Here we are in June of 2015 working on our list of the Ten Best Steakhouses in Tucson. For my birthday last week, Ms. Karen, my beloved wife and webmistress, thought it would be the right occasion to experience Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar with two of our favorite dining companions, Ms. Sue and Ms. Rosemary.
Not only are they good friends, but one advantage of going with them to do a dining review is we all enjoy sharing each other’s meals so that we get a broad spectrum of taste comparisons.
We prefer to dine early, so Ms. Karen made reservations for four at 4:45pm. (Fleming's opens at 4:00pm on Sundays). When we arrived, we were first seated at a bar table and each enjoyed a cocktail before being seated for dinner; not in the main dining room, but a smaller anteroom with only four well-separated tables, each accommodating 4 guests. I particularly appreciated this arrangement because it was quieter than the bigger main room.
For appetizers, Ms. Sue ordered Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes. Ms. Rosemary’s appetizer was a goat cheese/mushroom crostini garnished with cilantro. Ms. Karen chose a “Modern Caesar Salad”. She tells me that “It was different, but good. The dressing wasn’t your typical Caesar.” I passed on the appetizers because I knew I would get to sample each of theirs.
For entrees, Ms. Sue had the Petite (8 oz.) Filet Mignon with Fleming’s Potatoes (cream, jalapeños and cheddar cheese served au gratin). Ms. Karen ordered a small, 5oz. bacon-wrapped filet which arrived with mashed potatoes and green beans. Both agreed that the filets were excellent: tender, juicy, full of flavor, and cooked to perfection.
Ms. Rosemary ordered the house special for the evening, which was a “Baseball-Cut” New York Strip Steak. It was almost round like a baseball and a little smaller than a man’s clinched fist. It came with lump crab cake, slices of Brussel sprouts and sautéed cherry tomatoes; and for dessert, a mini-chocolate crème brulee ($42). Said she, “The steak flavor was OK but nothing to tout”. I recall that when first served, her steak was not quite done enough, so Melinda took it back to the kitchen. She returned with the re-cooked steak in a few minutes and Ms. Rosemary declared it “perfect!”
For our 10 Best Steakhouses, I am trying to compare “apples to apples” so I ordered my usual ribeye. Only at Fleming’s, you have the choice of Dry or Wet Aged steaks. I chose the Dry-Aged ($57), with baked potato ($10.50); butter only.
At this point, it is worth noting that Fleming's does not offer USDA Choice beef. All steaks are USDA Prime Certified Angus and Wagyu (one of several Japanese cattle breeds bred for Kobe beef and known for its extraordinary flavor and tenderness).
What you get is a slightly crispy crust on the outside and a warm, pink, and tender interior. Their gradients for broiling steaks are highly precise. At most places you order “rare, medium or well done”. Not so at Fleming's. Here you can chose, for example, medium plus: interpreted as more done (less pink) than medium but definitely not well done.
Regarding steaks, I had three questions on my mind that evening. First: Does all this careful selection, preparation, and incredibly hot oven make a substantial difference in the actual flavor and tenderness of the steak?
Second: How do Fleming’s steaks compare with the best cowboy steakhouses, such as Silver Saddle, at half the price … or less.
Third: How do Fleming’s steaks compare with ribeyes that I purchase at Costco and cook on my BBQ at home. I have wanted to know the answer to these questions for at least the past 10 years. On my 71st birthday, I was about to find out.
Silver Saddle Ribeyes
Some weeks back, we published a review of Silver Saddle Steakhouse. I and one of my dining companions, ordered the evening special: 17 oz. ribeye, seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic and something else I don’t now recall, cooked over a mesquite open fire, and served with two sides, plus salad bar for $28. Remember, my Fleming’s ribeye was $57 plus $10.50 for one side; a baked potato. Cost aside, I actually preferred my Silver Saddle ribeye for flavor and tenderness.
But what about those Costco ribeyes? I select well-marbled cuts, which gets me something very close to USDA Prime at half the price of Prime ribeye cuts at AJ's Market in La Encantada. I sprinkle them liberally on both sides with McCormick’s Montreal Steak Seasoning. I cook them on my barbie at 550 degrees and shoot for medium or medium rare depending on my guests’ preferences.
In order to duplicate the Fleming’s experience in my backyard, I would have to toss one fifty-dollar bill on the BBQ flames for each ribeye.
Fleming's is not merely a steakhouse. It is also a wine bar and they take pride in expertly selecting 100 wines from all over the world that pair well with the food they serve. At our table was a tablet with lists of wine pairings that we could peruse. However, since the four of us have very different wine preferences, I doubted that one bottle of any wine would be satisfactory to all. So I passed on the tablet’s suggestions and asked to speak with the sommelier. He soon arrived at our table and asked a few pertinent questions. What wines do we like? What are we having for dinner? What price range do we have in mind?
All very sensible questions. I said I would like to keep it in the $60-$70 a bottle range. Mr. Sommelier suggested “Ridge Lytton Springs: 70% zin; 21% petite sirah; 6% Carignane; 3% Mataro from Sonoma County, California (2012). And then he said something that I wasn’t sure how to interpret. “This wine is a little pricier than you requested, but don’t worry about that. I’ll take care of it. And if you don’t like it, we’ll try something else until you find just the right one.
With that he walked off. A few minutes later, our excellent server, Melinda, returned with our bottle of red wine. She poured me a sip. A little … oh I don’t know. Not quite ready for prime time. I handed my glass to Ms. Karen. She wasn’t sure she liked it. Melinda remarked that our sommelier suggested we let it breathe a few minutes before we decide. So, after Melinda poured the wine into a large carafe, we gave our wine a little breathing room.
I admit, I didn’t believe this conglomeration of grapes would turn out to satisfy all four of us. I was wr .. wro …wrong. After perhaps two minutes, we all took another sip. It was unanimous. OUTSTANDING!!!
And that quizzical comment by our sommelier about “a little pricier … but don’t worry about that.” When the bill came, they had taken $18 off the price of the bottle. Now that’s class.
Rosemary’s dinner special included dessert: a very small chocolate crème brulee. Karen ordered the crème brulee which came with a few raspberries. Sue ordered the carrot cake: three layer cake with cream cheese frosting topped with a drizzle of dark rum caramel. We each sampled the other’s desserts, and while all were very good, we declared Fleming’s carrot cake “TOPS”. Best carrot cake I have ever enjoyed, although Ms. Karen still preferred her crème brulee.
Along with dessert for the ladies, our waitress brought me an open box of four different truffles with one lit candle and wished me happy birthday. Much appreciated. Karen especially appreciated the fact that they did not sing.
Will we return to Fleming’s? Definitely. In addition to the good food, we enjoyed the richly subdued ambiance and outstanding service. Fleming’s is a classy place. Pricy, but classy. Our bill, with gratuity, averaged $90 per person, after discounts.
However, Fleming’s has many specials, coupon offers, and happy hour discounts. For example, we used an email promotion that gained us $40 off per table. So, if you plan your visit carefully, you won’t have to take out a loan on your house to enjoy all that Fleming’s has to offer.
As we were leaving about 6:30 PM on a Sunday night, I couldn't help noticing that the place was packed. So reservations are definitely recommended.
Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar
6360 N Campbell Ave, Tucson, AZ (Skyline & Campbell)