By Derek Lavallee - 05/10/07 07:48 PM EDT
day. This is a place to relax.
The restaurant is compact and intimate. Low ceilings contribute mellow lighting; a cedar bar overlooks an open room with modestly appointed tables throughout. One wall consists of large stones; another is lined with birch trunks of uniform size and shape.
The signature design element is a faux tree stump nearly four feet in diameter that sits in the center of the room. Garden lanterns hang from thick branches that appear to support the ceiling. Energetic techno plays louder than typical ambient music and is an unexpected accompaniment to the woodland setting. The tagline on the restaurant’s website reads “Firefly — practically feel the grass between your toes.” Indeed, if hobbit Bilbo Baggins were a modern-day bachelor, this could be his pad.
Although Firefly is located in the Hotel Madera and is part of the Kimpton Hotel and Restaurant family (which includes in-town siblings Hotels George, Helix, Monaco, Palomar, Rouge and Topaz), it displays a strong sense of self. The diners reflect the diversity of the neighborhood. Modish 20-somethings dressed for an evening that will no doubt extend well past dinner sit adjacent to a grayer group who would look appropriate at Captain Stubing’s table on “The Love Boat.”
Most of the tables are closely situated, especially those set for two. The level of the house sound attempts to scramble nearby conversations. A prime place to enjoy your urban picnic is near two open French doors in the front of the restaurant.
Chief Mixologist “Blackbird” (Floor Manager Will Earls) offers six creative libations constructed from different alcohols as their base. The clear standout is his Cherry Blossom Mojito — a clever concoction of muddled lime, simple syrup, Bing cherry juice, 10 Cane Rum and soda water. It’s pretty in the glass, refreshing and tastes like one imagines a cherry blossom would — sweet, but not overly so.
Service is prompt and polite. Everyone from the graceful hostess to the attentive support staff on the floor seems genuinely pleased to have you in their gourmet grove. A waiter who goes by “D” has been at Firefly for four years and can tell you anything you want to know about the establishment’s past, present and future.
A notable recent addition to the team is Chef Daniel Bortnick, who has been on the job for only six weeks. Like the meats and produce he prefers to cook, he is locally grown. Raised in Rockville, Md., he comes to Firefly following stints at the Mendocino Grill and most recently Poste Moderne Brasserie, located in the Hotel Monaco, another Kimpton property.
Bortnick’s passion for simple food based on seasonal products is expressed throughout the menu. He refers to his presentations as American comfort food.
“That doesn’t mean fried chicken and mac ’n’ cheese,” he says. “I think people want to see food on a menu that they recognize. I like to take American standards that people grew up eating and still cook to the next level.”
His new menu offers several small plates designed to be shared. Three little meatballs arrive in a piquant red sauce. The inclusion of apple wood-smoked bacon imparts a distinctive and enjoyable flavor to each bite. Despite their size, the meatballs are exceptionally rich and any more would be too much of a start for any constitution. Deviled eggs rarely if ever appear on menus, but Bortnick’s adaptation is likely to be trendsetting. A dried garlic chip adorns the savory filling and each egg is dusted with flakes of dried capers. These are not your mother’s deviled eggs and alone are a reason to drop in to the restaurant. Oysters Rockefeller rest on a bed of rock salt, covered with a hot and vibrant marriage of verdant herbs.
The wine list is “a work in progress,” General Manager Mike Hill said. “We are transitioning to mostly American labels featuring varietals from coast to coast.” Meanwhile, diners should take advantage of Firefly’s generous corkage policy: $15 a bottle with a limit of two bottles. Some selections from Burgundy and Italy still can be found for a fair price. A glass of Groth Sauvignon Blanc from Napa was a delicious complement to both the deviled eggs and the oysters.
Several old-school salads appear on the menu. The Waldorf is an imaginative nod to the classic recipe and features green apple, cashews and cranberries over watercress with a perfectly restrained amount of dressing. The entrées are as varied as they are delicious. The chicken pot pie boasts a flaky pastry crust and a cauldron of fresh vegetables and chicken that is harmonious without being mushy. The English peas and carrots miraculously retain their individuality. Swanson’s? Never again. The mini pot roast — yes, pot roast — is a carnivore’s delight. Three days in the making, the meat is presented in a pan on a bed of creamy mashed potatoes accentuated by green onions and roasted shallot jus. Leave your knife on the table — this dish submits with the slightest urging.
Other items to choose from include a seared tuna club with avocado and bacon, and a spinach and spring onion casserole with pickled ramps. Sides are ordered separately, the best of which are truffle fries that are finger-licking good.
Dessert selections are straightforward and traditional. Chef Bortnick describes the mini caramelized banana split as “decadent and kind of slutty.” While it is fun and tasty, it is disappointingly more traditional and virtuous than his characterization.
The next time you find yourself in the mood for a culinary hug, go to Firefly, the hippest place in the shire.