Walnut Creek has scads of steakhouses competing for the ever-dwindling clientele seeking the ultimate slab of meat. There’s Vic Stewart’s and Ruth’s Chris Steak House. And then there’s Black Angus and Back Forty Texas BBQ, as well as some establishments that may not specialize in steak, but have a great many choices of such on their menus.
We visited one of the newer steakhouse chains that has taken residence here: Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar. Fleming’s is located near the Century 14 Downtown Walnut Creek movie theater. There is valet parking and you should take advantage of it, especially on the weekends. Upon entry through dark wooden doors, there is a bar to the right and the hostess stand straight ahead.
Fleming’s must not believe that this first interaction with the hostess is of any importance, for each time I have dined here, the hostess is usually lacking in any charm or manner. Even if you make a request for a specific dining area or type of atmosphere, it might be ignored. Apparently, you are seated wherever there is an open table.
The restaurant itself is dark and cloaked in deep colored wood, attempting to transport the diner back to a traditional east coast steak and chop house like Delmonico’s of New York, Gibson’s of Chicago or Smith & Wollensky in Boston. The kitchen is open to the main dining room. There are a few private rooms off the main room.
The wait staff are knowledgeable, friendly and seem to want to help you have a pleasant experience. At any one time, someone will refill your water, refresh or replace your drink or provide you with more bread.
One of the cocktails we sampled was a Bourbon Peach Martini, flavored with Maker’s Mark Bourbon that was a little on the sweet side. The wine menu is extensive without being pretentious. Most of the wines you would be able to find in just about any restaurant with a good cellar. The wait staff appear to be reasonably aware of what wine will go well with your meal. Nevertheless, you should stick to what you know and not experiment here because the wines are not cheap.
The menu itself rarely changes, although recently Fleming’s has done away with one of their best appetizers, the mushroom ravioli. The manager of the Walnut Creek restaurant told me this was a corporate decision and not one that he necessarily agreed with, but the item itself was not a great seller.
We started off with the recommended daily chef’s special New England Clam Chowder and the braised rib short plate for appetizers. The clam chowder was surprisingly lacking any flavor even though it was laced with bacon and the clams were apparently fresh. The clam chowder at the Walnut Creek Yacht Club is one of the standards for this area and the Fleming’s version paled in comparison.
The braised short rib comes on a bed of watery spinach leaves that unfortunately makes the rib also watery. The flavor of the braised rib is subtle without any distinctive flavor profile coming through. We also ordered a side of Lobster Tempura that came nice and hot, crispy on the outside, tender and flaky inside with a delightful sauce, perfect for tempura.
The main courses ordered were the Lemon-Rosemary Brick Chicken and a Prime Bone-In Ribeye (requested to be cooked medium), along with side dishes (which are an extra charge) of Lobster Mac & Cheese and Sautéed Mushrooms. The chicken dish was excessively drenched in lemon with a crispy skin and reasonably moist chicken that was mostly because of the lemon sauce. The flavor of the chicken was almost imperceptible because of the lemon.
The ribeye was a disappointment. The steak was nicely charred, but this masked the fact that the chef could not cook it to medium (despite an extra shot at it) and the steak itself was almost blood rare. The flavor was provided mostly from the charring, and the meat itself was not up to the past steaks I have had from Fleming’s. I ladled the Sautéed Mushrooms onto the ribeye, but they lacked the rich flavor you would expect. They had been lightly sautéed in oil and butter, but clearly had not been cooked with any of the meat juices.
The Lobster Mac & Cheese, however, was terrific. It was bursting with flavor with just the right amount crusting on the top, and the lobster was just the right blend with the cheese. It was a complement to both the chicken and the steak, and pretty much saved the main courses.
For dessert, we chose Crème Brulée with an accompanying Chantilly Cream. I have had the unfortunate experience to taste crème brulée made by none other than Julia Child (1912-2004), and I say unfortunate, because there has never been another to come close to it. A great crème brulée has the underlying custard chilled while the caramel topping, when served, is still bubbling from the torching of the caramel. Most restaurants pre-make their crème brulée dessert and then heat the topping, but are unable to get it bubbling without cooking the custard base.
For what it was, the crème brulée was serviceable. Yet, the accompanying chantilly cream was wonderful: Light and so tasty with a hint of fresh vanilla bean, but not at all too sweet. It was the perfect pallet cleanser.
You are not likely to get away from Fleming’s for under $100 for a party of two. The bill for this meal was close to $175 prior to the tip. Not cheap, but faster by far than catching the redeye to the Big Apple for a ribeye at Delmonico’s.
Geoffrey Steele is a partner at Steele George Schofield & Ramos, LLP. He is a civil litigator, with an emphasis on real property and financial elder abuse.