Yards of mahogany paneling, leather upholstery and white table linens, all bathed in the rosy glow of inverted dome chandeliers, set a mood of understated contemporary elegance in Fleming's dining room.
At one end of the room, a window offers a view into the kitchen, where USDA Prime steaks are seared to order under 1,600 degree broiler flames. At the other, the bartender at an expansive bar mixes top-shelf cocktails and pours wines from an award-winning selection of 100 wines by the glass. The first Triangle location of an upscale chain that bills itself as a "Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar," Fleming's spares no expense in living up to that billing.
Naturally, all that luxury comes at a price. Steaks range from $33.95 for a petit filet mignon to $42.50 for a bone-in rib-eye -- a competitive price for Prime beef, to be sure, but the steaks are served à la carte. You'll want to add a couple of sides at $8 to $10 apiece. Figure on $10 to $15 a glass for wine. Add a couple of appetizers (jumbo lump crab cakes are a must) and share a dessert (they're big), and you're looking at a $200 tab for dinner for two. Splurge on a chilled seafood tower for two and a bottle of wine from the reserve list, and you'll double that figure in a hurry.
To be fair, more affordable options are available. Smaller portions of the filet, lamb chops and seared tuna are available for under $30, including one side. A seasonally changing prix-fixe menu offers three courses (and one side) for a relative bargain $35.95. On Sundays, that price also buys a prime rib dinner with choice of salad, side and dessert.
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Regardless of your final tab, for the most part it's money well spent. Steaks are expertly trimmed and consistently grilled to order. Simply seasoned with salt and pepper, and finished with a little melted butter and chopped parsley, they're a steak lover's paradise. Non-beefeaters choose from similarly lavish options such as double-thick lamb chops with champagne mint sauce, seared scallops in lobster cream sauce, and breast of chicken baked with white wine, mushrooms, shallots and thyme.
Not all wine and roses
The menu covers all the traditional steakhouse bases when it comes to sides, too, which are served à la carte in shareable portions. And those who can't imagine a steak dinner without a starter of jumbo shrimp cocktail or an iceberg lettuce wedge won't be disappointed.
But Fleming's sets itself apart from the traditional steakhouse herd with a few jazzy alternatives sprinkled in among the classics: appetizers such as Wicked Cajun barbecue shrimp, for instance, and lobster tempura with red jalapeño and soy-ginger sauces. Chipotle cheddar macaroni and cheese and soy- and chile-glazed sugar snaps sprinkled in among the usual side-dish suspects of baked potato, creamed spinach and sautéed mushrooms. And Sriracha-spiked lobster nuggets offering a spicy alternative to Australian lobster tails with drawn butter.
The kitchen does occasionally misfire. Most often it just misses the bull's-eye with, say, overcooked shrimp in the Wicked Cajun barbecue. On rare occasions, it misses the target entirely with potato croquettes that are inedibly salty. By and large, though, cooking lives up to the promise of the menu descriptions and the setting. Especially those supremely tender, juicy steaks.
Unfortunately, while the steaks are Prime, service at Fleming's is not ready for prime time. Attitudes can range from warmly hospitable to perfunctory to downright confused, depending on the server. Familiarity with the menu is widely variable, with the wine list even more so. The black napkin you're offered at the beginning of the meal (if you're wearing black, so as not to get white lint on your clothing) may portend a night of attentive service and thoughtful niceties. Or it may not.
Granted, expectations tend to rise with prices. The lapses in service at Fleming's are no worse than at countless other restaurants. It's just that they seem to stand out more against a backdrop of mahogany paneling.