Firefly

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.

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