Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, West Hartford

Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar
cuisine: Upscale steakhouse
entrées: $22.95–$43.50
address: 44 South Main Street, West Hartford
phone: (860) 676-WINE (9463)
credit cards: All major

4½ Stars… Special

Fleming’s Serves Up More Fun & Better Food Than Most Upscale Steakhouses

I have held Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar in West Hartford in high esteem even longer than it has been open. How, you may ask, is that possible? I had never visited another Fleming’s (and still haven’t), even though the rapidly expanding chain has grown to 64 outlets in 28 states since opening in 1998. I didn’t have any close friends who had visited a Fleming’s and told me about it. And I didn’t rely on any press clippings or research others’ reviews online, because frankly I form my own opinions and have little interest in those of others.

So how did I perform this amazing feat of intuition? The answer is, got a sneak peak. I was one of a few fortunate members of the press invited in before the restaurant opened to observe the training of the staff. Impressive numbers of applicants vied for relatively few staff positions in a ratio that would make an Ivy League admissions officer proud. They were the best, the brightest and the most attractive, most having worked at other top Connecticut restaurants. A pretty young mother named Angela shared her study materials with me, acting as my Fleming’s guide. I sat with her through a wine seminar during which trainees demonstrated their wine expertise, some of them actually appearing to know as much or more than I did. Their excitement was contagious.

When the seminar concluded, everyone adjourned to the dining room. For the servers, their training and testing was continuing. In wave after successive wave of food, virtually the entire menu was previewed. The staff shouted out in unison the answers to various questions about the food as an attractive trainer probed their knowledge. The food was passed around, exclaimed over, analyzed. How nice to visit a restaurant where every server has tried all the food and can field questions intelligently and offer informed opinions. It’s in stark contrast with a number of upscale restaurants where the closest the staff get to the food is to watch it disappearing down customers’ gullets.

The servers weren’t the only ones being tested, of course. For the kitchen staff, it was a chance to run through the entire menu, reviewing the recipes, working out timing issues, all problems revealed to their alert coworkers before a paying audience came. Not that I saw any problems.

But what confidence on the part of Fleming’s management (specifically operating partner Edward Ferreira and chef partner Christian Schunmann) to bring in the media before the restaurant had even opened! So many establishments today seek soft openings, hoping not to see any members of the food press for a few weeks. Of course, in these days of social networking, the word about major new restaurants gets out instantaneously. Consequently, restaurant critics who want to seem au courant feel pressured to visit restaurants earlier than ever.

So after my first Fleming’s visit, I came away tremendously impressed by my surroundings, by the wine list, by the quality, training and enthusiasm of the staff, and most of all, by the food itself. And four (!) visits later, I can’t say that my opinion has budged one inch. But now I may be just about well enough trained to try out for the staff myself.

* * * * *

My first review visit came a couple of years after that initial press visit. Depending on the day of the week, there are three parking options: street, garage (there are two within a block) or valet. When you first enter the restaurant, it seems dark, but your eyes quickly make the adjustment. The lighting is in fact very carefully controlled. You have no trouble navigating the restaurant or reading your menu, yet it’s dim enough so you remain focused on your tablemates, rather than being distracted by the goings-on of the entire room.

But to the degree that you do check out your surroundings, you will find yourself in what I felt was a more attractive environment than a certain New Orleans-based competitor and a less clubby environment than a certain Chicago-based competitor. And even as you approach the maître d’ station, the strong emphasis on wine will become apparent. Throughout the restaurant, you find bottles of wine of all sizes and shapes on display. There’s even a glassed-in, temperature-controlled wine room.

Everywhere you look, judicious use of attractive mahogany-colored wood has been made. There are small recessed lights and big orange lights shaped like the bottom halves of flying saucers. The gleaming kitchen and its hard-working chefs are open to view. There’s an appealing bar area, with four booths in addition to counter space.

Service is exceptional, rivaling any restaurant in the state. Hiring top talent and training and monitoring it rigorously is bound to have that result. I have asked in advance for a corner or side table, and wind up in a perfect little alcove. As our party is seated, I am offered a black napkin to match my black apparel. It’s a thoughtful touch, but I decline. I often have a hard enough time finding my napkin when it’s a different color. Usually, I wind up sitting on it or gravity brings it to the floor.

Still believing that springing for water (pun intended) is one step away from paying for air, I elect West Hartford’s finest tap water. Good wine, however, I don’t mind ponying up for. And Fleming’s is one of the best places to come for wine. Called “the Fleming’s 100,” there are actually 105 wines available by the glass ($6–$17.50), each of which is also available by the bottle ($24–$84). Wines are listed by varietal or wines of interest, and from lightest to fullest. Symbols identify wines of exceptional value as well as organic, sustainable or biodynamic wines. There’s also a two-page reserve list ($65–$460), but there’s no shortage of great choices on the regular list.

On my first visit, I select a 2007 Parés Baltà, Penedès Mas Petit, Spain ($8.50/$34). Fleming’s big-bowled goblets are greatly appreciated. We accept an offer to decant our bottle because it tastes a bit “closed up” initially. The Cabernet Sauvignon-Garnacha blend responds beautifully to the extra attention.

A loaf of rosemary sourdough bread comes with two dips—a roasted tomato herb butter or a Chardonnay-infused feta spread. Both are good, but we find ourselves gravitating toward the latter. My only quibble, and it’s one I have with many, many restaurants—I wish the bread were sliced all of the way through so one isn’t forced to handle the next person’s bread as well.

In my opinion, the appetizers of certain competitors based in top American jazz cities could use a little more creativity. Not a problem at Fleming’s, where the appetizers ($9.95–$20.95) are highly imaginative. They’re also calibrated to stimulate, as they should, not to fill one up. While they’re not ungenerous, every dish leaves you wanting more in the good sense. Refreshing lump crab Louis wraps ($10.95) feature delicious crabmeat, avocado, bacon, egg, tomato and chives wrapped in butter lettuce with a housemade dip reminiscent of Russian dressing. But we’re not done with crab yet. We also try jumbo lump crab cakes ($16.50), two beautifully browned, crabby cakes resting in a pool of orange sauce. The cakes are so compelling that the accompanying roasted-red-pepper-and-lime-butter sauce is almost superfluous.

Roasted mushroom ravioli ($10.95) take us in an entirely different direction. Three big round scallop-edged pockets are filled with minced portobello and shiitake for great mushroom flavor and then topped with a luscious creamy porcini butter sauce with just a touch of sweetness.

From the salads ($8.50–$9.50), we order “the wedge” ($9.50). Our chilled salad forks are just another example of the attention to detail that separates Fleming’s from most other restaurants. Chive stalks are criss-crossed like swords at the top of the plate, a Fleming’s signature. A generous wedge of lettuce is complemented with grape tomato halves, red onion and crumbled blue cheese. It’s simple and beautifully balanced. Cracked black pepper is the perfect finishing touch.

The sides tend to be very generous, clearly intended for sharing. We try two with our entrées on this first visit. Sautéed mushrooms ($9.50) turn out to be fresh buttons and portobellos done up in butter with whole garlic. Nice, but the side that really grabs us is the Fleming’s potatoes ($8.95), which are cooked al dente with cream, Cheddar and a hint of jalapeño that provides more flavor than heat. While most Americans think of jalapeños as contributing spiciness, Fleming’s appreciates what a unique flavor they can be and how well they play off a rich dish.

A swordfish special ($29.95) tempts us, and it turns out to be one helluva piece of fish, a thick boomerang-shaped cut that’s as tender and juicy as it is fresh and tasty. The rice that accompanies the swordfish is overly salty, but it’s replaced without fuss or muss and we’re not charged for an otherwise great dish. It’s the only blip in four otherwise faultless Fleming’s meals, a tremendous achievement in consistency.

You probably don’t think pork when you head to Fleming’s—but you sure could! Its double-thick pork rib chop ($27.95) towers three inches over the plate. Served over a julienne of apple and jícama, the lean but juicy cut comes in an apple-cider-and-Creole-mustard glaze that suits it perfectly.

And then there’s the beef—why you really come to Fleming’s! According to Fleming’s promotional materials, it’s all corn-fed U.S.D.A. prime, aged up to four weeks for optimal flavor and texture, and then broiled at 1600 degrees Fahrenheit to seal in all of its juices and flavors. The steaks are seasoned with kosher salt and black pepper, and then finished with a touch of butter (not practically a stick, like some of its rivals) and fresh chopped parsley.

How does all of that translate? Beautifully, I must say. I try the prime bone-in rib-eye ($43.50), and I couldn’t be happier. Several inches of bone projects from the prodigious piece of meat, which was accompanied by three pitchers of sauce—peppercorn, Madeira and Béarnaise. The steak has lovely crisp edging and perfect fat marbling. It’s beautifully seasoned and amazingly flavorful. I request medium-rare, which usually produces too rare meat along any bone, but the restaurant manages that detail perfectly, too.

As appealing as the sauces are, I have to force myself to try them because the meat is so fabulous on its own. Each sauce proves to be spot-on. I especially like the hint of sweetness in the Madeira. But in my effort to be thorough, I also request a taste of Fleming’s proprietary “F17” steak sauce that’s offered with its peppercorn steak ($39.95). While we joke that there must be 17 secret herbs and spices, or that it must have taken 17 prototypes before Fleming’s got it right, the steak sauce is just terrific—peppery and fruity. “Steal that recipe,” I write in my notes.

After a real steak blowout, some people may not be up to dessert. But for Fleming’s, you should save space, even if that means wrapping up some of your dinner. If you’re full, the fresh berries (raspberries, strawberries and blueberries) with Chantilly cream ($6.95) are a light and refreshing option. But the white chocolate bread pudding with Bourbon sauce ($8.95) is to die for, the pudding cooked with wonderful contrasts in crunchiness and softness.

* * * * *

After that first review visit, I am excited to return to Fleming’s. This time it’s just my wife and me, and it’s at moments such as these that I realize I’m the luckiest man alive. Not that all my friends and family don’t keep telling me that. We’re placed in a large semicircular booth in which we sit, flirtily, side by side, facing out together on the world. Just the way it is in reality. But the world seems far away as we taste two wines: a 2008 d’Arenberg Stump Jump Red, McLaren Vale, South Australia ($7.50/$30) and a 2008 Pascual Toso Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina ($8/$32). The Stump Jump proves to be a nice Grenache-Shiraz-Mourvedre blend, but the Malbec is scintillating and wins our vote. We share a bottle.

It’s a Sunday, and we’re here to try (among other things) the special, three-course, prime rib dinner ($36.95), which for July is an incomprehensible $29.95. The special includes a choice of salads, a choice of side dishes, a twelve-ounce slab of prime rib cooked to preference, and one of Fleming’s delicious desserts. Without doubt, given the quality of the food, this is one of the best dining deals in Connecticut.

We also try two additional items. One is a soup, which a food runner leaves off with the following comments: French onion deliciousness. I brought two spoons. The thing’s incredible. Please enjoy! Well, the ebullient fellow proves to be one hundred percent right. It’s an absolutely great broth, a beef and chicken stock that tasted sherried or brandied for the perfect balance between salty and sweet. Sharing the French onion soup ($9.95) topped with bread and stretchy Swiss cheese and Parmesan with my gorgeous wife seems the height of romance.

The other additional item we try is the delightful tuna mignon ($32.50). Two large pink pieces of seared rare tuna studded with a poppy seed au poivre come with grape tomato halves, onion and scallion in an enchanting sherry vinaigrette. It’s a refreshing yet filling dish.

But let’s now focus on the prime rib special. We choose the Fleming’s salad (normally $8.50), a nicely balanced combination of sparkling greens, grape tomato halves, red onion, candied walnut, dried cranberries and fresh croutons in a lemony vinaigrette. For a side, we select the creamed sweet corn (normally $8.50), which has a great roasted corn flavor, stretchy Gruyère cheese on top and a subtle jalapeño bite. It was one of my favorite dishes during my press visit two years before.

Now we get to the prime rib, the star of the evening. I ask if the kitchen can come up with an end cut (I love the crunch and seasoning) and still get the interior medium rare. Most restaurants can’t manage that trick, but Fleming’s does so beautifully. The prime rib comes with a pleasing trio of sauces—horseradish, au jus and horseradish mustard.

The dessert we choose (and share) is the dark chocolate lava cake (normally $10.95) with two scoops of vanilla ice cream and a pistachio tuile. Housemade Chantilly cream is brought in a separate bowl. It’s a formidable cake, easily big enough for two people. Oozing chocolate from the first bite, it’s also one of the nicest molten cakes we’ve ever tasted. With a cup of strong, piping hot espresso in hand, my wife couldn’t be happier. When she’s happy, I’m happy. It’s another near-perfect meal.

* * * * *

During each visit, I’m examining different aspects of the menu, probing the kitchen’s capabilities. The third time out, I’ve picked up my mother at Bradley International Airport, which is less than half an hour away. She’s making her annual cross-country switch from Oakland, California to Port Clyde, Maine, stopping off for a week to visit family and friends in Connecticut. She has never been to a Fleming’s, but despite travel weariness, she’s eager to try it.

Fleming’s string of terrific, reasonably priced wines continues. A nice 2006 Tenimenti Angelini, Tuttobene Rosso, Tuscany, Italy ($7/$28) helps my mother deflate after a stressful trip.

We order modestly. Fleming’s portions are generous. A luscious chipotle Cheddar macaroni and cheese ($8.95) is topped with bread crumbs that give it a nice texture. The interior reveals spiral pasta in a rich and creamy sauce, the chipotle a lovely accent. As with previous uses of jalapeño, the chipotle puts out more flavor than heat.

At this point, my confidence in Fleming’s is total. An item I wouldn’t normally order, a salmon niçoise salad ($22.95) is far from traditional but absolutely lovely. On the left side of a long rectangular plate, a sizeable piece of broiled salmon, its top beautifully seasoned, rests over a salad cup with chopped greens and grape tomato halves dressed in a lemon balsamic vinaigrette. The center of the plate is occupied by giant, perfectly cooked potato wedges, two halves of truffled deviled egg, and a crostini spread with a kalamata olive aïoli. The right side of the plate holds sweet baby peppers and French green beans that have been steamed, chilled and dressed with the lemon balsamic. It’s a winning combination.

Still, when you come to Fleming’s, it’s hard to resist the beef. We also try the peppercorn steak ($39.95), prime New York strip crusted with cracked black and white peppercorns and served with that “F17” steak sauce. Cut an inch thick, it’s a long piece of meat and perfectly cooked. Lovely green beans flecked with bits of mushroom round out the dish.

Our table is crumbed before dessert, so unobtrusively we barely notice. My mother and I split a wedge of walnut turtle pie ($8.50), which features caramel, walnuts and chocolate baked in a chocolate pie crust. The turtle pie is rich, moist and immensely superior to chain equivalents with similar names. Again, a bowl of Chantilly cream is ideal accompaniment.

* * * * *

My fourth, and final, review visit to Fleming’s takes place on my own dime. Since the first visit, I have taken notice of a bar deal so good I have wanted to try it out myself. Consequently, I have deliberately avoided sampling some of Fleming’s most appealing appetizers, saving them for this moment. But we’re lucky to find three seats in a row at the bar. The only available seats, at the bar or the booths, prove to be those last three, as if they were waiting for us. It turns out, however, that we could have availed ourselves of the special from the patio tables as well.

Called “5 For $6 ’Til 7”, the bar special is as follows: Five cocktails, five wines by the glass, and five appetizers are priced at just six dollars until seven in the evening. However, my mother, my buddy and I pass on the cocktails and the wines by the glass, availing ourselves of $3 bottles of Stella Artois. Not surprisingly, I run into a fellow member of the food media, who couldn’t resist such a deal any more than I could.

Bar chips hold our appetites in check while we wait for our food. They are Yukon Golds, sliced thin, deep fried, and finished with kosher salt.

We try all five appetizers that I have been postponing. These starters are exactly the same preparation and serving size that they normally are when they cost more than twice as much, and I’m looking forward to making a meal out of them. Sweet chile calamari (normally $13.50) feature lightly breaded rings and tentacles in a sweet chile sauce with cherry peppers and chives. Seared ahi tuna (normally $14.50) proves to be eight pretty pieces of seared rare fish arranged in a semicircle and served with a fresh vegetable salad and spicy mustard.

The shrimp cocktail (normally $15.95) showcases three jumbo interlocked shrimp served over a chipotle horseradish cocktail sauce. Tenderloin carpaccio (normally $13.50) in a caper Creole mustard sauce also comes with five big crostini topped with melted Gruyère cheese. And finally, wicked Cajun barbecue shrimp (normally $14.95) feature four big shrimp served in a tasty sauce that’s not for the faint of heart.

There is one other special of interest. Fleming’s prime burger (normally $10) is also just six dollars. I love a good burger, and Fleming’s proves to be the real deal. We’re allowed to make two choices: “Swiss, Cheddar or Blue” and “pink or not pink in the middle.” I order mine with Swiss cheese and pink in the middle. It’s served on a durable hard roll (thank God) and comes with good quality bacon and a side of Fleming’s humongous signature onion rings.

The bar is now two deep. We have picked up a whole row of people standing behind us. People in the bar area are waiting for seats, not in the dining room but in the bar. “My watch is set to go off at seven,” I hear a fellow say behind me. He’s nursing a sparkling Cava served in a test tube-like glass. It’s one of the five wine specials.

After four exhaustive visits, I have tried Fleming’s every way imaginable. No matter what approach I adopt, the results are the same. I leave full and happy without putting an unreasonably large dent in my wallet. Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar in West Hartford serves exceptional food and provides an incredibly satisfying all-around dining experience.

One Response to Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, West Hartford

  1. Linda Barone says:

    One of my favorite places to go for Happy Hour at the bar. The food is great and sometimes I just want something light with a very good glass of wine .

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