A West Coast chain plants a steak in the Hub
by Robert Nadeau
Paul Fleming, the P.F. in P.F. Chang's China Bistro, has
teamed up with another Western chainmeister, Bill Allen of La Madeleine
217 Stuart Street (Theater District), Boston
Open Sun-Wed, 5-10 p.m.; and Thurs-Sat, 5-11 p.m.
AE, DC, MC, Visa
French Bakery and Café, to come up with this steakhouse concept, and has
deemed Boston worthy of being the first East Coast outlet.
Why Boston? I can only speculate. It might be because Boston's P.F. Chang's has
done well. And maybe Fleming sees the Boston area as open to steakhouse chains
in a way that we have not been to chain Italian restaurants or delicatessens.
In any case, there is not much to distinguish his steakhouse from the others.
(Indeed, his publicity quotes the man as saying, "I have never tried to educate
customers.") The format is honored in the à la carte pricing and in the
prejudice against vegetables. Like all other steakhouses, it has shrimp
cocktail, fried onion rings, many kinds of potatoes, and relatively plain
desserts. The two aspects in which Fleming's wants to be a little different,
the price and selection of wines, aren't so different. Prices are lower than
those at some other steakhouses, but still higher than those at almost every
other kind of restaurant seating more than 200 people. Having more than 100
wines available by the glass is impressive, but having the prices mostly above
$6 per glass (and as high as $18.50) removes much of the attraction.
Another interesting claim to fame is the bread, sourdough or seeded. Our waiter
said the rolls were flown in from Arizona; the publicity package says they bake
them fresh on the premises and also that they're "from Nancy Silverton at the
LaBrea Bakery in California." Anyway, they are very good rolls, and this is
important because they are the only things that come with dinner unless you pay
extra, and the things we paid extra for were not so special. "Fleming's Prime
Salad" ($5) was supposed to be "a blend of seasonal greens." This is true
somewhere other than Massachusetts, somewhere where iceberg lettuce and only a
few leaves of other greens are in season in late June.
Appetizers follow the one-food-group-at-a-time idea. We had the scallop
sauté ($9.95) and weren't impressed by the portion or the quality of the
sea scallops in the little dish, but we were impressed by the butter sauce with
Steaks are $19.95 to $26.95, and are all listed as US Prime. We tried a special
steak ($29.95) because this is a revealing cut. It reveals the generosity of
the house, as some T-
have a lot on the fillet side and some don't. Ours had a lot of fillet, but it
had been cut much thinner on the fillet side than on the sirloin-strip side.
This, in turn, set up a revealing problem for the cook, since the fillet side
cooks faster to begin with. Our cook -- or whoever had trained the cook --
failed. We ordered the T-
medium-rare and got the fillet side medium-well and the sirloin side medium.
(You can avoid this problem, presumably, by picking a fillet mignon or a
New York strip off the menu; both are simpler to cook correctly, and both
presumably are cuts they do every night.)
The T-bone did confirm that Fleming's is using prime beef: the sirloin side was
decently tender and the fillet was almost fork tender, even at
The steak didn't have the aged flavor featured at Morton's and the Capitol
Grille, but not everyone likes that.
Marinated double breast of chicken ($17.50) came from a small broiler chicken
and was boned, so it didn't look like much on the big platter (especially
without starch or vegetables). But it was very nicely done, with the savory
juiciness of brined or kosher birds and a nice char flavor on the outside.
On the side, "garlic fries" ($5.25) were allegedly "seasoned with garlic," but
no number of repetitions of the word "garlic" made it so on our night. The
fries were also rather limp and didn't taste much like potatoes, even though
some skin was left on. An off-the-menu side dish of asparagus ($6), however,
was excellent: thick spears peeled in the French manner, done to the right
flavor and with a little crunch, and a lemony hollandaise for a dip.
The wine service is highlighted by very large glasses, which magnify the
bouquet of all wines. Orders by the glass are served in small carafes, which
are then poured into the oversize glasses. For all this folderol, I'd estimate
the pour at about four ounces, which makes the prices hurt even more. We tried
a glass of 1998 Groth Sauvignon Blanc ($7), which has plenty of acidity to
stand up to sauced foods and is one of California's better answers to a
traditional, Sancerre-style white. The glass of red we had, the budget 1997
Duboeuf Chateau de Nevers ($6), has all the qualities of Beaujolais -- a nose
full of strawberries and an easygoing finish. Perhaps a wine for fillet mignon
rather than sirloin.
Desserts suggest that inside Fleming's is a trained chef fighting to get out.
The pick of the flight was a mixed-berry cobbler ($5.95) with a crumbly topping
subtly flavored with . . . honey? Laurel? Something aromatic and rich
next to the berry filling, which seemed to be mostly blueberry. Crème
brûlée ($5.95) had been assigned to a line cook. The flavor was
slightly like cream cheese, with the crucial burnt-sugar topping evoking, to
me, campfire marshmallows. The obligatory flourless chocolate cake ($6.95) was
all fudgy and intensely bitter chocolate. Our meal ended, as it began, on a
high note, with a superb cup of decaf ($1.95).
Service at Fleming's was generally good, although I wasn't amused to find that
after fighting on the phone to get an early reservation, we were seated among
empty tables; even later, the restaurant never fully filled. Our waiter did
well until the entrées were on the table, at which point he disappeared
until it was time to clear them.
The room evokes a traditional steakhouse with a little dark wood and a lot of
dim light sources. But it's noisy from the Top 40 soundtrack, an open kitchen,
and a reflective wood ceiling, not to mention a wall of windows looking out on
a parking lot. I knew this space when it was the Teddy Bear amusement arcade,
so I'm not hostile to the turn toward tradition, but really -- is it
traditional to have this much noise with your steak?
Robert Nadeau can be reached at
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