Has Madison come of age? If so, the establishment of Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, in the new and glitzy Hilldale Mall, may one day be seen as the tipping point in that heady process.
Fleming's is a serious player in the $15 billion upscale steakhouse industry, with 45 restaurants in major cities and wealthy suburbs throughout the country. Madison, a small market in comparison, has now been tapped to play with the big boys.
From the looks of the crowd on a recent Monday night, there must be enough money in town to support a restaurant where the salad forks are pre-chilled, the wine bottles are vacuum-sealed between pourings, and the average dinner runs in excess of $65.
And is Fleming's good? It certainly is. Chain or no chain, this ranks among the best steakhouses in Madison, and in some areas surpasses all the rest.
The decor is quintessential steakhouse - dark wood, leather, brass and subdued, romantic lighting. The service is impeccable, from the valet parking (another coming-of-age sign for Madison?) to the helpful, friendly and efficient waitstaff. And the food? Nothing less than superb.
Four of us began with cocktails (my usual bourbon Manhattan), which our waiter served with a complimentary dish of thin rusks and dips - cabernet and goat cheese, and champagne and brie. How better to welcome hungry guests than with a little surprise such as this?
I had heard that the homemade potato chips, served at the bar, were good, so I asked about them. Our waiter had the kitchen cook up a fresh batch of the light chips infused with garlic, pepper and thyme, and brought them warm to our table. Is this getting better?
We decided to eschew the appetizers, although I was tempted by the Seafood Tower, with lobster, shrimp, crab and other delights. A tower for four would have added $95 to the check.
We did order salads, and our waiter informed us that they are very large and that we might wish to split them. A helpful suggestion, indeed, for they were virtually meals in themselves. The Fleming's salad, with spring greens, candied walnuts, dried Wisconsin cranberries, tomatoes and croutons, was beautiful, with a piquant vinaigrette playing nicely against the sweeter ingredients. My wedge salad, a crisp portion of chilled iceberg paired with grape tomatoes, red onions and crumbled blue cheese, was similarly satisfying. Isn't it nice that iceberg is respectable again? So crunchy, so cold, so blank a canvas on which to display other, more exciting ingredients.
Okay, on to the steaks. An eight-ounce filet mignon was superb, truly fork-tender and full of flavor. All the steaks here are prime grade, well aged, hand-cut daily in the restaurant, seared at very high temperature to seal in the juices quickly and form an outer char, then cooked exactly to order. The beef Flemington is the restaurant's version of an individual beef Wellington, a filet wrapped in puff pastry with a mushroom duxelles and Madeira sauce. A signature dish, and very highly recommended. There are five other steaks on the menu, in addition to veal and pork chops and chicken breast. A prime rib special is offered on Sundays.
My companion ordered tuna mignon, a sushi-grade filet of tuna, fully three inches high, served rare with a poppy seed, pepper and tomato sherry vinaigrette. You've got to like raw tuna for this one, folks, but it is simply spectacular. Other seafood selections include salmon, scallops and Alaska king crab legs. Unfortunately, there is not much here for vegetarians.
I had Australian lamb chops, three double-ribbed chops, tender, flavorful and broiled perfectly, served with an Irish-style champagne mint sauce. Again, a beautiful selection.
Side dishes, all à la carte, include several potato variations, creamed corn, sautéed mushrooms and more. My baked potato was huge, oven cooked, and, with a cream-yellow flesh, seemed to have more flavor than your ordinary Idaho. It was served with little dishes of butter, sour cream and shredded cheddar. A large serving of broccoli was too much for my companion to handle, and a serving of sautéed spinach, cooked to tender-crisp, was just fine. Our waiter did warn us that the sides were very large, and that we might consider splitting them. Again, good advice.
A 2004 Dry Creek (Sonoma) Heritage Zinfandel, a dry, medium-bodied red with pleasant fruit and spice accents, was a perfect complement to all our meals. There are 100 wines available by the glass, and a reserve list of 80 award-winning wines by the bottle.
To wrap up this splendid evening, the four of us relaxed with coffee and split two desserts - a well-crafted crème brûlée, and an absolutely sinful key lime pie, perhaps inspired by Fleming's Coral Gables restaurant.
Fleming's is a welcome culinary addition to the near west side, and a perfect fit for the new Hilldale complex. If this is how the big boys eat, they sure do it well.