Dinner at Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar is a rare pairing of vintage wines with the freshest of fare.
By Jan Walsh
Photography by Beau Gustafson
Investing both their money and their lives in Birmingham, operating partner John Cowan and chef partner Oliver Robinson opened Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar at the Summit in 2002. And with their continued dedication of time and talents, it's still sizzling.
"We're the local steakhouse, where everybody knows your name," Cowan explains. "Both of us live here, belong to local churches, help local charities, and employ 75 local people. Our guests invite us into their homes, and we invite them to ours."
Cowan grew up in Nashville yet attended the University of Alabama, where he earned a degree in marketing and advertising. His first job was at La Chateau Great Steaks in Birmingham. And more recently he worked (seven years) for a steakhouse chain in Fort Lauderdale where he over saw 32 restaurants in six states. "But the appeal of owning part of restaurant brought me back to Birmingham," he recalls.
Robinson is a Birmingham native who started in the restaurant business, while still in high school, at Grady's in Riverchase. His interest and talent in creating his own cuisines then led him to J. Alexander's, Ruth Chris, Azalea's, and Hot & Hot.
Robinson arrives at Fleming's by 8:30 each morning to plan and prepare dinner-even though the doors don't open until 5:00 p.m. "I create seasonal specials of the day using flavor combinations, textures, and spices that pair well together," he describes. These include daily mixed grills (seafood and steak) and a soup of the day. "October is a transitional month, so both fruit and root vegetables are used. Later in fall and winter, heartier sauces and more red meat features are added. Then it's back to lighter meats and seafood features in the spring and summer."
By early afternoon, Robinson is busy hand carving meats and seafood for both the specials and the standardized menu. Afterwards he begins putting the features together. And one hour before opening, he performs a line check for quality and freshness. "Everything is made from scratch, both daily and nightly, including sauces and dressings. I am a fresh first person. I inspect the food at the door and won't accept anything but the best," Robinson assures. Although less than one percent of all beef is prime, at Fleming's 100 percent of the beef is prime. "I cut the meat so that nothing is left over for the next day. I'd rather run out than have it left over." And by the time the doors open for dinner, Robinson-who has already done a day's work-gets things cooking in the kitchen.
Begin the evening at the bar with a wine flight (two ounce pours of three wines). "It is a great way to compare different wines, or try different wines before committing to a bottle," Cowan suggests. And while considering dinner selections-including both Robinson's features and the standardized menu of 12 appetizers, six salads, and 19 entrée items with 12 sides-nibble on a complimentary starter of toasted garlic Crostini and Celery with a Cabernet infused goat cheese and Champagne infused Brie.
For an appetizer, pair the Lobster Tempura and lemon-lime tartar sauce and jalapeño pepper sauce with Cowan's recommendation of Perrier Jouet English Cuvee Champagne-a refreshing companion to the rich lobster and tangy, tasty sauces. Then match the Wedge of crisp iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, and crumbled blue cheese with a non-oaky, but clean and crisp complement, Jordan Napa Valley Chardonnay 2002.
Demonstrating that red wines can happily marry light fish, Cowan offers two entrée pairings. Tuna Mignon, seared rare with poppy seed au poivre and tomato sherry vinaigrette, is served with Whitehall Lane Merlot Napa Valley 2002. The dark richness of its currant, blackberry, cedar, and pepper flavors enhances the tuna's freshness. And Almond Crusted Halibut with grilled pineapple mango sauce is matched with Tintara Shiraz McLaren Vale 2002 from South Australia. Delicate for a Shiraz, its blueberry, cedar, and vanilla spice flavors are balanced by refined tannins, matching both the delicate flavors of the fish and the sauce's sweetness.
With Chocolate Lava Cake (for two), accompanied by almond tuille and vanilla bean ice cream, choose both the award winning Canadian, Inniskillin Vidal Pearl Icewine 2002 and 1994 Sandeman Vintage Port-a rare old, port with aromas of chocolate, cherry, and leather with a vanilla aftertaste. "Port and chocolate are a classic. More complex with seductive layers of flavor, but not as sweet as a dessert wine, a good port completes a meal," Cowan describes. "I am not a smoker, but it makes me want to go outside, and smoke a big cigar."
Fleming's staff is wine educated with ongoing tastings and classes. Yet Cowan's wine education is matched by that of his wine manager, Remy Helu-both in the prestigious Guild of Sommeliers. Helu is in charge of the wine program. And there is much to select and manage with a wine list of 2,000 (including 100 by the glass) with vintages back to 1984-for which they received Wine Spectatorawards every year since opening. Helu also works with Robinson to create wine dinner menus. He pairs wines, and Robinson prepares the dishes. Afterwards they taste and judge their matches before the final menus are planned.
Stored in climate-controlled wine rooms, every bottle is decanted and poured at optimum temperature. "Red wines are stored at 60 to 62 degrees. But by the time we handle, open, and decant the wine, the temperature approaches 65 degrees, which is proper serving temperature." Cowan explains. "The common perception is that only older wines need decanting, but all reds benefit. It helps tight young reds to open. And many wines produced these days are unfiltered or unfined leaving sediment in the bottle, which will not hurt you, but is no fun to drink." Proper glassware is also important. "Our crystal wine glasses are 24 ounces, expensive, and fragile, but they are essential in capturing the essence and flavors of the wines. It is a waste of money to buy a great bottle of wine and drink it from cheap, little glasses."
The successful pairing of Cowan's wine savvy with Robinson's culinary talents continues to line the bar and fill the booths-making every evening prime at Fleming's.