Bring on mad-cow disease, hoof-and-mouth disease, clogged arteries and prices to take your breath away.
Americans will never give up their steaks, and no restaurant concept will ever do as well as the upscale steakhouse.
Baltimore's newest is Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, comparable to Morton's and Ruth's Chris, which opened six weeks ago next to the new Marriott Waterfront. Its claim to fame is not only its prime beef, but also its wines by the glass.
Or, as our waiter said, "over 107 wines by the glass."
Would that be 108?
Just kidding. He was actually an excellent waiter, with one exception. When one of my guests asked him to recommend a merlot by the glass, he suggested a Robert Stemmler pinot noir instead.
A $13-a-glass Robert Stemmler pinot noir.
If you didn't ask what it cost (more than any merlot on Fleming's wine list), and then casually ordered a second glass, you'd be in for an unpleasant surprise when the check came.
You might also wonder how 107 bottles of wine can be kept open and drinkable, no matter how sophisticated the equipment. Our waiter told us it was rapid turnover. The ones we tasted were fine, but then the restaurant is young.
I expected the wines by the glass to arrive in the glass or, better still, for the waiter to bring the bottles and pour them at the table. But no. They arrive in a 6-ounce carafe, which the waiter empties into the 24-ounce Burgundy glass already on the table -- why I cannot imagine. But I don't want to be too hard on the place. The bottom line is that it's nice to have a lot of wines available by the glass.
Think of it as Fleming's gimmick, the thing that sets it apart from other upscale steakhouses. Morton's has servers displaying cuts of raw meat and holding up giant unbaked potatoes. Ruth's Chris has its wacky name. Shula's will inscribe your name on a bronze plaque if you finish the 48-ounce porterhouse. Fleming's more than 107 wines by the glass sound pretty good in comparison.
Like other pricey steakhouses, Fleming's dining room is comfortable, masculine and clubby, with lots of red leather, a bar with an Orioles game on the TV and an open kitchen. It's also noisy. This is a place for real men to eat lots of beef, especially those on expense account. (Not that there weren't a fair share of ladies tucking into 16-ounce rib-eye steaks.) I should mention that, according to its marketing material, Fleming's prides itself on its affordability. We spent, with one glass of wine each plus tip, $75 a person. You be the judge.
Fleming's beef is superb -- make no mistake about that -- and perfectly cooked. When the menu says medium rare is red with a warm center, that's exactly how your well-marbled, juicy steak will come. We tried two of them -- the rib-eye and a Kansas-cut bone-in strip, a special that night. Both were outstanding, seasoned with nothing more than lots of butter, salt, pepper and parsley. They needed nothing more. In fact, they needed less. The steaks, lamb chops and grilled swordfish we ordered were all pretty salty.
Still, the pound of Australian lamb chops, three of them, was the best lamb I've had in a while, rosy-rare and flavorful. And the firm white swordfish, with a delectable salsa of fresh mango and red pepper, was perfectly grilled.
Fleming's side of broccoli is the usual pound of the green stuff served with a too-thick hollandaise, and the portobello and button mushrooms sauteed with garlic were also heavily salted. But the Fleming's potatoes, a house specialty, are fabulous, baked with cheese, cream and jalapeno peppers. Salads were also worth the extra cost.
If this isn't enough food for you, start your meal with fat barbecued shrimp in a peppery, buttery sauce or scallops sauteed just long enough with white wine and garlic. Because this is Baltimore, there must be a crab cake on the menu. In this case, it's an appetizer with a red pepper sauce that has more zing than the crab cakes themselves.
Fleming's cheese and fruit platter serves as either a first course or dessert. Because it contains blue cheese, Urgelia, white Cheddar and goat cheese, plus a variety of fresh fruits, it will probably do for the entire table. Otherwise you can get a mixed berry cobbler (which seems to be the dessert of the moment; I'm seeing it at all the hot new restaurants), mixed berries without the cobbler, creme brulee and a cheesecake-style Key lime pie.
Yes, of course, you can get one of those death-by-chocolate desserts at Fleming's, but it's less appealing than usual when you've just eaten a pound of beef slathered in melted butter.
FLEMING'S PRIME STEAKHOUSE & WINE BAR
Atmosphere: ** 1/2
Where: 720 Aliceanna St.
Hours: Open for dinner only daily
Prices: Appetizers, $6.95-$10.50; main courses, $17.50-$29.95
Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *