- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 21, 2002

"Glow, little glowworm, glimmer, glimmer," and fill our tummies with bowls of delectable soup or maybe an appetizer, a main course or just a sandwich. Almost anything you order in the luminescent glow of this Firefly on New Hampshire Avenue NW, two blocks below Dupont Circle, will be delicious.

Chef John Wabeck, an Eastern Shore native and creator of the imaginative menus at Bar Rouge and Topaz in the District, is the executive chef at Firefly, the attractive and cozy new restaurant adjoining the Kimpton Group's latest Washington property, the Hotel Madera.

Mr. Wabeck's talent and knowledge of regional cuisine and time he spent in California have culminated in a splendidly chosen menu. Every dish is prepared with both an eye to beauty and a sense of flavor. Firefly is contemporary American cooking at its best.

Firefly is a friendly neighborhood gathering place where soups are particularly welcoming. Often on restaurant menus as mere afterthoughts, soups at Firefly reflect the season. A corn-and-poblano-chili chowder with an undercurrent of smoky bacon and tiny chunks of potatoes was a wonderful combination of flavors accentuated by the gentle crunch of sweet fresh corn. Corn is out of season now, so Mr. Wabeck has substituted a rich, hearty cranberry bean soup perfumed with truffle oil and chopped parsley, enhanced with bits of flavorful Virginia ham.

As the season changes, squash soup redolent with ginger is replaced with a delicate celery-root soup. The soup is creamy, yet light, with a crunchy surprise of apple-radish slaw in each spoonful.

The menu lists a category of "bowls," and bowls they are, of potato gnocchi, risotto or steamed mussels, which can be ordered in either starter or main-course portions.

The gnocchi are similar to tiny plump potato pancakes in a lovely brown butter sauce enlivened by bits of delicate smoked trout. It's a simple, yet rich dish, most satisfying on a wintry evening. The creamy risotto is topped with a puree of roasted shallots and mozzarella. It's an unusual and first-class version of a classic risotto. The mussels are steamed in lager and served with french fried potatoes.

The fried potatoes, also served with Firefly's excellent sirloin steak a tender, juicy and perfectly cooked sirloin are terrific. They're served in a cone of butcher paper, popped into a clever wire frame at plate side, and they're hot, fresh, salty and delicious.

Starters at lunch and dinner are more or less the same, both in offerings and price, except the bowls are not available at lunchtime. House-cured salmon carpaccio, watercress with seared rare tuna, and crispy oysters with chipotle tartar sauce can be ordered at either meal.

The house salad of field greens topped with a generous sprinkling of blue cheese, walnuts and thinly sliced pears in a crisp sherry vinaigrette is refreshing and excellent. There's an offering of a caramelized-onion-and-chorizo tart with a mustard sauce, available only at dinner.

Luncheon main courses are limited to pasta, steak and those great fries, substantial salads (Amish chicken Cobb salad, rock shrimp salad) and several outstanding sandwiches, including a memorable salmon BLT. Generous portions of bacon and tomato are heaped on toasted country bread slathered with a garlicky aioli mayonnaise and topped with a piece of fresh salmon cooked to order. This is a different treat for seekers of salmon.

Sandwiches are served only at lunchtime, but Atlantic salmon is on the menu in the evening, accompanied by mashed potatoes and mushrooms. Roasted monkfish, the rare disappointment, came slightly overcooked, served with cauliflower. Vegetarians will be pleased with the mushroom fricassee with fennel, greens and Cheddar grits.

Short ribs braised in wine and served with roasted potatoes, carrots and other root vegetables make a richly satisfying dish. Other main courses are roasted Amish chicken with grilled leeks and roasted sweet fingerling potatoes and a grilled pork chop with cabbage and horseradish. A side of leaf spinach comes to the table fresh and garlicky.

Even if you don't have room for dessert at the end of the meal, you shouldn't miss the house-made cannoli filled with a banana mousse. This is not the usual store-bought cannoli, but a fresh, crisp version, akin to a lace cookie, and the filling is subtle and light.

Firefly has a good wine list, with selections from around the world at reasonable prices. The service is particularly attentive; the waiters are knowledgeable, attentive and pleasant without being familiar or obsequious.

On a recent balmy Saturday afternoon, Mr. Wabeck invited the neighborhood to the restaurant's terrace for a cookout. The party was a huge success, and Firefly intends to hold its barbecue every fall and spring, showing off a delightful neighborhood gathering place.

The dining room is centered around a floor-to-ceiling tree decorated with little lights. It's a bit noisy when full, but the atmosphere is welcoming, and Mr. Wabeck knows how to make his guests happy.

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