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.