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Brighter Than Ever 

Wednesday, Sep 29 1999
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Firefly has been a Noe Valley favorite, and a secluded destination restaurant, for quite a while now. Tucked away on a residential stretch of 24th Street, it is distinguishable only by the large firefly perched above its door in lieu of a sign.

This year, the owners have been busy with their new project, North Star, but, far from suffering as a result of their divided attention, Firefly seems to be doing better than ever. The restaurant is full every night, and the dishes are inventive and delicious.

The two dining rooms are rather dark but informal, with craftsy art on the walls. The clientele primarily comprises the well-enough-to-do but never needlessly glamorous 30-and-overs of Noe Valley, who enjoy a menu that changes with the seasons while retaining some favorites and often playfully exploring a theme. Throughout the changes, there are always a couple of vegetarian options, and the meat is always from Niman Ranch. Service is efficient, well-informed, and friendly.

A visit to Firefly might go like this: You start with the chopped liver ($6.75). This is two large scoops of fairly fresh-tasting chopped chicken livers, served with bafflingly few Melba toast rounds, salad, and a shot glass of delicious fresh tomato juice. The dish doesn't have the rich fattiness of the best chopped liver, but it's still quite good, and a nicely surprising presence on the menu. Another appetizer, the tomato stack ($7.25), is a perfectly simple and delicious exploitation of the season: just a stack of thickly sliced tomatoes, in a pleasing variety of heirloom shapes and colors, with a bit of good oil, lemon juice, and cucumber to cut the acidity. It is composed with both artistry and good sense.

Squash latkes ($6.75) are fried to a deep brown -- crisp on the outside and tenderly squashy inside -- and are served with a mild applesauce and rich sour cream. (These are curiously similar to those offered at North Star for a whole 50 cents less.) And Firefly gives the now-classic nut/cheese/fruit salad a slight twist: pecan pieces are inserted into whole figs, which stud a richly vinaigretted green salad ($7.75). The cheese is Maytag blue. Also, as usual, the delicious signature spicy shrimp and sea scallop pot stickers ($7.75) are on the menu.

For an entree, you can get the brisket ($15.50), which is braised until it falls apart at the mere sight of a fork, while retaining a great deal of flavor. It's served in thin, delicate slices, accompanied by a tasty autumn-flavored tsimmes with big chunks of apple and potato. Another option is the noodle kugel (are you picking up on any themes yet?), which comes surrounded by a treacherous moat of thick cream sauce and wild mushrooms ($13.50). The kugel is scrumptious, particularly with the ragout, and the chef even manages to give it some textural interest. This, like most of the dishes here, is an enormous portion: It is a superhuman feat for a single diner to consume an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert, not to mention trying to cram in a slice of bread, a glass or two of wine, and perhaps an espresso at the end. But one does one's best.

The vegetarian (it's unlikely that non-vegetarians will chance it) will no doubt be happy with the Southern-fried tofu: thin slices of tofu battered and deep-fried ($12.50). Though tofu's inevitable moisture content keeps the crust from being perfectly crispy, and the inside of each fillet is blander than any chicken, this is quite a good way of dealing with the problematic bean curd: The slices are thin enough that the crust's flavor dominates. The dish comes with large helpings of braised greens and red beans, both intensely flavorful, verging on (but not quite) too salty. The one disappointment is the absence of the wonderful buttermilk biscuit that is sometimes spotted on Firefly's Southern-style plates.

Desserts in particular have shown great improvement of late. Until recently, they were good but not essential. Nowadays a meal at Firefly that omits dessert is not as good as it can be. There is a cookie plate (a trend to hail), top-notch crème brûlée, and a fantastic minicake that is one of the best individual warm chocolate cakes of this reviewer's experience: dense, smooth, and richly chocolatey without being overwhelming. The cake is topped with hazelnut ice cream, and its plate decorations deserve special attention -- domes of poured sugar, cute sauce paintings of insects, etc., and even delicious berries (the quality of garnish berries is generally an excellent indicator of the attention paid to ingredients at a restaurant).

It is satisfying to watch Firefly thrive, and even more satisfying to watch it thrive up close, from a nice table against the wall. True, portions can be overwhelming, and if you don't order carefully the disparate flavors of the various dishes on the menu may clash surreally, but these aren't drawbacks, merely elements of which to be aware. This is food that's intelligent, without being showy or overly polished. It's just consistently imaginative, well-executed, and fresh.

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Paul Adams

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