More refined than Outback and less price intimidating than Ruth's Chris, Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar is upscale, but not haute extreme.
Wine is important at Fleming's; it's used as part of the decor at the bar and displayed in racks in the upper and lounge-level dining rooms. Look for an open kitchen (notice the classy quilted copper awning) and a design scheme that's lighter and more polished than in traditional man-land steakhouses. Relaxed but definitely sophisticated, Fleming's gives chain restaurants a very good name indeed. The place seats about 200 in several sections, some more private and cozy than others, but the noise level is high, well beyond a convivial buzz when the dining rooms are full.
Entrées average $26, and that doesn't include side dishes. Vegetables and other accompaniments are ordered separately and served family style, which means a dish to pass around easily serves three. Sides average $6 and include four kinds of potato dishes, creamed spinach or corn, broccoli, asparagus, sautéed button mushrooms in garlic butter, and onion rings spiced with a chipotle chili mayonnaise. Definitely worth trying. Six different salads are offered, including an iceberg lettuce wedge with tomatoes, red onions and crumbled blue cheese in a creamy blue cheese dressing. It's like something out of the '50s. The restaurant's signature salad is a more modern mélange of seasonal greens, candied walnuts with tomatoes and croutons. Salads average $6.50 and are generous enough to share.
Chief among the entrées, of course, is steak, which is USDA Prime, corn-fed and aged up to a month. It's hand-cut daily and broiled at 1600-degrees. Choose an eight-ounce filet mignon or one that weighs in at 12. There's a 16-ounce and a 22-ounce rib-eye, as well as a 16-ounce and 20-ounce New York strip. Peppercorn sauce and Bernaise are served with all the steaks upon request. Additionally, the kitchen serves a half-dozen seafood specialties (the tuna mignon is especially pleasant, with its poppyseed au poivre and sherry vinaigrette) and a mixed grill as well as veal, pork and lamb chops and a chicken breast baked in white wine. Desserts include a rich and creamy-fudgy chocolate torte and a superior, individually prepared berry cobbler crowned by vanilla ice cream. Served warm, this is also plenty generous enough to share, if you can bear to. Everything we sampled at Fleming's was first rate. The steaks are as fine as those prepared in the finest establishments in town.
But a successful steakhouse can't succeed on elegant beef alone-the meat is too expensive to begin with. So a fabulous money-making bar is essential; and Fleming's has one. Besides mixed drinks served from a handsome polished wood oasis, the wine list is a standout; and it's so brilliantly organized that a novice can navigate it. It's divided into sparklings, whites and reds, with the offerings listed progressively from light to full-bodied.
Corporate wine director Marian Jansen op de Haar is the mastermind of the Fleming's wine list nationally; and she personally trains all the servers in all the Fleming's restaurants to ensure a basic level of knowledge. There is no sommelier. The wine bar serves special two-ounce tastings (in flights of three), and there are 100 wines by the glass, averaging $8, with many heading far north of that. A single glass of Duckhorn, sauvignon blanc, 2001, is $15.25; and a pour of Freemark Abbey, Bosche Estate Napa Valley, 1998 will set you back $23.95. It's tempting to allow your spirits bill at Fleming's to outstrip your New York strip steak dinner. But whatever the final balance, the total experience at this upmarket chain delivers satisfaction and value.
Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar
2001 Siesta Drive, Sarasota
Dinner: daily, Monday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5-11 p.m.; Sunday, 5-9 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Parking: off-street in restaurant lot