Venue Review: Fleming's
The Charlotte Observer
At the EpiCentre, 210 E. Trade St., with valet parking offered. Dinner nightly; 704-333-4266.
It's an interesting exercise in flexibility, Fleming's.
Billed formally as Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, the national chain - 65 in more than half the states - demonstrates a flair for expansion in other terms, too. To wit: Yes, it's a fine-dining steakhouse, but it also offers:
Entrée diversity, from several fish dishes to a hefty pork chop to chicken to steak-festooned Cobb salad.
A seven-dish alternative - still in test phase - to the pricy steak/chop lineup, in a nicely varied "small plates" section, ranging from about $15 to about $23.
"5 for $6 'til 7," a handful of appetizers (and a burger) offered nightly until 7 p.m. at the bar. In other locations, five cocktails and wines by the glass also cost just $6 then; that's not allowed in Charlotte, sadly.
All of which adds up to an interesting take on what can be a fairly rote concept.
Charlotte's Fleming's is at the EpiCentre - to one side, on street level and before you hit the chaos (or "high energy," depending on your point of view) - and offers complimentary valet parking.
Step in and you're enveloped in wood, a low golden light and conversations cushioned by decent sound control, rare enough these days to be notable. Booths form the periphery, while frosted-glass votives dot white-linened tables; note the artwork you may think is stock photography (as I did) is actually painstaking still life work by painter Thomas Arvid.
Service was Fleming's strongest point on our visits, from efficient yet warm, well-educated servers to be-suited hosts roaming the dining room solicitously.
Steaks rule, commandeering 60-70 percent of sales, according to operating partner David Cass. My bone-in ribeye was a lovely hunk o' beef with pertinent stats the usual: USDA Prime, corn-fed, aged up to a month, broiled at 1,600 degrees, finished with butter. Mine was only adequately trimmed but arrived hot and juicy. A porcini-rubbed filet had little of that mushroom's smokiness, but perfectly grilled thin asparagus spears and a drizzle of Gorgonzola cream lifted the plate.
The dryish tuna "mignon" we had one night is now off the menu, an excellent decision. Much better is Scottish salmon, a mite small in overall portion but nicely thick and beautifully tender, with a sort of roasted mushroom melange.
The kitchen turns a bit heavy-handed with sauces, overdressing terribly an attractive (and creatively presented) tomato and mozzarella salad, for example. Note that you'd like them to go easy, and you should be fine.
Sides include all the expected ones, plus a variation on au gratin that uses jalapenos, and a chipotle mac and cheese. Desserts include a lava cake, which I hadn't had anywhere for years (protesting its ubiquity), that is restrained and lovely.
The Fleming's 100 is the by-the-glass list, dictated for the most part by corporate, an interesting one that changes once a year, around September. Cass notes what a "big Cab town" we are, and that Cakebread Dancing Bear and Burly Cabernet have drawn raves.
Chef-partner Richard Cobbs is a Fleming's regional chef partner, which means he oversees other kitchens as well, and is why Charlotte gets to test the small plates. Deciding how small small should be is happening now, so inquire if you fear you may remain hungry. I'm delighted the steakhouse is trying new approaches in a health-conscious, wallet-conscious time.