Sunday, March 23, 2008

Fleming's Prime Steakhouse, Naples Style!

I've been to Flemings perhaps 4 times before, and always had a great nicely charred, grilled steak-not a surprise in a top steakhouse.

This visit was to try their seafood and veggie plates, and a novelty, the charcuterie and cheese plate. (And yes I had a bit of steak, too!) I manage to get my two cents in on where a professional group of 35 diners meets every couple months, so this evenings exploration has a higher educational purpose, too!

I met my dining companions in the comfortable wood-toned bar, and asked for the nicer house wines by the glass. I was told "You have quite a choice at our Wine Bar-we have 100 different wines by the glass, would you like to try a flight of 3 wines? " as the wine list emerged. I chose 3 different Pinot Noir, and they came in the holder below, with a handwritten card naming them in descending order. Nice.

I suavely swirled and tasted the highest glass of Pinot, and knocked over the lowest glass, spilling red wine on my lighter colored jacket. Damn, cooked the jacket well-done, and didn't leave a great impression. My nearest dining companion promptly asked for soda water, rapidly reducing a rich red stain to a pink one. The jacket was still cooked-only now just a medium rare pink. Out of nowhere, an attentive server brought a spray bottle of citrus scented magic wine stain remover, that after 3 minutes, made the stain disappear. Wow! Her heads-up action saved my jacket. Thank you!

Hold on, it gets even better. Out of the darkness, a friendly face came over to see the commotion-it was Michael Bevacqua, one of Naples premier Wine experts, formerly the buyer for "In Good Spirits", then owner of "Wine Knows". He is now practicing his profession at Naples' Fleming's. Mike pairs wines and foods not by "a light red with pork" but will have tasted the sauce with the pork, and suggest several wines that may be wonderfully suited to the sauced item. Same goes for vegetable platters, fish- you get the picture, and you get a great sommelier as well.

Our first course was the Seafood Tower for two ($55), a generous selection of perfectly cooked tender lobster, shrimp, huge lumps of crab, ceviche, a smaller crab claws, and a dipping sauce, served cold, all on a bed of ice. The centerpiece, Alaskan crab legs, were the best I've had, without the watery thawed texture so commonly served. These guys definitely do prepare fresh seafood right! Next, a break from the ordinary for the Francophile. The Charcuterie Platter (photo below) is a steal at $16.95, with cured meats, pâté, and three cheeses. (To really appreciate the art form, check out " Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing by Michael Ruhlman). Tonight's cheese assortment was an English Blue Shropshire, an Irish White Cheddar, and a French Montrachet. Then a Finocciona Salami, Prosciutto di Parma, and a rich Country Pâté. This is not chopped liver-this is real charcuterie, the pâté a touch more finely ground than a coarser ground Pâté de Campagne in some French towns , with all of the the luscious Country taste. Accompanying was a cup of marinated olives, cornichons, a cup of tart Whole Grain Mustard and sliced Baguette-pinch me please- We were beyond "happy" with this fine quality at a very, very good price!
Having several food lovers makes for many selections, and Beef Tenderloin Carpaccio was next ((12.50),
artfully presented, with capers, red onion and mustard sauce. The Dining Room, Just Starting to Fill
Many restaurants selections leave vegetarians in the dust, so we tried the Portobello Steak Fries (9.95), a meal in itself, with tender thick cut 'shrooms in a crunchy herbed panko crust, that stayed crunchy for quite a while.The smoked Jalapeno Aioli (doesn't that smoking make it a Chipotle?) was a smooth counterpart (hope they publish the recipe).
Continuing on a vegetarian tangent, we sampled the Seasonal Vegetables, and had a grilled assortment of truly fresh asparagus, parsnips (yes parsnips!), 'shrooms in a tasty sauce, bok choy, spaghetti squash, butter soft garlic cloves, and grilled tomatoes. What made it the hit was the selection of herbs and light oil, giving it a rustic warmth. Managing Partner Richard (Rick) Poole came by visiting different tables, and he didn't mind us grilling him one bit on the origin of his food.

Turns out the Fleming's Restaurants, though a national chain, are locally owned, and the owner has a big say in what is served. The local staff selects half of the wines, finds local vendors for fresh vegetables, gets Florida seafood where appropriate, and chooses the overall line up, based on Naples preferences. This was not always the case at steakhouses, and Mr. Poole made it clear that "flexibility" and "freshness" were what kept Naples Fleming's full many nights during season. Visit, and he'll probably be by your table, too, so ask any questions of him you'd like. Back to seafood in a Steakhouse, we tested the Shrimp Cocktail (14.95) and had perfectly cooked tender jumbo sized shrimp. Another diner pointed out that the the shrimp sat on a delicious bed of salsa like relish, topped with a chipotle horseradish sauce. Wait a minute-they are stealing my secret ingredient-I add powdered chipotle pepper to dishes to just give a warm heat, almost under the radar, as opposed to adding a more obvious heat with cayenne or a black pepper.

I had to grab a shot of this waiter (below) , he can carry 7 hot plates on an arm. Oh yes, he has another arm, but let's not overload the nice guy with setting any records! We shared a Prime Bone in Ribeye (42.95), and it was flawlessly cooked as we requested. Upon request, one may have peppercorn, madeira, or a bearnaise sauce-we loved it, hot off the grill, and swiftly carried to our table.

The Seared Tuna Mignon (29.95) was a seared rare delight, with poppy seeds, diced tomato, and a tomato sherry vinaigrette. Wow-pretty as a picture, and tastier.
We had fun creating a Surf and Turf, just to see how the two would look.

To round out the seafood at this Steakhouse, we tried the Twin Lobster Tails (Market) and they were oh-so-tender, with a dusting of flaked parsley for garnish, melted butter, and a lemon.
We glanced at other tables for inspiration for the sides that included monster cut Onion Rings ((9.50) (below) with smoked Jalapeno Aioli. We loved the side of Sugar Snap Peas (8.50) with a great Asian style sauce-such a fresh crispy vegetable delight, and had a huge portion of Chipotle Mac and Cheese (8.50), a rich creamy blend of at least 3 cheeses, that aced anything we had as kids.
Yes, we had plenty for four adults to share, and we still made room for dessert. Or desserts. The assortment had (clockwise from top) Crème Brûlée, a superb Cheesecake with Blueberry Sauce, a wonderful peach cobbler with fresh still-crunchy peaches (and I really like a fresh cobbler or betty), Chocolate molten Lava Cake, a scoop of ice cream, and all surrounded by hand picked fresh strawberries and blueberries. We happily made "all gone".

Terrific Peach Cobbler Takes a Bow

We looked at each other after the dessert-there were no complaints, and we have backgrounds in finer food preparation. Hat's off to local owner /Managing Partner Rick Poole for visiting tables, and delivering what he stated- a great assortment of wines by the glass (100!), truly fresh vegetables, properly cooked seafood, and a wonderful Charcuterie and Cheese plate All were cooked just as hot with the steak, or served just as cold on ice as the Seafood Tower, as should be.
Fleming's has set the bar quite high for the other Steakhouses in Naples, offering top quality seafood and quite tasty vegetables, for a well rounded menu, with prices in line with other steakhouses. (Ruth's Cris is rumored to close-staffers say "not so"-who knows who starts the rumors?) This is a new hybrid to me, a major chain with significant local control. Their overall fine quality success deserves a visit by competitors, to see what does work in Naples, and what brings in repeat customers.
This hybrid concept benefit all diners, judging by the near full dining room at 8 pm. Other restaurants may expand their menu selections-I don't think many will offer 100 wines by the glass, though.
Do write a comment, and share your experiences with Fleming's.
Flemings Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar 8985 Tamiami Trl N, Naples - (239) 598-2424

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