Firefly

1310 New Hampshire Ave. NW (in Hotel Madera,

near N Street). 202-861-1310

Open: for breakfast Monday through Friday 7 to 10 a.m., Saturday and Sunday 7 to 9 a.m.; for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for

brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate smoking section. Valet parking. Metro: Dupont Circle. Prices: appetizers $6 to $10; lunch entrees $10 to $14; dinner entrees $13 to $23. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $70 per person.

He gave us Asian-style dumplings at Topaz Bar followed by hanger steak with cumin-scented potatoes at Bar Rouge. Now John Wabeck, a chef who helped inject some pizazz into the Washington hotel and restaurant scene, finds himself where he wanted to be all along: in a spot more his own, serving American food to a neighborhood crowd.

Firefly is the name of his new roost off Dupont Circle, and its theme, inviting and reassuring, surfaces everywhere you set your eyes, beginning with a pair of glowing orange box lights near the sidewalk and moving inside, with a tree whose branches dangle tiny copper lanterns. (A knock on its trunk tells you it's faux, but even a foot away, it sure looks like the real deal.) Birch logs nicely break up yellow walls, and a half-wall of gray stone frames the windowed kitchen, where the 34-year-old chef can see and be seen.

Holding a mere 40 seats, the main dining room is snug, with low ceilings that reinforce its compactness. If you've failed to book a table in advance, you may well find yourself getting acquainted with an ostrich leather stool at the bar or a pillow-strewn couch in the lounge. Both are cozy quarters for gathering with friends over drinks and snacks, and graced with autumnal colors designed to bring the outdoors in. More intimate still is the private Backwoods Room, with space for 16 guests. Aglow with decorative amber glass torches, it is a calming spot to dine on a cold and rainy evening.

Like Firefly's design, much of Wabeck's food has "comfort" written all over it. His wine-braised short ribs, accompanied by soft carrot chunks and velvety pearl onions, appear to be lifted from a Norman Rockwell illustration, and a thick grilled pork chop gets partnered with luscious, caraway seed-flecked cabbage and quartered roast potatoes. Roast chicken is like a lot of birds around town: tame in flavor and unevenly cooked. But it gets an assist from some grilled leeks and a deep red chili gravy.

Not everything here is so homespun; plenty of style finds its way into the script. Celery root soup, for instance, is sweet yet earthy, its surface elegantly set off with droplets of herbed oil and vegetable matchsticks. In another opening act, crisp fried oysters are scattered with fried parsley and made more tempting with a zippy chipotle-fueled dip. Risotto, available as a first course or entree, achieves just the right loose, creamy texture; knobs of buffalo mozzarella melt into the grains, enriching the eating. Another fine vegetarian option comes by way of smoky portobello slices arranged with soft white beans, diced tomato and aioli (a number of Wabeck's dishes can be adjusted to accommodate non-meat eaters).

Not surprisingly, Wabeck tucks a few hotel menu regulars into the format, too, including an appetizer of garlicky steamed mussels; an entree of roseate sliced steak with fries and nicely dressed watercress; and creme brulee, silken and delicately flavored with pumpkin.

Lovely little details pop up in meal after meal, from thick house-made potato chips that accompany a turkey sandwich at lunch to a malt-rich chocolate shake, served in a Mini Me-size pitcher on a decadent plate of chocolate confections for dessert. But why not serve those good chips warm instead of cold, as I encountered them? As much fun as that chocolate treat is, with its truffles and intense sorbet, why detract from it with the inclusion of dry chocolate bread pudding?

Other dishes at Firefly also suffer from a lack of attention. Gnocchi splashed with sage butter are unpleasantly dense and thick, and an entree of roasted monkfish with the vegetable darling of the moment, cauliflower, has almost no flavor save for a glimmer of curry oil on the rim of the plate (even that needs salt to make it more than a single note on the tongue). And the cranberry bean soup, afloat with bites of ham, needs fine-tuning. "Liquid refried beans," a pal remarked after tasting the bowl, and I agreed.

On the other hand, a few things I dismissed early on have improved over time. An ultra-thin tart heaped with caramelized onions and chunks of chorizo is no longer too sweet, and the service has grown more confident and helpful. "May I take your coat?" "Is the wine at the right temperature?" Firefly makes guests feel at home--right down to presenting the check in a Mason jar with a perforated lid, the kind you might have used as a child to capture lightning bugs.

For brunch, Wabeck sticks to the standards, trotting out the expected French toast, omelets and sandwiches. Each gets a welcome twist, however. That French toast comes with a drift of cardamom whipped cream and genuine maple syrup, the eggs are perfumed ever so subtly with white truffle oil, and the hamburger is loose and juicy, flanked by full-flavored fries.

Wabeck has done a superb job of finding some unusual wines from small producers in California, his old stomping grounds. (Following 18 months at New Heights in the District, he worked about the same amount of time at Brix in Yountville in Napa Valley.) The gems include a zinfandel from Elyse and a barbera from Renwood, but also embrace the likes of a smooth merlot from Barnard Griffin in Washington state's Columbia Valley. And it's a pleasure to see eight wines served by the half-bottle.

While Firefly is a work in progress, it is also a place to watch. And lounge. And nest. Count me among the crowd vying for one of the friendly restaurant's seats.

Ask Tom

"I've heard rumors that a new kosher restaurant is scheduled to open in the District sometime soon," writes Mitch Jacoby, a Chicago reader who visits Washington regularly. "Do you, by chance, know more?" Early December was the expected launch date for Stacks, a kosher deli (202-628-9700), and Archives, a formal 115-seat kosher restaurant (202-639-0400) next door, both in the space previously occupied by Planet Hollywood, at 1101 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist, is the venture's owner; a first-time restaurateur, he has brought in chef Ryan Gedry, formerly of the nearby Signatures restaurant, to oversee the two menus.

Got a dining question? Send your thoughts, wishes and, yes, even gripes to asktom@washpost.com or to Ask Tom, The Washington Post Magazine, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

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