The basic concept behind Fleming's will be utterly familiar to fans of similarly pricey steakhouses: a clubby, dimly lit setting; a polished service staff; and an à la carte menu featuring oversized, highly pedigreed steaks and chops, as well as a variety of starters, salads, and side dishes that are ample enough to feed a small herd. As our hostess, then our server, and finally the menu hastened to inform us, Fleming's uses only USDA prime beef, aged up to four weeks for flavor and texture, then hand-cut daily and seared at 1,600 degrees to the desired level of doneness. Predictably, the result is some pretty good eating -- not necessarily the best steaks in the city, but nonetheless quite good, with adequate levels of tenderness and above-average marks in the arenas of juiciness and beefy good taste (as well as some hefty prices, ranging from $25 for an 8-ounce filet mignon to $35 for a 20-ounce bone-in New York strip).
In Fleming's favor, no one appears at tableside, à la Morton's, with asphyxiating lobsters and slabs of uncooked meat to remind diners that food does not simply materialize on plates but must be prepared from raw ingredients. On the other hand, Fleming's ambiance, while perfectly clean and comfortable, seems almost dull in its neutrality: not as elegant as Ruth's Chris or Hyde Park, say, not as relentlessly urbane as Morton's, and certainly not as personal and Clevecentric as the well-worn John Q's. Other drawbacks include a significant noise level during peak hours and the less-than-scenic setting for the patio, which overlooks the bustling parking lot and is within spitting distance of the valet-parking stop.
A well-stocked wine cellar, heavy on reds, is another characteristic shared by most upper-echelon steakhouses, and it's here that Fleming's most successfully distinguishes itself from the pack. Its signature progressive wine list offers a whopping 100 international wines -- including an impressive number from boutique West Coast wineries -- by the glass or bottle, as well as the option to assemble a personalized wine flight of three 2-ounce pours. (A second, "Reserve" wine list offers an additional 100 or so limited-availability wines, at equally rare prices, by the bottle only.)
The progressive menu lists both reds and whites from lightest to fullest bodied, and each glass is poured from individual carafes into handblown crystal goblets that, except for the absence of the maker's mark, could nearly pass for Riedels. For our own little tasting exercise, we pitted mini-pours of Australia's Rosemount Shiraz and Rosemount GSM (a full-bodied blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre grapes) against a comparatively inexpensive Beringer Founders' Estate Cab from California. Despite its stiff price -- $12 for a full six-ounce pour -- the big-bodied GSM proved to be a favorite; at $6.75 for a similar-sized pour, the Beringer placed a distant second.
Of course, nothing precedes a steak as well as a dry martini, and not surprisingly, Fleming's makes several potent variations on the classic theme. Besides traditional martinis, the specialty drink menu also includes more than two dozen other boozy concoctions, ranging from a girlish Coconut Tears ($8.95, with Malibu Coconut rum, pineapple juice, crème de banana, and Sprite) to the stripped-down Perfect Ten, an unadulterated pour of Tanqueray No. Ten, with a twist ($9.95).
Virtually everything at Fleming's, with the possible exception of the exemplary French onion soup, is big enough to share, a conclusion we reached while contemplating the vast expanse of one evening's first-course wedge salad. Essentially three servings on one plate, the portion contained a trio of crisp and juicy iceberg lettuce wedges, each generously garnished with crumbled blue cheese, sliced tomato, and red onion, and draped in creamy, not-too-salty blue cheese dressing. Another night's warm spinach salad was equally ample, with what must have been a pound of properly wilted baby spinach, flecked with crumbs of goat cheese and a scattering of sliced button, shiitake, and portobello mushrooms and red pepper; the surprising result was a colorful salad of dark, umami-like flavors that any chef in the city might be glad to claim.
This wasn't the only instance when the kitchen put a cool new twist on what could have been the same-old same-old. Consider, for instance, the shrimp and lobster cocktail, a handsome arrangement of three jumbo, poached-and-chilled shrimp (a tad overcooked, but not tough), sided by a sweet-and-spicy mound of moist lobster salad, composed of bits of lobster, sliced tomato, and chopped lettuce, bound together with a tongue-nipping, housemade Creole sauce, and topped with a dusting of fresh dill and a whole, shelled lobster claw. Similarly, an entrée of six breaded shrimp, crisply crusted in a sweet yet lively almond-cilantro coating and arranged on skewers with grilled red pepper and onion, was a jazzy variation on the more common coconut shrimp; a ramekin of orange-ginger dipping sauce on the side seemed to amplify the cilantro's flavor to good effect and, together with a wedge of fresh pineapple, lent color to the plate.
By contrast, the visual impact of the steaks -- served unaccompanied on sizzling hot platters, without even so much as an onion ring for companionship -- seemed frankly underwhelming. Good thing, then, that their meaty, atavistic aromas sufficed to rev up our palates.
Both a 22-ounce bone-in rib-eye and a 20-ounce bone-in New York strip were commendable for their clean, honest flavors, enhanced in the kitchen with just the right amount of salt, coarsely ground pepper, and a pat of butter. (For that matter, nearly everything -- salad dressings, sides, and steaks included -- had been attentively seasoned during cooking; we don't recall once reaching for the salt and pepper shakers as a cure for dullness, nor were we up all night drinking water as the result of excessive salinity.) Both steaks had been attentively broiled to the requested medium-rare, and both were appropriately juicy, too.
If neither steak was exactly tough, however, neither were they melt-in-the-mouth tender. For that experience, we turned to a succulent 14-ounce veal chop that, at least in comparison to the sturdy steaks, seemed nearly as delicate as cotton candy. In fact, accompanied by made-from-scratch béarnaise sauce, the veal chop may just be the best piece of meat on the menu. On the side, a house specialty, Fleming's potatoes -- a cheesy, bubbly version of spuds au gratin -- was decidedly sleek and rich. (Don't worry about the menu's reference to jalapeños either: Skinned and seeded, the little green pepper specks pack less punch than a boxing-nun puppet.) Even better, though, were the well-seasoned shoestring potatoes -- pliable, deliciously fresh, yet just starchy enough to provide a savory sop for the jus that gathered on the plate.
Afterward, there's a tidy collection of premium scotches, bourbons, and cognacs, as well as ports and dessert wines (including the award-winning Inniskillin Vidal Icewine from the Niagara Peninsula, at $25 per glass). There are also eight non-liquid dessert options, ranging from the simple (mixed berries) to the complex (a superior version of warm chocolate lava cake). Sided by a double scoop of vanilla-bean ice cream atop a giant, chewy pistachio-almond tuille and garnished with chopped pistachios, it was a small symphony of textures, temperatures, and tastes; because the cake is baked to order, clue your server in to your intentions before the main course dishes are cleared. A mid-range offering, apple-pear tart, got less enthusiastic reviews, though: The filling of hard, undercooked fruit was a major dud, although the flaky pastry shell that embraced them was not without its charms.
Founded in Newport Beach, California, in 1998, Fleming's now has more than two dozen locations nationwide; so far, the Eton-Chagrin outpost is the only one in Ohio. However, both local operating partner Cliff Cravens and Executive Chef Eli Kratzert are veterans of the region's restaurant scene, with résumés that include significant stints at the Cleveland-based Hyde Park Group's highly rated steakhouses. Whether or not this has made Fleming's a better restaurant than it otherwise might be is debatable. What's certain, though, is that in Fleming's, Cleveland's meat lovers have another worthwhile shrine at which to worship.