Worth checking out, even if not checking in
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, November 11, 2012
Take three weeks off and shell out $300,000 for a makeover, and you, too, will attract fresh eyes. Dark for much of September, the 10-year-old
in the Hotel Madera re-emerged at the end of the month with a fresh palette, a slew of new drinks and a recently appointed chef de cuisine.
Firefly’s signature, candle-lit faux tree still stands, but it has been joined by a porch swing up front. Ever hear of sound-absorbing paint? Neither had this diner until I read Firefly’s press release, which flagged paint and vinyl-wrapped panels as attempts to tamp down a long-running noise problem in the low-ceilinged restaurant. (The space stills gets loud but nowhere near the decibel level as before.)
Reclaimed windows now frame the kitchen, where chef Todd Wiss (ex Radius) takes over day-to-day duties from Danny Bortnick, promoted in February to director of restaurant operations for the D.C. area properties run by San Francisco-based boutique hotelier Kimpton. Among Wiss’s contributions are a hillock of crisp kale garnished with batons of sweet apple and dressed with an assertive cider-and-mustard vinaigrette, and pimento cheese fritters served with a smoky onion marmalade made with bacon. (I swear, bacon is going on its 15,000th minute of fame at this point.)
Drinks master Jon Harris, formerly of the esteemed Gibson, shakes his way into your heart with playful-yet-lethal cocktails. Bitter Reality intrigues me with tequila, Campari, absinthe and the Greek spirit Skinos Mastiha; a clever, booze-free “beer” draws on barley soda, hop-infused syrup and grapefruit juice.
Firefly’s food tends to mirror its homey interior. Roast chicken is a natural here, and it’s good. Fans of the “mini” pot roast will be reassured to find it back and rib-sticking as ever. The beef is as it should be: winy, tender, crisp on top and tucked into its skillet with tender baby carrots and mashed potatoes that would make a rich promotion for the dairy industry. Thick slices of pink pork tenderloin burst with uncommon flavor. Surely it helps to have made-in-Virginia Papa Weaver’s pride in the center of the plate, where crisp butternut squash gnocchi and over-caramelized Brussels sprouts also gather.
Warm Parker House rolls still show up in a pail, but it’s not all Fannie Farmer here. Trend-seekers can content themselves with grilled octopus set off with sliced avocado. Smoked whitefish brandade, a strapping starter, is soupy for my taste, and braised lamb pasta is a messy main course crowded with cherries, cheese and mushrooms. Both dishes are skippable.
Dessert is not. Go for the slender peanut butter ice cream sandwich or,
in keeping with the outdoorsy theme here, a pretty s’more centered with chocolate mousse and capped with bruleed marshmallow. With Firefly’s abundant wood and warm light as backdrop, a diner can almost imagine crickets chirping.