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Fleming's is a place to get delicious meats--but only if money is no object

Let's face it: Few of us can afford to lay down $100 or so for an all-inclusive meal these days. That means, one would think, that Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar would only appeal to a small number of people.

But Tucson is home to a lot of people with money to spare, and as evidence, I offer the fact that Fleming's--a chain that arrived in Tucson earlier this year, with 30 or so other locations scattered around the country--was 100 percent full on the recent Friday evening I spent there with some of my co-workers and friends. It would prove to be an evening of generally delicious, perfectly prepared food--and at-times obscene prices.

There were six of us in our party--thank goodness we made reservations--and we were seated after a brief wait in the crowded bar area. The place screams "classic elegance": Dark, lacquered wood is the order of the day, with the only decorations being framed prints of bottles of wine; a small wine room; amber-colored, saucer-shaped lamps that hang from the ceiling; and the occasional poinsettia, for the season. Unfortunately, the place also literally screams; the acoustics are terrible, meaning we had to shout to each other over the excited chatter of our fellow diners.

Our waiter--who at first sounded a bit like a used-car salesman, although he would prove to be quite competent--delivered the gold-colored menus, and we started to ponder our options. A dozen or so appetizers ($7.50-$24) and a half-dozen salads ($7.50-$19.50) are available for starters, and the entrées--all meat or seafood--start at $20.50 (for a double-breast of chicken) and go up to $35.95 for the prime bone-in New York strip, not counting the typical "market price" fare. Ah, but there's a catch: These prices don't include any side dishes. If you want, say, a baked potato, you'll have to pony up an additional $4.95. If you want onion rings or sautéed mushrooms, you're looking at another $7.50. To be blunt, some of these prices are ridiculous, like the brocolli or asparagus hollandaise ($6.95).

We put thoughts of price aside and plunged ahead. For appetizers, we split five dishes: the breaded brie with jalapeno jelly and sliced apples ($9.50), the tenderloin carpaccio with caper creole mustard sauce and red onions ($10.95), the smoked Norwegian salmon brushetta with dill cream cheese and sun-dried tomato relish ($11.50), the seared ahi tuna with spicy mustard sauce ($11.50) and the crispy lump crab cakes with roasted red pepper and lime butter ($13.50). Bob Brouillette opted to get the French onion soup baked with gruyere, Swiss and parmesan cheeses ($7.50).

There wasn't a sub-par appetizer in the bunch. Bob described the soup as excellent, and his only complaint was that bread would have been a nice addition. The brie was tasty alone, but an amazing contrast in flavors when dipped in the jalapeno jelly. The carpaccio was nicely spiced, with the caper criole mustard sauce adding a fiery touch. The smoked salmon brushetta was fresh and yummy, while the ahi slices were cooked and lightly seasoned perfectly. Finally, the crab cakes were wonderful; Hugh Dougherty, from Maryland, gave them his approval.

On to entrées. Bob ordered the 16-ounce prime ribeye ($30.95), and Hugh picked the 16-ounce prime New York strip ($31.95). Rachid, Hugh's significant other, ordereed the Australian lamb chops ($30.95). Garrett, my significant other, ordered the 22-ounce prime bone-in ribeye ($34.95), while I got the beef Flemington (filet wrapped in puff pastry with a mushroom duxelle and madeira sauce, $27.95). Beth Brouillette, Bob's wife, was the contrarian at the table, forgoing steak for the catch of the day--a halibut steak topped with a crab cake ($29.95). We got five sides to split: two orders of the asparagus hollandaise ($6.95), two orders of the sautéed button and portabella mushrooms ($7.50) and an order of the shoestring potatoes ($6.95)

It took longer than it should have for us to get our dinners: About 25 minutes elapsed between the clearing of the appetizer plates and the delivery of the first side. Thus, we talked (or, more accurately, shouted) and drank in the interim. The waiter recommended the Honig cabernet, out of the 100-plus wines available by the glass, to go along with my steak. Hugh requested a glass of the house cabernet, as did Rachid. Before the night was over, the three of us had each enjoyed two glasses of wine--and I was stunned to see six Honig glasses, at $17.50 a pop, on the bill. A house cabernet for $17.50? Give me a break.

On to better things: the entrées. All of the steaks were prepared just as we requested--no easy task, given how high-maintenance some of us are. My beef Flemington, the corny name aside, was fantastic, and Garrett described his ribeye as one of the best steaks he's ever had. Rachid raved about his perfectly-prepared lamb chops with champagne mint sauce; Hugh praised the cut of his strip steak. Bob had the only meat-related complaint: He said his delicious ribeye was delivered a bit cooler than he would have liked.

While Fleming's was 5-for-5 on the meat side, they were 0-1 on the fish side. Beth's halibut was dry and flavorless, a fact confirmed by Garrett, Hugh and me, as we each stole a bite. At least she had the crab cake on top to fall back on.

The sides were a mixed bag. On one hand, the mushrooms, rich with butter and garlic, were sublime, as were the shoestring potatoes--served in a large cone with a metal stand. On the other hand, the asparagus was woody, and the accompanying hollandaise sauce was surprisingly bland.

To top things off, we split three desserts: the chocolate lava cake ($8.95, takes about 20 minutes to prepare fresh), the crème brulee ($6.50) and the mixed berry cobbler ($6.95). Rachid, the resident French cooking expert, who has been craving fondant au chocolat for quite some time, decreed that the chocolate lava cake (pictured above) was perfect. Our only complaint about the berry cobbler was that enough ice cream wasn't served along with it. On the downside, the crème brulee was unimpressive; Beth summed it up perfectly when she described it as runny and grainy.

FYI: The Fleming's Web site says the "average cost of dinner is approximately $45 a person, including tax and tip." This is clearly insane; we spent $100 each after tax and tip, including drinks. Was it worth it? Well, none of us will be going back soon--that is, not until the next time someone besides ourselves will be picking up the tab.

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