Fleming's makes its best case with its steaks
Harbor East veteran orchestrates a steakhouse experience
This is the prime bone-in ribeye steak, with Fleming's potatoes in the background, at Fleming's restaurant in Harbor East. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / July 9, 2011)
Steak rules here, and you'd be foolish to disobey. I haven't had a more satisfying rib-eye than the one Fleming's recently served me. I loved looking at it and eating every robust bite.
Fleming's signature steak preparation involves seasoning with kosher salt and black pepper and finishing with butter and parsley. This makes the beef, USDA prime, both outstandingly flavorful and gorgeous. There are six basic USDA selections, including a $36.95 petite filet mignon, a $40.95 New York strip and a behemoth $45.50 rib-eye. They can be accompanied, upon request, by a peppercorn, Madeira or bearnaise sauce.
Nothing else accompanies the basic steak, though. Sides are extra. And this is as good a time as any to mention how expensive Fleming's is. It is very expensive — by my reckoning, among the five most pricey restaurants in Baltimore. The total for our dinner here, which included two cocktails, two glasses of wine, three appetizers, three entrees, three sides and one dessert, came to $264, including taxes but before tip. There are, you should know, work-arounds like a hamburger menu, appetizer specials during happy hour at the bar and a Sunday evening $36.95 three-course prime rib special ($29.95 through August).
You could always do without wine, too, but Fleming's prides itself on its wine program, which includes over 100 wines by the glass. To get to Fleming's dining menu, you'll have to flip through page after page of Fleming's wine list, which is extensive, engaging, and very well-written and well-organized. Designed to be approachable, it's hard to resist.
Everything at Fleming's is designed to be approachable. It's the restaurant's greatest strength and ultimately its weakness.
The interior at Fleming's, which time has served well, remains a stylish and contemporary take on the classic steakhouse, with ample banquette seating and considerable elbow room. The levels of noise and lighting are unremarkable, which is a compliment. It's a pretty, accessible space, designed to put the customer at ease, with zero intimidation factor. There doesn't appear to be a dress code. The Fleming's staff is younger and more diverse than you'd see at a classic steakhouse, and that too contributes to the restaurant's approachability.
All of this is engineered — Fleming's is owned by the same restaurant group that operates Fleming's Harbor East neighbor, Roy's, as well Outback Steakhouse and Bonefish Grill — and, for the most part, Fleming's is a smooth operator. But there are moments when you can see the android circuitry beneath the skin.
Some of this is innocuous, like the performative way that diners are routinely asked whether they'd prefer a black napkin. Some of it, like the wine service, can feel overbearing.
The trouble comes with everything else on the menu other than the basic steak selection. The appetizers and sides we tried at Fleming's were unsatisfying, as were the entree selections apart from the rib-eye. They come across as gimmicky and overly engineered, things designed in response to consumer desires.
The lobster tempura makes a dramatic entrance, an arrestingly artful deconstruction in which the lobster shell has been repositioned over reassembled pieces. And though the first bites are intensely buttery, the batter is underdone and the dish is pervasively greasy. It's a $20 blooming onion. A carpaccio of tenderloin, which a steakhouse should present as a calling card, is overdressed with a pointless caper Creole mustard sauce. The shrimp cocktail accompanies three artistically arranged jumbo shrimp of middling quality with an inert Grey Goose-infused chipotle horseradish cocktail sauce.
If the appetizers were debatable, the sides of chipotle macaroni and cheese and creamed spinach were not. Both were unappealingly oversauced. We didn't want to eat them, and as it turned out, they tasted as bad as they looked.
A peppercorn-encrusted New York strip steak, one of two Fleming's "new classics" was not remotely as satisfying as the basic preparation which benefits so much from salt and butter, so notably absent here.
Lamb chops, a last-second replacement for a grouper special, were very delicious, simply prepared, flattered by a classic Madeira sauce.
The grouper was rubbery. We mentioned it, and it was replaced for us with consummate grace.
Fleming's is capable of those moments. If the service here is less formal than at a classic steakhouse, it is no less vigilant and accommodating.
When the Baltimore location opened, Richard Haskell was its operating partner and Eric Littlejohn was its chef partner, and 10 years later, they are still in those positions. That kind of stability can help make a corporate restaurant feel more neighborly, and that's one reason why Fleming's has succeeded in becoming not just a draw for travelers but a destination for its neighborhood.