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SOCAL STYLE / Restaurants

A Place to Wine, Then Dine

April 11, 1999|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Despite the balmy weather and looming swimsuit season, despite Southern Californians' endless dieting and professed preference for fish, steakhouses are booming. Weekend, weeknight, a table at one of the classics is almost impossible to snare unless you're willing to sit at the bar or dine before 6 or after 9. Old haunts such as the Round Table in Santa Monica and Dominick's in West Hollywood, which had fallen off the radar screen, are attempting comebacks. A slew of new supper clubs aimed at a young audience are featuring steaks and a rainbow of martinis. And presto chango! Other chophouses are springing up all over. With New York's illustrious chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten trying his hand at a luxe steakhouse called Prime in Las Vegas, you know the trend has arrived.

Another restaurateur who's climbing on the chuckwagon is Paul Fleming, the "PF" in the nationwide Chinese restaurant chain PF Chang's and a former owner of several Ruth's Chris Steakhouse franchises. He and partner William Allen III, former CEO of Koo Koo Roo, have just launched in Newport Beach the prototype of what they hope will be a new steakhouse chain called Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar.

The week it opened in December, the 250-seat steakhouse was packed, the parking lot in front jammed with fancy cars, the handsome foyer thronged with guests. Luckily, the large bar provides a convivial place to hang out until your table is ready. With its open plan, amber light fixtures and lots of tasteful wood, Fleming's is a good-looking place, lighter and sunnier in tone than most steakhouses. Tables aren't too close together, and the chairs are actually comfortable, so the management must not be intent on turning tables all that fast. The best seats are the posh leather booths next to the glassed-in wine cellar. Along one wall is the exhibition kitchen where you can glimpse cooks in slouchy black hats working double time as the orders pour in.

When it comes to the food, executive chef James Kennedy strays from the tried-and-true steakhouse formula in only a couple of instances. Instead, Fleming and Allen seem to be banking on their wine-by-the-glass program to set the restaurant apart. Tables are already set with thin crystal stemware and, as soon as you sit down, a waiter brings the wine list. Two legal-size pages presented back to back--whites on one side, reds on the other--include more than 100 wines priced both by the glass and by the bottle. The selections, arranged from light and fruity to dry and full-bodied, range from $6.50 to $15 a glass.

While the list is a decent compendium of well-known California wines, with a few imports thrown in for good measure, it isn't cutting-edge enough to satisfy serious wine buffs. Still, it is very user-friendly, and the wine service is innovative. Normally I hate ordering wines by the glass because glasses are often filled to the top so it's difficult to swirl the wine. At Fleming's, they've solved the problem by serving the wine in a small carafe, pouring just half the wine into the glass at the table.

To start a meal, shrimp cocktail made with four meaty shrimp draped over a martini glass filled with spunky cocktail sauce is pretty good. Dungeness crab cocktail is marred by acrid garlic mixed in with the shredded crab meat. Onion rings cut thick as bracelets, dipped in buttermilk and rolled in bread crumbs before frying, are nice and crunchy. I also like the wedge of iceberg lettuce with thick-sliced tomatoes and onions doused in a crumbled blue cheese dressing. The spinach salad, however, isn't very good. It's a shame to ruin such beautiful emerald leaves with a heavy sprinkling of salt and vinegary dressing. And the Caesar salad is merely OK.

At the bar one night, I overhear one young swain ask his date incredulously: "You're not having steak?" But that means all the more for him, especially if he orders the Porterhouse for two, a 2 1/2-pound behemoth that's the best steak in the house. Mine comes a charred medium rare, exactly as I'd ordered. Sliced off the bone, it's more than enough for three, but you'll have to fight over who gets that scrumptious bone. You can't go wrong with the well-marbled rib eye either, though I have had more flavorful aged New York strips. The beef, in general, seems neither as aged or as drop-dead delicious as that served at some of the other high-end steakhouses. (Which only goes to show that not all prime is created equal.)

The veal chop is a sure bet, too; so is the hefty pork chop. I like the double-cut lamb chops less because they don't taste all that much like lamb. Though they are a little fatty, they don't have all that much lamb flavor. And for anyone who grew up on the East Coast, the lobster tails just don't measure up.

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