RATING |

'Welcome to Fleming's Prime Steakhouse Number 45! We're a national chain owned by Outback! . . . "

So began our waitress' proud spiel, which unfurled with such unnaturally perky bounce that serious caffeine must have been involved. I suppose I did not need to know her dietary preferences ("I'm a vegetable girl, but I'm also into flesh!"), that her boyfriend did all the cooking at home, or that she always felt guilty after eating lava cake, all before we cracked the menu. But her enthusiasm for Fleming's appeared to be genuine and unconditional.

I wish I could say the same. In fact, I came to Fleming's with serious skepticism. So many of these corporate steak houses are cut from the same generic side of beef. How many does a region need?

Radnor, it turns out, was starving for a good steak. And while I have plenty of details to gripe about (stay tuned), Fleming's delivers on that essential mission very well, with consistently superb cuts of prime beef that are perfectly cooked in the 1,600-degree inferno of its broiler. Throw in a gravity-defying tower of onion rings with chipotle dip, and a decent 100-glass wine list that won't bust your allowance, and the chirpy service can be overlooked.

The masses obviously agree. Fleming's mahogany-paneled digs in the former Wyeth cafeteria, set on Lancaster Avenue just off the Blue Route, midway between the mall chains at King of Prussia and the power-lunch chop houses of Center City, have been more or less jammed since opening in late October, stoking a dining-room din that is numbing.

The setup isn't that different from your typical steak house, with expensive cuts of a la carte beef served in posh, wood-paneled surroundings along with lots of California cabernet and an unimaginative array of appetizers and sides.

Operating partner Patrick English, formerly a manager at Center City's Smith & Wollensky, says Fleming's was designed with a more deliberate appeal to a female clientele, with none of the typical "dead animals" on the walls, softer lighting (to the point where it's dim), and a stronger focus on wines by the glass.

I'm not sure whom the insipid mall-music soundtrack is intended to attract. But Fleming's list of 100 wines by the glass is appealing. Even if the focus seems to be midrange California bottles that have been seriously marked up, there are more than enough good choices (mostly $10 to $16 for a big glass, or a flight of three small pours for the price of one) to do a good steak justice without dropping $150 on a whole bottle of wine. Try the classic cabernet from B.R. Cohn, an American syrah from Qupe, or a silky Julia's Vineyard pinot noir from Cambria.

Granted, the waitstaff could be better informed on that list, not to mention more polished in service basics (at one dinner, not a single entree was delivered to the right diner). But their manner was pleasant enough, a notch less hell-bent to hard-sell every side dish and crabmeat upgrade than the car salesmen at the Palm or Morton's.

More important, I prefer the quality of Fleming's steaks to that of those two competitors (as well as Ruth's Chris and Smith & Wollensky). I'm generally not a wet-aged fan (I prefer the complexity of a long dry age), but Fleming's prime meat, butchered in-house and simply seasoned, was incredibly tender and perfectly cooked.

Each slice had the long, lingering savor of quality beef that rang true to the particular cut - the ribeye bursting with a swashbuckling, fat-basted gusto; the bone-in strip steak more refined and focused, but still flexing a peppery, beefy punch; the filet mignon a thick pillow of luxurious carnivore comfort.

I tried a number of other meats - a gargantuan veal chop and a proper rack of lamb. Each was good, but lacked the magnetic zap of the beef. A fish eater might be perfectly happy with the juicy slice of grilled mahimahi topped with buttery crab. A crabcake lover would not complain about the restaurant's standard but tasty, lump-filled cake. But these are not reasons in themselves to come to Fleming's.

Chef-partner Davis Langhorne's kitchen does a fine job at the broiler, but doesn't have much range - a fact that keeps Fleming's still a clean notch down my red-meat list from stars like the Capital Grille and Barclay Prime.

Any item requiring finesse was dicey. The beef carpaccio would have been delicious had the meat not been completely slathered with remoulade mayo. The fried calamari were simply chewy rings of crust. The tempura lobster appetizer was generous, but overcooked and so clumsily breaded it was like chicken-fried crustacean. The beef Flemington (also known as Wellington) was better once I scraped off the flabby puff pastry.

The seared tuna appetizer brought some excellent fish, but hacked up in little bits. The grilled asparagus was still too crunchy. The creamed spinach was chewy. The creamed corn tasted canned.

There were some successful starters. The Cajun barbecued shrimp were deftly sauteed, and sauced with a zippy garlic-and-Worcestershire butter. The seafood chopped salad was big and fresh, with lots of sweet crab, bacon, bleu cheese and shrimp.

And a single order of onion rings was enough to compensate for all the other dull sides - a pylon-sized stack of colossal rings cloaked in tawny, no-slip crusts, truly addictive with chipotle dip.

When dessert arrived, we were solidly back in the realm of chain mundane - cheesecake, gelatinous key lime tart, a respectable peach cobbler, and a chocolate lava cake so buoyant with hot liquid, it threatened to really explode. No, perhaps I did not need to mop up another lava cake. But at Fleming's Number 45, at least the red meat earns this newcomer a rare status, as one of the few chains worth keeping.

Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Zento in Old City.

Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.