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The Kenny Chesney Of Steakhouses?

Comical food critic Alison Cook (a favorite of mine from her Houston Press days) isn't overly impressed with the Fleming's steakhouse that opened just up the street from me not too long ago:

If only all the food here lived up to the excellent steaks, the celestial shoestrings, the better red wines.

But it doesn't, and at these not insignificant prices, that's a real drawback. I found the seafood dishes (meant to appeal to the stereotypical female customer) rather oddly conceived. Rare tuna seared with a poppy-seed crust sounded interesting, but a veritable lake of too-sweet sherry vinaigrette sabotaged the effect.

Charred salmon with a cabernet butter was a perfectly nice piece of fish poised on a dark, heavy version of cabernet butter. (It only made me pine for chef Bruce Auden's lilting beurre rouge way back when at Charlie's 517.) And cilantro-crusted shrimp with a sauce "like orange marmalade" (as our waiter put it)? I couldn't even think about it.

I had to wonder, too, what that stiff, unyielding lump of toasted bread was doing in the middle of an otherwise blameless appetizer of barbecued shrimp. I puzzled over the need to endow such creamy-rich crab cakes with a creamy-rich citrus-butter sauce.

I had a traumatic flashback when the scalloped jalape´┐Żo-and-cheese potatoes turned out to be a solid rectangle that reminded me of nothing so much as my mom's midcentury tuna-and-mushroom-soup casserole, minus the tuna.

And even decent versions of cheesecake and runny chocolate lava cake (the new tiramisu) couldn't erase the sting of a bland pear-and-apple tart on sodden puff pastry.

In the end, I had to admit to myself that despite the charms of my ideal Fleming's meal, something was missing.

It's the same thing I miss in all the big-ticket national steak chains: a sense of place, a soulfulness, a specificity that tells you where you are and why that's a cause for thanksgiving.

The late, great Brenner's steakhouse in its heyday had those qualities in abundance. Such national treasures as Peter Luger's (in Brooklyn) or Bones (in Atlanta) still do.

But no matter how favorably disposed I might be to Fleming's, the fact remains that it could be anywhere.

Or, as it happens, everywhere.

I wish that I had visited Brenner's before it closed. I just assumed that it would be around for several more generations of Houstonians to enjoy. Alas.

Robb Walsh, another favorite of mine, had a similar report after he visited Fleming's several months ago:

In order to get a good table at Fleming's, evidently you need to know Maeve O'Gorman Pesquera. Pesquera used to be the general manager at Anthony's, where she attracted "a constellation of local socialites who vied for the 'seen and be seen' tables on a nightly basis," according to her bio in the Fleming's press kit. The good tables at Fleming's apparently are reserved for the same air-kissing aristocracy.

If being relegated to a third-rate table by an employee of Outback Steakhouse strikes you as a little too much indignity before dinner, you might want to eat your steaks elsewhere. Until recently, I might have suggested a funky homegrown alternative, like Brenner's out on the Katy Freeway. But Brenner's quietly went out of business last fall. Few independents can compete with the combination of ambience and meat quality that the national steak house chains provide.

Now, however, there's not much choice besides the chains. It reminds me, depressingly, of what happened to radio. If you want to listen to rock and roll in Houston, you pick a Clear Channel Communications format that's targeted to your age group. And if you want to eat steak, you shop around for a restaurant concept that's been packaged to appeal to your demographic.

Hmmm... Fleming's as the Kenny Chesney of steakhouses?

I love Robb Walsh.

The restaurant annoys Callie, on the other hand, because their patrons leave the place drunk (one of them hit a parked car a few nights ago) and drive like jackasses. Me, I don't worry about it so much. I just aim the Jeep where I want to go, and if the self-important bastards run into me, Jim Adler and I are gonna make 'em pay!

[Posted at 14:11 CST on 05/17/03] [Link]

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