Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Outback Effect and Fleming's Steakhouse

I don’t recall exactly when it happened but it couldn’t have been that long ago. Do you remember when the words “chain restaurant” brought visions of 8 page menu’s full of flavorless fare? I do. Rubbery ribs, the lowest cut of beef available they called steak, frozen veggies barely heated on the side; you know what I’m talking about, right? Sure those chains still exist. Someone eats there because they are all still thriving but I’d sooner stick a needle in my eye. But something has changed. And it’s good. I call it the Outback effect.

Some folks here in Tampa got together and opened an Australian Steakhouse called Outback back in the late 80’s. Not exactly a Mecca for dining, Tampa quickly embraced this place and it was the talk of the town. Comfortable atmosphere, good quality meats and friendly staff were a recipe for success. I’m not sure if it was the plan all along, but their expansion was explosive, to say the least. Not only was the food good but it turns out that it was reproducible on a large scale. Their American success story is impressive. They even have their own Bowl game now. Along the way they managed to partner (or gobble up) with some other successful ventures to form the more sterile sounding OSI Restaurant Partnership (LLC). Carrabbas, Bonefish, Roy’s and Fleming’s are all under the same corporate management. What makes the Outback effect so impressive to me it that the food is really outstanding. That statement goes against every fiber of my being, but it’s true. I no longer immediately run from a chain restaurant and every once in a while, I actually have to deal with a craving for something from “down under”.

I recently had dinner at Fleming’s Steakhouse in Tampa and it was quite noteworthy. If Outback is on the “family dining” end of the spectrum, Fleming’s is on the opposite “fine dining” end. My colleague, Bruce, has had many a business dinner here and he knows the place well. Walking in, he is immediately greeted by many staff members including the Manager, Jorge, and the Operating Partner, Keith. Both spend time chatting with us and Keith offered me a tour. I was quite impressed with the restaurant. It is obvious they are creating an experience and not just a place to eat. Fleming’s is a bit refined. Impressive art, dark wood walls and private dining rooms gives this place an old style meeting place feel where high powered business deals are brokered. While I am most comfortable in shorts and flip flops, I was glad to be wearing a tie. Armed with my Maker’s Mark on the rocks, I began perusing the menu. My first impression was “safe”. The menu varies little from the standard steakhouse fare. All of the typical cuts with other poultry, pork or seafood options. Still, I could tell I was in for a treat because what a place like this does is trade variety for quality, meaning I guessed the food is over the top. I was completely correct but let me back up to the menu for a moment. I did notice the appetizers and side dishes had some really interesting choices. They served a tenderloin carpaccio as a starter. That gets an A+ in my book and I will have to try the sweet chili calamari on my next visit. The side dishes included sautéed sweet corn with shallots and chives and mashed potatoes made with blue cheese, parmesan-peppercorn or roasted garlic but I went for the mac and cheese with chipotle, cheddar and smoked Gouda. If I have ever had better mac and cheese, I can’t recall it. Creamy but with bits of toasted bread crumbs on top, this was smoky, cheesy and oh so decadent. Much like a goldfish, I think I could have eaten this until I exploded. It took all I had to ask the server to wrap it up to take home (it was next morning’s breakfast –heated in the oven with some more fresh breadcrumbs then broiled at the last minute to reproduce the previous evenings deliciousness).

As I sat trying to figure out my entrée, Bruce took the bull by the horns and told the server to bring us both a bone in filet, “the thickest you can find”, he said. Far be it from me to interject at this point. That sounded exquisite. This wasn’t even on the menu but I found out they occasionally carry it and this night we were in luck. The steak was 2 inches thick and the size of a medium ribeye. I can most certainly say, I have not had a cut of filet this large. The outer char was absolutely perfect with a browned sear that could grace the cover of any cooking periodical. Inside I found the beautiful red hew that I expect in a rare steak. The meat was succulent and buttery and each morsel eclipsed the one before. I cut small bites to overcome my desire to try to eat this like a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Overwhelmed by the quantity of food I just consumed, I was taken aback at Bruce’s dessert order. With the Mac and Cheese, the Fred Flintstone sized piece of steak and the creamed corn (also with cheese in it), I was confident I was not taking another bite. Plus I felt that my blood vessels were already struggling to cope with what I had ingested. Then it came out. I don’t know what the title of this volcano of chocolate is but it was decadent and delicious. Cutting in to the cake, this chocolate lava pours out commanding your fork to dip into it. With the berries atop and the pistachio topped vanilla ice cream on the side, I think every stomach starts making a bit of room.

As our evening ebbed away, I sat at the bar sipping a port. Eventually it was time to head back home and reflect on this dinner. This was a spectacular meal like one I haven’t had in a while in Tampa. While I wouldn’t classify Fleming’s as an everyday eatery, it is worth an evening out. Be advised the menu is all ala carte. There are no sides unless you order them but they are certainly large enough sides for two. The food and service are spot on. They are running a promotion (I think nationally) where you can get get reduced price drinks and appetizers from a special bar menu before 7PM. I looked at that menu and it does offer a very affordable option to try some high quality preparations. So whether it’s a business dinner, a special evening out, a celebration or a reasonable bar menu you’re looking for, I would say Fleming’s should be on your radar. I’ll go back.


Anonymous said...

Outback is my favorite restuarant. I suddenly feel less embarassed admitting this. :)

Barbara said...

They should pay you more than $25 gift certif for this rave review, but no one eats there who isn't on an expense account!