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.

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