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The Firefly for New Kinds of Flavor
The Firefly Bistro


As I struggle with restructuring my novel in ways both productive and difficult--my most Herculean writing task to date--Spring calls out to me like never before. This last week, I created a whole new garden with rich black earth, then troweled holes for tomatoes, peppers, strawberries and chives. The feel of the dirt on my hands and the loamy smell was invigorating, The roses were bursting in grandflora gold, olympiad tea-rose red, and burnt sienna, and my poppies had erupted in orange, amber, and yellow.

Not only does the garden beckon, but so does food. In particular, I took my family for Mother's Day to our favorite splurge restaurant, the Firefly Bistro in South Pasadena. It's an unusual place in that it's in a tent that opens on one side to a garden. The tent isn't the Boy Scout kind, but a mini-version of the Denver International Airport--an elegant white affair.

The restaurant is along the lines of what Alice Waters' philosophy is: use local produce and change the menu to reflect the ingredients that can be bought fresh. The presentation of each entrée and dessert reminds me of French and Japanese restaurants: gorgeous in itself.

Co-owner Carl Weintraub calls the food "Modern American Bistro" rather than "fusion." His daughter and son-in-law are the chefs, and they look for regional foods that they can make with locally grown vegetables as well as the best fish and meat they can buy. The menu changes by the season (and yes, there are seasons in Los Angeles--just not any with icicles). On Thursdays, when the Farmer's Market is outside on the street, the Firefly makes tapas with the vegetables being sold.

My wife, Ann, tends to be more adventurous than I am with food, so she ordered an appetizer called Spicy Butternut Squash Doughnuts with toasted walnut-madras curry dip and oregano honey. No way was I going to eat butternut squash made as a doughnut. I want my doughnuts glazed and fluffy and far from vegetables and "walnut-madras curry dip," but when the Firefly version came, they were beautiful dumplings, and when I had one, it was as if yams had married butter. I savored my share.

Son Zach went for the Pecan Coated Catfish over sweet potato-Andouille hash, with collard greens and mustard pan sauce. He loved it. Despite my living in the South once (in a trailer park, no less), I never came to like collard greens, which is why I skipped the same selection, as much as I like catfish.

My wife went for the Spring Vegetable Stew with potato leek cake and preserved peppers, and said it made for an ideal Mother's Day. We all shared the Firefly Fries after daughter Ellen ordered them (who also shared the stew with her mother). The fries were made with the skin on and then coated with scallion and sesame salt. They went so fast, we ordered more.

A fan of seafood, I might have ordered the Lobster and Spring Onion Papardelli, but I'm from the Midwest and love potatoes. That dish didn't have potatoes, but the Marjoram Roasted Chicken did--crisped potato and carrot, roasted shallots, salsa verde, and pan jus, which sounded just right. When it came, the potatoes and vegetables were in small, quarter-inch cubes, all mixed together. My heart sank because I wanted Big Potatoes. I'm a potato purist. Do not mix in other vegetables unless it's called butter. Additionally, the chicken wasn't a huge half chicken as I imagined, but a boneless breast that lay on top of the vegetable medley as if it were tired from crossing the road.

Okay, I should have gone with the catfish and the darned greens, but the moment I tried the chicken, I paused. Very tasty. I tried the vegetables. Whatever was in them, I was in heaven. I wanted the recipe.

While my wife and I had gone to this restaurant for the last seven years, a few visits ago, I heard, "Hello, Chris," and I turned around to see one of my former UCLA Extension creative writing students, Laurie O'Brien.

"Laurie, hey! What're you doing here?"

"I help run this place with my husband, Carl."

Now is that a small world or what? I would have written about this restaurant without knowing Laurie. Because I knew Laurie, when she came by and asked how was our Mother's Day dinner, I had to crow about the potatoes and vegetables and ask how they were made. She said she'd go to the kitchen to find out. She came back and told me, and it's simple. Cut everything into little squares and then cook them in a hot pan using the "pan jus" from the chicken with a little butter.

This week, I re-created my meal at home. There's something about writing hard during the day that makes cutting vegetables into tiny squares enjoyable at night. I'm not only making progress on the book, but also my family was impressed with my cooking, and everyone asked for more, which I didn't have. Everything in moderation. The food and my garden is also about taking time to enjoy beautiful things. Carpe diem.

To see photos of some dishes and the restaurant, click here. To eat under the tent, go to 1009 El Centro Street, South Pasadena, California 91030. Reservations: (626) 441-2443.

3 Comment count
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Delectable post

Thank you so much for your delicious descriptions. I am frequently in California, and always looking for new and interesting places to eat. Firefly bistro looks like my favorite kind of restaurant.
Thank you also for posting the pictures.

I can hardly wait for my next trip to Pasadena area.

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An Uptick in South Pasadena Tourism

I appreciate the comment, Sharon, as it shows my passion for food and the season is coming through. Thanks.

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Comin' thru

Your passion for food is wildly evident. I owned a restaurant in Big Bear Lake, Calif. in the 70's. We had an outdoor patio, though not covered, and I have been in love with the garden theme and romantic dining areas since then. I've been an event planner, and have operated catering with my daughter. My favorite stress-buster is planning from start to finish including menu and recipes. And Fresh, real food, prepared with love and innovation is more than exciting to me.

I may try my own version of Firefly Fries...and toasted walnut-madras curry dip...yum.

Thank you again. We hope to be in California in June. I can hardly wait.