Glow for It

Firefly is a study in cool, even though its complex offerings aren't always in harmony

Noe Valley is cool. Way cool. Ponytailed 40-ish men who undoubtedly do something important in film, and women with half-shaved heads that shout confidence, who shepherd toddlers, work full time as pediatricians, and somehow have the time to select choice organic tomatoes at Real Foods. Intimidated? Me?

You can see them all at Firefly. The combination of great hair, studiously casual attire, and snatches of animated conversation convinces you they're living in Technicolor as compared with your sorry little black-and-white life. It gives the place a true buzz. A little bit of cool rubs off on you just by virtue of being there.

We're the perfect geeks for the occasion. Two out-of-towners from Phoenix, three recent arrivals to the city, and me. Ready to be wowed. Take it away.

We're seated in the back room; immediately, the front room, where you can see the activity at the bar and in the semiopen kitchen, seems more appealing. Firefly is not ultradecorated, à la Cypress Club. It's more Spartan, with eclectic objets d'art tossed about the place as if to say, "We're not really serious about the overall effect. Either you get it or you don't."

The dinner gets off to a great start with a $24 bottle of Cambria chardonnay, chosen from a well-thought-out wine list. The Arizona contingent is very impressed with Red Tail Ale, and I'm able to show off with some travel-guide stuff about the wonders of the Hopland Brewery (where Red Tail is made), an obligatory pit stop for burgers and beer en route to Mendocino on Highway 101.

Be advised that Firefly alters its menu every week, and changes it completely every two weeks, so many of the dishes noted here may not be available.

Bring on the appetizers. Nicely browned shrimp and scallop potstickers ($6.50) are delicate enough to showcase the seafood, but the accompanying fiery sesame soy sauce overwhelms their flavor. Fanny Bay oysters ($7.25) are first-rate, but also bullied by their citrus/chili-paste sauce. Grilled crawfish risotto cakes with chervil, caviar, creme fraiche, and mixed greens ($7.75) are an unusual twist on the by-now-standard crab cakes, the creamy risotto and chunks of fresh crawfish coexisting in lovely harmony.

Also available as starters are golden beet and roasted leek soup ($5); mache and frisee salad with goat cheese, pears, and cayenne-glazed pecans ($6.25); fresh grilled mozzarella wrapped in grape leaves with tomatoes and pesto vinaigrette ($7.25); and soba-noodle stir-fry with tofu, portabello mushrooms, spinach, and spicy peanut sauce ($6.50).

Among the entrees, honey-roasted rosemary cornish game hen ($14.25), well-balanced and succulent, comes with divine corn bread/wild rice stuffing and much-too-peppery braised red cabbage. Wild-mushroom polenta dumplings ($11.50) seem to promise chunks of wild fungi, but they're all mashed up in an overly herbed polenta, accompanied by delicious sherried tomatoes and grilled squash. We try two fish: mahi mahi with tomatillo-chipotle salsa and roasted new potatoes ($14.50), which is undercooked to the point of ridiculous (and I like rare fish); and seared Hawaiian ono with orange-chili glaze, sesame noodles, and mushroom vegetarian stir-fry ($15.75), overdone just short of sawdust.

Other entrees are Southern fried chicken with mashed potatoes, gravy, peas, and carrots ($13.50); lamb loin chops with morel sauce, scalloped potatoes, and asparagus spears ($14.75); barbecued pork loin steak with braised greens and candied yams ($13.75); and sauteed ground tofu with coconut curry sauce over roasted eggplant with fragrant rice and sweet-and-spicy zucchini salad ($9.75). (These descriptions alone are so tantalizing, I wish I could eat the menu.)

If all this excess has made your mind wander, sit up and pay attention: Firefly's banana bread pudding, swimming in caramel sauce, is a destination dessert. Have it. Other desserts, which you really don't need to know about since everyone should order bread pudding, are a respectable creme brulee and chocolate cake, a dream for fans of bittersweet. Desserts run $4.75 to $5.50.

Service at Firefly is superb. It's one of the few smaller bistro-type restaurants in the city that has an adequate waitstaff-to-customer ratio. And they're all pros. Not only are you well attended, you're not rushed out. During our two-hour dinner, we didn't see any tables turn over. That's refreshing.

At meal's end, the group consensus was "OK, but not a place we'd rush to send our friends to," seconded by "the best bread pudding." I felt more generous, in spite of my somewhat dashed expectations (after all, the place has managed to stay hot for more than a year). Unless you live there, however, Noe Valley is a schlep. So it may be awhile before I give it another try. But there's obviously a creative, adventurous spirit at work here.

Firefly's message machine advertises "home cooking with no ethnic boundaries." A few boundaries, like adjusting the fire on the fish and taming the complexity of ingredients, wouldn't hurt a bit.

Firefly, 4288 24th St, 821-7652. Open seven days at 5:30 p.m. Last seating Mon-Sat, 10 p.m.; Sun, 9:30 p.m.

 
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