Friday, November 27, 2009

Great steak

I'm very, very late with this review. It's been over a year since I ate at Fleming's Steakhouse in Charlotte, NC and I really ought to have written this last fall. But on the theory of better late than never, I'm going to post this now.

Someone from Fleming's contacted me when he read about my experiences at Capital Grille on my blog, and told me there was a Fleming's coming to Charlotte. Sadly, Fleming's came about the time I left; but I ended up in Charlotte a couple months later for three weeks, so two friends and I went to check out the new restaurant.

Fleming's is hitting a hard market in Charlotte: there are already several very good steak houses in a mid-size city. But I don't think they'll have trouble.

I ordered my usual: "French" onion soup, a ribeye cooked medium, scalloped potatoes, and a "Chocolate Lava Cake" for desert. There were also asparagus and their macaroni & cheese on the table, ordered by my companions.

I love onion soup. In fact, I think I might like it better than I like the steak I often eat with it. The onion soup at Fleming's was very good. Salivatingly good. Good enough to make me wonder whether I really needed the steak. You need to order the onion soup at Fleming's. It's good.

The steak deserves notice: it was the most consistently cooked steak I have ever had the pleasure of eating. I always order my steaks medium, but the fact is, I can eat meat from medium-rare to well done. I'm not that picky on steak: as long as it's cooked enough not to have that raw-meat mouth feel, I can eat it.

But a medium steak is actually fairly hard to cook right. In general, they come to the table either medium-well or medium rare. And in almost every case, the meat is medium-well near the edges and medium-rare at the bone. The steak at Fleming's was perfectly medium from the edge to the bone. It was remarkable: I stopped eating just to stare at the done-ness several times. It was literally 100% consistent.

I found the lava cake didn't thrill me too much, but that's frankly not the restaurant's fault. The cake itself was good, I've just gotten burned out on it. The first three or four times I had lava cake, I thought it wonderful. When I was at Fleming's, I suddenly thought "you know, I'm bored with lava cake." I shall probably never order it again anywhere---I've just gotten tired of it.

What really struck me about Fleming's was the remarkable atmosphere. I noticed it first in my correspondance with the person who contacted me because of my blog. Here was a guy who essentially cold-called me to invite me to a restaurant. He was neither obseqious nor condescending: he simply talked (well, emailed me) as a fellow food-enthusiast. And I had no idea he was going to send me a gift certificate to try the restaurant. The first mention was the envelope that arrived in the mail.

The restaurant itself had the same atmosphere: there's no question it's fine dining; but it felt much more relaxed than their competition. The waiters were not in any way unprofessional, but they were frankly much more friendly and enthusiastic than I've come to expect from that sort of establishment. One might almost accuse some of those steak houses of a pretentious atmosphere. Fleming's is nothing like that. The presentation is expert and professional, but there is a personable friendliness that I've just not seen in many places.

In fact, Fleming's reminded me of Bistro 100, which is sadly gone forever. It was fine dining, but with a relaxed, friendly, enthusiastic staff.

I like to eat out. I don't do it so much anymore, but it's still something I look forward to and enjoy. I like to eat in the fine-dining establishments, but a high price tag alone isn't worth it to me. Good service and good food are at least as important. And when I can find something "almost as good" for significantly less money, I tend to go to those places again and again. So the question I ask about any restaurant is, "why would I eat here?" That's not meant to be impertinent or disrespectful: it's meant to help me clarify what makes that restaurant unique.

At Fleming's, the food was very good, but it wasn't head and shoulders above Capital Grille or Morton's. They're all first-rate establishments, and the food is excellent in each of them. (In fact, for my money, the best steak in Charlotte is at Manzetti's.) What Fleming's does offer is the high-end steakhouse experience in an excellent environment. A waiter who is both knowledgeable and efficient and capable of relaxing me and my companions: that's what differentiates Fleming's in my mind. And on that score, it was second to none.

I've had some memorable evenings in steak houses. The night at Fleming's was one of them. All in all, Fleming's is a winner.

A piece of pie

Today we braved the crowds to pick up a couple things we needed to buy. We decided to eat out, and went to check Pizzeria Fondi. This is one to watch.

If I were to open a restaurant, it would be a lot like Fondi. The menu is sparse: two pasta dishes, several pizzas, some salads, a couple appetizers, and some desert. Some might look at that and see a lack of selection, I look at it and see focused effort.

The pizza is good. I'm afraid nothing will replace Luigi's in my estimation, but the pizza was very good indeed. The crust was excellent: light and chewy, slightly charred and thin. The sauce was a little too sweet for my taste, but still very good. They advertise house-made mozzarella on their pies: I can't speak to whether that's true, but the flavour was certainly not lacking.

Of course I ordered a cheese pizza: that's always my first choice. They've earned a second visit with their efforts today, so next time I'll order a pizza with sausage and onions.

Fondi's restaurants are all in the Puget Sound area, but if you're ever here, you really need to check them out.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Smoky Chook

My favourite smell is chicken fat burning on charcoal. The slightly sweet smoke is an aroma that always makes me breathe deeply and salivate.

There's a kinda-sorta restaurant supply store in Tacoma, not too far from where I work. A co-worker and I drove over there at lunch last week and poked around. It was actually pretty cool: this is the first place I've seen in the NW with meat that's right for BBQ. They have pig shoulders, Boston butts, and St. Louis cut ribs.

I was drooling.

Perhaps best of all, I found 40-pound bags of mesquite lump charcoal for $15. That's an incredible buy: I've paid as much as $1/lb for good lump charcoal. This is definitely the best price I've ever seen.

I'm no great fan of mesquite smoke: I don't dislike it, but I don't see why people rave over it either. But I have to say I really like cooking on it. It holds a steady temperature, burns long, and burns clean. I still like Wicked Good Charcoal the best, but lump mesquite has become quite a favourite here.

I realized Friday that we had a couple chooks in the freezer, and I thought "What a great opportunity to try out my new charcoal!" So out they came.

I thawed them out, put them in a pan, and sprinkled them generously with salt, black pepper, and garlic powder.
From Smoky Chook

I chopped up and onion and stuffed it into their little bottoms
From Smoky Chook

Then they went onto the grill
From Smoky Chook

You've heard me say it before: 90% of barbecuing is keeping a steady temperature. you want it to stay at or around 200F. The weather was windy and damp yesterday, and temperature was a slight challenge. But I gotta say, the mesquite really keeps a steady burn. Once I got it into the groove, it held a very steady temp for most of the six hours they were on the grill.

In this shot, the grill had just been open, so the thermometer's showing a little low. It caught back up quickly.
From Smoky Chook

We brought them in after dark. The one on the right was a little torn up, as I managed to tear the skin when flipping them (I cooked them partly on their backs, partly on their breasts).

From Smoky Chook

All in all, I'd call it a success.