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IT'S ALL IN THE PACKAGING

By Laura Reiley

Times Food Critic

High-end steak houses are between a rock and a hard place. People are eating out less, and spending less money when they do eat out. What to do to keep customers coming in the door?

Enter the prix fixe. Diners get three or four courses for a fair price (say, somewhere between $20 and $45). They perceive value, but the restaurant doesn't see its check average tank.

We decided to try a handful of new prix fixe offerings at local steak houses.

Fleming's

Walk into Fleming's on an average weekend night and you'd never know the Dow Jones is bobbling. It's packed with people ordering steak, lobster and big red wine. Instead, we sat in the bar and ordered a couple of the winter prix fixe menus (this one runs through March 19, with a spring menu to follow) for $35.95. More Tuscan-inflected and homey than the regular menu, it was lovely and a good deal.

A choice of Caesar salad (garden variety, but pleasant enough) or creamy clam chowder, then the entrees — we chose a super-hearty braised lamb shank and spicy grilled shrimp over a fat fried risotto cake, the whole thing dotted with a gorgeous tomato pesto cream sauce. Flintstone-sized, the shank was fall-off-the-bone tender and resting along plush cannellini beans and a thin, savory cabernet jus. In addition to the entree, the menu includes a choice of sides. Grilled asparagus and creamed spinach — both tasty, served family-style and analogous in size to the same dishes on the regular menu. Two other touches stole our hearts. The meal begins with a big complimentary tray of radishes, crunchy celery and crisp, buttery toasts, all dunkable in two dips, one a cab-spiked goat cheese and the other a creamy Brie concoction. And the meal ends with a tall glass of cold milk and a trio of chocolate-oozy warm cookies.

Spoto's Steakjoint 2

To weather this particular storm, Jimmy Stewart, the owner of Spoto's in Dunedin, has instituted what he's calling a "Dunedin Dinner Stimulus." It's Tuesday nights, and $14 for a small filet mignon and six shrimp scampi, preceded by a soup or house salad, paired with a loaded twice-baked potato and followed by a wine glass full of chocolate mousse and a dollop of whipped cream. I said $14.

And it's good. The filet is tender and tastes faintly of wood smoke, the shrimp bouncy and sweet. The house salad is a treat, kind of old meets new. Part wedge salad, part mesclun mix, with a nice melange of veggies that includes a real baby carrot (as opposed to those whittled nubs). The entree and dessert portions are small, but what's wrong with that when you have a cheesy, buttery baked potato at your elbow?

Capital Grille

Capital Grille at International Plaza has the highest price point of the restaurants we sampled for this, most entrees tipping over $40, most a la carte sides heading north of $10. Not surprisingly, their new prix fixe menu, offered until April 5, is steep, $49 for what they're calling five courses. You get the same professional service, the same sleek, business-friendly atmosphere, just more and smaller courses.

First up is a demitasse of luscious porcini mushroom soup dotted with chive oil. More of an "amuse bouche" size than a real first course, it is followed by a large green salad, in our case marred by too much bitter radicchio. After this comes another demitasse, this one of refreshing lemon-basil sorbet. Our entree choice, an herb-marinated beef tenderloin topped with caramelized cipollini onions, roasted tomatoes and red peppers, was more exciting than any entree we'd previously had at Capital Grille. I'd take this over a plain-Jane steak any day, especially when it's accompanied by a gratin dish of frilly, cheesy pasta dappled by shaved black truffle. Mac and cheese never had it so good. Dessert kept up with our expectations, three scoops of suave housemade caramel gelato. I'd quibble with the soup and sorbet being actual courses, but there's no denying the menu had finesse.

Gallagher's Steak House

Located upstairs in Channelside, this relative newcomer is offering a straightforward three courses for $45 until April 1. Really, it's not much of a discount: a wedge salad followed by an 8-ounce filet mignon capped off by a cheesecake slice runs about $45 anyway, but it's an excuse not to battle yourself about getting dessert and they throw in a side, like baked potato or creamed spinach.

On a recent evening in the sparsely populated dining room, our server was nonetheless chipper and eager to please. Pacing was smooth, the prix fixe offerings a small subset of the regular menu: first a choice of onion soup, oxtail soup, Caesar or wedge salad (the best option), followed by grilled ribeye, salmon, filet mignon or a 14-ounce New York strip (the ribeye and New York are both flavorful cuts, grilled perfectly). Finish up with key lime pie, chocolate cake or cheesecake and a free cup of Joe — none of the desserts are going to win any best-in-show medals, but all have a high comfort factor, the accompanying coffee another way to shave a bit off your total bill. These days, every bit helps.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.

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Fleming's Prime Steakhouse

4322 W Boy Scout Blvd., Tampa

(813) 874-9463

Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 4:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday

Prix fixe menu: $35.95

Spoto's Steakjoint 2

1280 Main St., Dunedin

(727) 734-0008

Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Prix fixe menu: $14, Tuesdays

Capital Grille

2223 N West Shore Blvd., Tampa

(813) 830-9433

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Friday; 5 to 11 p.m. Saturday; 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday

Prix fixe menu: $49

Gallagher's Steak House

615 Channelside Drive, Tampa

(813) 229-8000

Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Prix fixe menu: $45

IT'S ALL IN THE PACKAGING 03/11/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 11, 2009 4:30am]

    

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