251 N. El Camino Real, Encinitas
I arrived at Firefly three months too early but soon enough to learn about the auspicious changes yet to come. I'd waited the prudent three-plus months after the restaurant's debut to let the kitchen get its choreography together, but a month before I set foot inside, the opening chef stepped out the door. The new chef, Aaron Daily -- the final top toque at the Del's exalted Prince of Wales (before it became 1500 Ocean) -- has started making the menu his own, so this review will emphasize dishes slated to last at least a few more months, while giving a glimpse of what promises to be a glowing future.
Located at the opposite end of a small mall from the well-known Savory, the restaurant used to be Steakhouse 66. Then owner Jim Barrasso, formerly a corporate chef at Morton's, got bored with meat and mash and remodeled the space into a spacious wine bar and restaurant. It's attractive and cozy with curvy burnt-orange walls, textured like tangerine skins, and lighted by sculptured bronze flame-shaped lamps. The wine "bar" is actually a casual dining room that doubles as a brunch and lunchroom (and catches dinnertime spillovers), next to a slightly more formal dining room. There's also a modest outdoor patio, but El Camino's perpetual parade of gaseous rumbling SUVs dims its allure.
The wine list emphasizes California boutique wineries and lesser-known bottlings from around the world. The plentiful choices by the glass make it easy to experiment with unfamiliar wines without having to commit to a strange bottle (although those, too, are available). Making it easier yet, the wines are grouped descriptively on the list by sweetness and increasing intensity as well as color. Since wine captain Steve Flowers buys in small lots that turn over quickly, I'll leave you to your own oenological adventures, since those we tasted may be gone by now. Do note that since this is a case-by-case collection rather than an acquisition of some grape-lover's whole cellar, the wines tend to be young, and some tannic reds (e.g., Bordeaux) could use a few more years' cellaring.
We lured regulars, The Lynnester and Samurai Jim, to join us for dinner. Following the fad of whimsical menu-writing, the menu starts with "Entice" -- the half-dozen wine-bar snacks include a cheese plate and a charcuterie plate. (If anyone's still awake and peckish past Encinitas' customary 9:00 p.m. bedtime, these dishes remain available until the bar closes.) Then comes the dinner menu: "Sample" are soups, salads, and appetizers; "Savor" heads the list of wine-friendly entrées and "Sips" lists wines available by the glass. (The full list of bottles is separate, with no cute name.)
Gnawing on artisan breads from downtown's Sadie Rose Bakery, we plunged into the "Sample" section. Our favorite was a salad of roasted red beet slices topped with baby spinach, roasted mushrooms, and shallots, dressed in a zingy sherry vinaigrette. The vegetables concealed a miniature treasure of three pancetta-wrapped scallops as welcome as they were irrelevant to the mixture.
Tahitian grilled shrimp wins the "cutest appetizer" award, although any connection with Tahiti is obscure. You get a rectangular plate with three smaller, square dishes set into it, each bearing a different garnish for the single marinated grilled shrimp perched atop each square. Our table's favorite was diced watermelon dusted with enough black pepper to bite, atop a shallow pond of sweet liquid that tasted like maple syrup and suited the fruit. (It turned out to be maple syrup mixed with Hoisin sauce and Moroccan spices, a looser version of the shrimp glaze.) The others held sliced cucumbers and diced tomatoes, each floating on an identical puddle. "This'd be a lot better if they came up with something besides maple syrup for two of the three," said Samurai Jim. "Once is enough."
Moist, lightly smoked salmon slices arrived in a cold salad, hidden under a logpile of undercooked fingerling potatoes and asparagus. "None of these really belong together," said Lynne, to nods all around. "Each belongs in a different dish." We shoved the spuds off the salmon to devour the luscious lox.
A seared lump crabcake, firm and salty, was topped with puffs of Dungeness crab, with mango slices on the side. A dark red strip of miso aioli along the center of the plate separated the seafood from a heap of rubbery diced cantaloupe, some pieces too tough to yield to a fork.
Firefly's most popular entrée is a bourbon-and-mustard--brined pork tenderloin, which came cooked to our order of rosy inside. It's a Germanic combination, with wilted cabbage chunks, apple-smoked bacon, and poached pear cubes -- which we loved -- plus slightly mealy fingerling potatoes, again undercooked. My Midwestern-born partner differed: "He cooks potatoes the way I like them -- until you can penetrate them with a fork and no more."
Seared scallops weren't what we ordered (we wanted the hazelnut-crusted shrimp "scaloppini"), but they were what the waiter brought. (No matter: the scaloppini is due to take a fall.) Each scallop was topped with a delicious pouf of sweet, mild garlic cream. They were surrounded with al dente golden lentils and sugar snap peas drenched in a salty lemon-butter sauce.
Our overcooked roast duck is about to be replaced by a lavender- and rosemary-scented quail. In the evening's special of halibut with hazelnuts, cipollini and gnocchi in a lemony sauce, the fish was still halibut (and bland) regardless of charming garnishes. The waiter didn't mention the special's inflated price, well above the menu entrées. Clearly the service at Firefly flickers unevenly, since the same waiter also neglected to mention the evening's featured wine flight. Still, Lynne and I had fun ordering several glasses and exchanging sips.
Desserts are a strong suit here. A crème brulée was, for a change, new and exciting: Light and creamy (rather than eggy), it gained substance from white chocolate and interest from the floral-citrus scent of bergamot extracted from steeped bags of Earl Grey tea. A mixed fruit cobbler topped with vanilla ice cream tasted like Grandma's good cooking. A key lime tart was a small, tasty patty with almost no crust and a heady key lime flavor; alongside floated barely sweetened soft clouds of meringue. "I'd definitely come back here for appetizers and any of these desserts," said Lynne.
Firefly no longer serves a daily breakfast, but they do it up big for weekend brunches with a long, seductive array of choices. In the crab Benedict, instead of the customary crab cake at the bottom, you get Dungeness crab shreds on top. The hollandaise is light and tangy, decorating gently poached eggs riding on avocado slices and English muffin halves. Puffy, bite-size squares of home fries come alongside, cooked just right.
My partner gambled on a Philly cheese steak variation: sliced eye of round, sautéed peppers, onions, and mushrooms under a thin slick of mild white melted cheese, topped by a fried egg. A bottom layer of fried potatoes replaces the sandwich bread -- but you get bread on the side. The "crowning touch," which the menu doesn't mention, is a sweet ooze of soy, ketchup, Hoisin, and brown sugar ("That's from the previous chef, it's going away eventually," says chef Daily) that tasted just like maple syrup, slimed all over the egg. I know there are people who like maple syrup on eggs, potatoes, what-have-you (my partner's German Midwestern father is one such), but others may find this a disgusting development. At best, the surplus syrup should be served on the side. We wished that we'd gone for the soberer choices of French toast, pancakes, or the house special omelet (avocado, Jack, andouille, and smoked tomatoes) or, at wildest, the duck confit panini. Next trip north, I hope to explore these options.
On a weekday afternoon, we shared a huge Cobb salad, evidently a popular favorite -- the ladies-who-lunch were sharing orders of it all over the room. Little wonder. It boasted fine ingredients in perfect proportions: applewood-smoked bacon, Gorgonzola cheese, grilled chicken cubes, avocado cubes, pitted Greek black olives, and roasted plum tomatoes amid crisp greens in a creamy dressing.
Even in the midst of changes, Firefly is a likable spot. In some ways, it stands to inland Encinitas as Paradise Grille (reviewed last week) stands to residential Del Mar -- a comfortable, every-and-any-day spot to enjoy pleasing California coastal dishes and sip some good wine. The differences between the restaurants are as much about the distinct climates of the two communities as the varying personalities of the chefs. Proud and privileged Del Mar demands a certain glossiness in its higher-end eateries, while Encinitas really gets what "laid back" means.
Jim Barrasso, Firefly's owner, started out as a chef, training at the prestigious Johnson and Wales Culinary Institute in Rhode Island and serving for many years as executive chef supervising numerous branches of Morton's Steakhouse. He opened the casual Steakhouse 66 and ran it from August 2003 until February 2006, when he decided to change the whole concept. "I just wasn't happy with it; it didn't grow the way I thought it would," he says. "When I opened the steakhouse, I thought the area needed some really family-friendly neighborhood kind of a place -- but that market was already being served by the chains. I'd had the idea for this [Firefly] restaurant for a long time and decided it was just time to do it. Up here in North County, there are a lot of places you can go get a great glass of wine, but the thing that was missing was, you couldn't get any food -- maybe a cheese plate, maybe some pâté, and that was about it. I thought that if we could do this kind of wine experience where the wine list was always changing and we were focusing on this really cool, interesting stuff -- lesser-known varietals that nobody else carries -- and we could add food into the mix, people could really enjoy the wine and food together.
"That was where the wine bar came in. The idea was to be non-intimidating, just make it fun, even with the way we list the wines on the wine list...in progressive order of intensity to make it easier for people to choose. And I think the area wanted another cool restaurant they could come to and not have to drive to La Jolla or Del Mar or downtown to find it. So my idea was to have this almost be two different experiences under the same roof. And so far, the people who come in are almost exclusively locals -- some people even walk here. And I think they're people who're coming here instead of going to La Jolla, people who like interesting food and wine and also understand what value is, because we're trying to offer both. I think we share a lot of the same people with Savory. One week they'll go there, next week they'll come here."
Chef Aaron Daily, who arrived a little over a month ago, didn't start out to be a chef. "You know when you're a child and they ask you what you want to do when you grow up? My answer was I wanted to be a food critic," he says. "That really was what I wanted to do. Being a chef was something I just fell into.... I always liked to cook, and it was something I could do. My parents moved out here when I was a kid, and I went to high school here, but I moved back to Columbus, Ohio, for my chef schooling just to get away for a while. I came up the old-school method, the opposite of today's training for chefs. I went to a little culinary school in Columbus, Ohio, and then finished my master's at Ohio State University.... I did a 4-year apprenticeship program; that's how the school works. I worked six days a week, 12 hours a day, and then I went to school for a 12-hour day once a week. The first chef I worked for there came from Lafayette, Louisiana. His grandmother was a slave, who lived to age 96. She had taught him and he taught me, so it goes back 200 years, and my cooking background's really Creole French. After I moved back to San Diego in '99, I mainly stuck with French restaurants.
"I worked awhile at the San Diego Yacht Club, then I went to work for Patrick Ponsaty at El Bizcocho. Jesse Frost was the sous-chef, and I was number three in the kitchen. Then Jesse was chef at the Prince of Wales just before me, and he called me to let me know about the position when he was leaving for his new job at La Estancia. I was at the Prince of Wales during the final year of the restaurant. I was the one who closed it down after 35 years -- the last Prince, I like to say.
"I do plan to bring in some French Creole dishes, but emphasizing the French side -- like instead of a crawfish étouffée, maybe a lobster étouffée, and for 'dirty rice,' a risotto with chicken livers. There's a lot of Southern influence in my cooking, I like to keep it rustic -- sweet potatoes, nuts.... I'm slowly making changes here. Each week we have a new dish to replace a dish. I've pretty much replaced all the salads except the beet salad. I've added the baked mussels. It's a slow process. I've changed the dessert menu about 95 percent. Every day's a learning experience, a challenge. It's a young staff, too, so every day we're all learning together.
"I expect to change the menu about four times a year, seasonally, but also make ongoing changes to keep myself and the diners interested, so there'll always be something new to taste.... I'll be changing the lobster salad, using whole lobsters from Hardshell Lobsters back in Maine. For the vegetables, I mainly deal with Connelly Gardens [in Ramona], Tim Connelly's produce and his herbs are just the best.... I like to be in touch with the farmers. I use several other local farmers, and next spring we'll be getting organic strawberries, the best ones I've ever tasted. We'll be slowly changing over to organic produce, and eventually we'll have a tasting menu. I work every day, all day, but it's fun for me, and the payoff is really great -- meeting all the challenges."