Food & Wine

By John Bancroft October 1, 2010

Rare Treats

Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar in Sarasota lives up to its double-barreled name, purveying both flawlessly executed steakhouse fare and an impressive selection of 100 wines by the glass, taste and bottle (as well as a reserve list by the bottle) in the same luxuriously upholstered, seductively lit establishment. And, just for fun, its bar hosts one of the best food and drink happy hours in town.

Fleming’s, long a darling of readers in this magazine’s annual “Best of” polls, is part of a chain, but each restaurant has its own personality. Let’s start with a word about happy hour, more descriptively known as “5 for $6 ’til 7,” which translates as five appetizers and a burger, five cocktails and five wines by the glass available for six bucks apiece until 7 o’clock. The star on the food side of the equation is Fleming’s prime burger, a superior and succulent peppered bacon and cheddar cheeseburger that will make a barfly even of a teetotaler in no time flat. We like ours medium rare with a dollop of the restaurant’s beautifully balanced F17 steak sauce, although a slather of Dijon mustard works well, too.

Waiters know their menu and wine list and are excellent and affable guides to both. The tables themselves are dressed in crisp white linens and set with a battery of stemware ready to hold water and various wines. The lighting is sufficiently subdued to cast a golden glow over all, setting just the right mood for a long and indulgent dinner with friends or that first date you want desperately to impress.

Steaks are the thing at Fleming’s, of course: prime aged beef broiled at 1600 degrees to seal in the natural juices while lending even a rare to medium rare steak a toothsome crust. There’s also a bountiful array of appetizers, salads, sides and seafood from which to choose.

The steaks we ordered are the top of the line. Colette went for her absolute favorite, a huge, plate-covering bone-in ribeye ($42.50) perfectly broiled to order and served in all its naked glory, seasoned simply with kosher salt and black pepper. It was so rich and flavorful it needed nothing else, although Colette could have requested that it be accompanied by peppercorn, Madeira, Bearnaise or F17 sauce. In the case of this noble steak, however, that would have amounted to gilding the lily.

I, on the other hand, was in the mood for serious tenderness, and so turned to what is called at Fleming’s the main filet mignon ($37.95). This is not normally my favorite cut, but it is immensely popular and I felt obliged to check it out. Lucky me. For starters it was a mile high, perfectly crusted and with a warm pink interior as requested. It yielded easily to the knife and the tooth, delivering the buttery taste and texture the cut is famous for.

There is a petite cut of the filet on the menu, too, but the steaks we ordered were enormous. Half of each went home with us, along with a note directing us to a Fleming’s website——where we could find recipes for putting our leftovers to deliciously good use. Kudos to whoever thought that up.

As tasty and masterfully prepared as the steaks were, I was knocked out by a side order for two called Half and Half ($8.95): half French fries and half some of the most heavenly sweet onion rings it has ever been my pleasure to try (unsuccessfully) to keep out of Colette’s reach. They’re big bruisers, impeccably breaded and definitely to be devoured with the aid of knife and fork.

For appetizers we shared cool and flavorful seasoned lump crab in little lettuce cups and a perhaps too hearty mushroom ravioli (both $9.95). The latter was certainly worth eating but a bit much given the bounty that followed.

Had one of us not been in the mood for steak, a really fine alternative would have been a Niçoise dinner salad that plates its impressive array of ingredients, from broiled salmon filet to truffled deviled eggs, not piled high but nestled cozily side by side. Very nice.

The wine we ordered from the Fleming’s 100 list was an old favorite, a 2006 Francis Coppola Claret ($44), a swoonily apt accompaniment to fine steaks. The wine didn’t surprise us, but we were at first amused that our waiter decanted it before filling our glasses. We never have treated this wine so royally at home, but it turns out our waiter knew what she was doing. In this case, decanting into a broad-bottomed, narrow-necked vessel opened the wine so efficiently that the first sip was as robust and ram-bunctiously full-flavored as the last. It’s encouraging, don’t you think, that even an old dog like me can learn a new trick?

Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar

2001 Siesta Drive, Sarasota

Reservations: (941) 358-9463

Bar: Full bar plus an exceptional by-the-glass wine list

Hours: Dinner 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, ’til 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, ’til 9 p.m. Sunday (which is prime rib night)

Cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Parking: Complimentary valet 

Wow on the Waterfront

In a 2004 fire at The Waterfront Restaurant, the City of Anna Maria lost an artifact of its early days but later gained a dining and drinking venue with both a modern sensibility and a sense of history.

The restaurant originally was housed in a bayfront 1922 cottage that had charm, well, to burn, but that was a bit dark and cramped inside, making the wide front porch with views of Tampa Bay and the Sunshine Skyway the most sought-after seating. The porch is still a fine perch, but the interior of the carefully rebuilt building (the stone fireplace was about the only thing that survived the flames) has been opened up and expanded, bringing in more light and making room for a congenial bar serving wine and a terrific list of craft beers. A new garden courtyard expands diners’ alfresco options.

As one might reasonably expect, given the setting, the menu offers abundant seafood choices abetted by a nice sampling of landside dishes, some with a dash of Caribbean influence and many with an old Florida twang. Take, for example, the appetizer of firm and meaty fried green tomatoes ($9), as fine and authentically Southern an example of the dish as one is apt to find.

Those with a taste for fish and shellfish will be tempted by the Gulf of Mexico sampler, which at $27 is high in the menu’s upper price range, exceeded only by the filet mignon Madagascar at $30. The platter features a couple of tasty wild Gulf shrimp, a couple of sweet and succulent sea scallops, a very crabby crab cake and a hunk of fresh grouper, along with tender little garlic-scented steamer potatoes. I had my fish grilled, but you can have yours blackened or fried, if you prefer.

Colette skipped the fish and went instead for Cuban-inflected mojito pork chops ($19), a pair of thick bone-in chops char-grilled to a tender and moist turn in a marinade of cumin, garlic and sour orange. The dish was the evening’s clear winner and likely will wind up on her plate again the next time we drop in.

To accompany her pork, Colette sensibly chose a draught pint of Smuttynose India Pale Ale ($5), which with its citrus edge was just right with the mojito prep. With my Gulf sampler I chose a crisp and aromatic 2009 Alberti 154 Torrontes from Argentina, which at $8 the glass was both refreshing and a good deal.

The Waterfront Restaurant

111 South Bay Blvd., Anna Maria

Reservations: (941) 778-1515

Bar: Good selection of wines and craft beers

Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. daily; dinner 4:30-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, ’til 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Parking: On street

The Verdict

It’s a steakhouse and a good one—and it’s a wine bar with 100 wines by the glass. It’s both in one luxe package. Spend big at table or devour a bargain at the bar. 

What I’m Drinking

A new, refreshing craft beer.

The Jalehouse Light lager I drank with Keith Redding at Broadway Bar in Sarasota on a hot noonday was indeed as light as a zephyr, but with considerably more flavor and body than I expected. It was clean and refreshing from first sip to last and entirely unburdened by aftertaste, making it a perfectly refreshing warm weather beer with zing.

Since the beer’s launch in November of last year, it has been embraced by nearly 100 neighborhood bars and liquor stores in Sarasota and Bradenton, as well as by restaurants as celebrated as Derek’s Culinary Casual in the Rosemary District.

Jalehouse Light is doing so well that Redding and partner Brian Tressider are poised to launch a second brew this month, this one not in the light camp but full-bodied. Lockdown Lager, named via a contest on Facebook, is an amber lager, its release timed for fall’s cooler days. And coming in January is a hefeweizen, a sturdy German style of wheat beer yet to be named.


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