By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
Our waiter stops by and moves his lips. The noise level in the packed dining room at Fleming's, the new steak house on Alabama, is so high that no one at the table can hear a word he's saying. He leans over and shouts to the diner nearest him, who then repeats to each of us in turn, "Something about a bone-in New York strip."
I already know from the menu that Fleming's serves wet-aged USDA Prime steaks hand-cut to generous proportions. There is also a variety of sides, mostly familiar 1950s stuff, served family-style. We look around a bit while we wait for the mute waiter to return.
Fleming's high-ceilinged dining room is an impressive expanse of cherrywood paneling, huge wooden columns and muted colors. It has a sort of elegant yet neutral quality. "It's like a really nice bank lobby," says one of my tablemates.
2405 W. Alabama St.
Houston, TX 77098
Region: Lower Shepherd-Kirby
22-ounce porterhouse: $32
16-ounce New York strip: $28.50
12-ounce filet mignon: $27.95
Iceberg wedge: $6.50
Shoestring potatoes: $5.95
Creamed spinach: $5
The three of us order a huge iceberg wedge and a pile of onion rings, which we split three ways. The salad comes with the usual tomatoes, red onion and blue cheese. The rings are greasy and made with a single layer of onion, which means there's too much batter per ring. But this is about the only quibble I can come up with regarding Fleming's food. The Parmesan creamed spinach is excellent, and the jalapeño au gratin potatoes are pretty good, too.
I order a massive porterhouse and attack it with a wooden-handled steak knife that Jim Bowie would have been proud to wield. Alternating between buttery bites from the thick filet side and wonderfully charred chunks of the strip, I power down half of the 22-ounce monstrosity before raising the white linen flag. One oversize crystal wine glass full of peppery Gigondas is enough to get me through my steak.
One of my dining companions orders charred salmon with Cabernet butter. It's a nice-size piece of tasty, fresh fish, cooked through but not overdone and served in an unobtrusive sauce. She drinks Roederer Estate sparkling wine in one of those new cylindrical champagne glasses that looks like a tall bud vase.
My other dining companion gets a thick New York strip. The steak is better than an inch and a half thick, cooked perfectly to medium rare and bursting with juicy flavor. He savors a California Cabernet with his meat. Each of us is delighted with our food-and-wine combination.
Fleming's features 100 wines by the glass, a fact that will be hammered into your brain almost ceaselessly from the second you walk through the door. That's because it's the restaurant's main marketing hook. Encouraging diners to buy one glass of wine at a time is how Fleming's keeps the average check low.
At one glass apiece, a couple might spend under $20 on wine. Sure, a bottle is a better bargain, but it adds $40 or $50 to the bill. And what do you do if one diner wants fish and the other wants steak? The flexibility of wine by the glass is quite attractive -- if the wines are any good.
Fleming's has a fascinating wine list. Sure, there are the ho-hum hyphenated Chardonnays: Murphy-Goode, Kendall-Jackson and Sonoma-Cutrer. But there are also cutting-edge whites like Bonny Doon Riesling, Brancott Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and Treana Marsanne/Viognier from California. There are the mundane Merlots: Geyser Peak, Clos Du Bois and Chateau St. Jean. But there are also Francophile favorites from Gigondas, Margaux and the Haut-Médoc. And for the rubes, there's even Beringer White Zinfandel. It's not a wine list that reflects good taste or bad taste; it's a wine list that reflects every taste.
Palm, Morton's of Chicago and The Capital Grille have come to dominate the national steak house market. They may be chains, but each is based on a famous original. Caricatures painted by famous New York newspaper cartoonists decorate the walls of the original Second Avenue location of Palm in New York, so the Westheimer outlet of the chain is decorated with cartoons of Houston celebrities. The original Morton's of Chicago and Capital Grille of Washington, D.C., were old "chop houses" where businessmen and politicians gathered for red meat in a men's club atmosphere. The chop house theme is re-created in their Houston locations.
The original Fleming's in Newport Beach, California, didn't start out as a well-loved local tradition. (If such a thing exists in Newport Beach.) It began as a carefully calculated marketing ploy.
Fleming's is the brainchild of restaurant concept packagers Paul Fleming and William Allen III. Fleming was one of the inventors of P.F. Chang's and once the largest franchisee of Ruth's Chris Steak House; Allen is the former CEO of the La Madeleine bakery chain.
"If you think about the steak business the way we thought about the steak business, it becomes painfully obvious that there is a $35 price gap in check average between the high-end guys -- Morton's, Ruth's Chris, Del Frisco's -- and the more casual steak houses like Outback," Allen told Nation's Restaurant News. Fleming's is "a value play underneath the high-end guys."
If top-end steak houses resemble men's clubs and cater to businessmen with expense accounts, then Fleming's would target the more cost-conscious demographic of couples. The key is to appeal to women, say the two highly experienced restaurant chain packagers. So they developed a "female-friendly" design -- with lighter colors, softer lighting and floral arrangements. A wider range of entrées, including grilled fish and seafood, is no doubt supposed to keep the feminine palate happy as well.