rich.
The pork chop parked on a bed of julienne apples slipped a bit from the lamb and beef. Though the spicy sweetness of the apple and seasonings was compelling, the meat itself was dry and overcooked, revealing a barely perceptible band of pink in the middle.
Sides were good, though. The mashed potatoes with roasted garlic and horseradish were smooth with a swift flavor kick and a lot of hearty structure. Sautéed spinach with specks of onion and garlic was a light fluff of crisp, clean and savory leaves, while the broccoli was a bit undercooked and hard.
Dessert finished with disappointment. The mixed berry cobbler with a scoop of ice cream was gooey--too gooey, and pasty as if it needed more time in the oven. But it wasn't at all shy on berry flavor.
Paul Fleming is the entrepreneur behind P.F. Chang's China Bistro, Z'Tejas Grills and Pei Wei Asian Diner. A businessman with a degree in criminal justice, Fleming immersed himself in the oil and gas leasing trade before that business soured and he secured the rights to develop Ruth's Chris Steakhouses in California, Arizona and Hawaii.
After selling the Ruth's Chris units back to the company, he went on to restaurant concept development before trying his hand at steak. So far, steak seems to be the most promising. He scattered his steakhouses in California, Arizona, Florida and Austin among other locations before settling steak-heavy Dallas.
Watch out, Bob.