A carload of friends and I are heading west on Ventura Boulevard on the lookout for the Studio City restaurant and lounge Firefly. Where exactly is it? We're scanning the south side of the boulevard for the facade. (I could have found the address and cross street on Google Maps, but that would have been too easy.) It's just past a corner, a bit dark, no sign, I remind everyone. "Oh, you mean the the Chia Pet place?" Chia? I'm thinking a topiary or a lawn. But when we spot the telltale valet umbrella, sure enough, the building is entirely swathed in ivy.
Nine years after party-planner impresario Jeffrey Best opened this place, it's still happening. Past the unmarked door, the bar is crowded with a usual mix of schmoozers and romancers, cocktail sippers and ardent talkers. The décor doesn't look as if it's changed a bit in the intervening years. Still the same books, the same inviting low red couches. Beyond the "library" lounge is the vast dining room. Two fireplaces give the room the feeling of a desert encampment. And on this blustery night the half-dozen white-curtained cabanas are occupied by friends eating and drinking the night away. No worries that the place is going to close up on you. The late-night menu continues where the dinner menu leaves off.
What has changed, but not as much as I'd have imagined, is the food. For the last few months, Jason Travi, who has worked at Spago, La Terza, Fraîche and is now corporate executive chef for Best's restaurant group, has been tweaking the menu at Firefly. Though most of the dishes are new, they're all in the same rustic Mediterranean mode established by former chef Gary Menes. If anything, they're more generic than Menes' graceful originals were. (Menes left to open Palate Food & Wine in Glendale and now is looking to open his own place.)
Firefly is busy day in, day out. The crowd comes from the Valley, Hollywood, Los Feliz, Echo Park, downtown. It is still more bar than restaurant, a place where people come to nosh more than to eat a full-scale meal. Since Menes left, the restaurant's mantra seems to be "good enough." But now, under Travi's tweaking, we're beginning to see dishes that are better than that. Not many, but a few.
Unless you're into the bar scene, it's not really a destination restaurant, but if you order wisely you can have a good meal here. Mussels are a terrific appetizer to share, the best dish here. Seared in a cast-iron skillet, they're plump and served plain, without juices, with all their sweetness intact. There's also a dipping sauce of "gently melted" butter with sea salt and cracked pepper. Prime filet tartare is hand chopped and tender, cloaked in a light horseradish sauce and presented with buttery toasted brioche and a perky herb salad, another good one to share.
As for salads, go with the one of thinly sliced apples, nutty Gouda cheese and slivered celery in a vinaigrette that has an apple twang.
One night chicken curry pie is a special main course, a handsome square pie with patterned edges and slits for the steam to escape. Inside, it's something like an Indian shepherd's pie — potatoes, chicken and green peas suffused with curry. The flavors are nice together. Hanger steak is fine too, cooked to the rare side of medium-rare, a steak with real flavor and a great basic on this menu. It comes with excellent fries.
But after that, recommendations are harder to make. Tempura-style crunchy string beans are marred by two mismatched, overly strong dipping sauces. Burrata fritters don't work either. Deep-fried gobbets of creamy burrata are disposed on a flurry of arugula and prosciutto, then doused in a cheap balsamic vinegar dressing. A heavy hand with the sweet rice vinegar does in the hamachi sashimi on crispy rice cakes, which get soaked in the vinegar lake. And the fish could be fresher.
For die-hard carnivores, the appetizer menu offers a massive roasted marrow bone with toast, or veal meatballs in a thick concentrated tomato sauce. Unfortunately, both are just OK.
Still, servers are real troupers. The noise level is high, making their job even more difficult, but they're patient about repeating information or double-checking an order.
Most main courses, such as bacon-wrapped shrimp with oven-dried tomatoes, don't make much of an impression. Grilled salmon gets some nice accompaniments, though — Brussels sprouts and a parsnip purée. And a grilled pork chop is redeemed by creamy semolina.
I was thrilled to see baked Alaska as a dessert, but it's disappointing, simply a block of chocolate ice cream on a thin layer of chocolate cake with meringue piped over the top and barely browned. Where's the theater in that? Get the pear bread pudding instead. It's squarely in the comfort zone and comes with a great burnt-sugar ice cream.
In the end, the revamped Firefly menu doesn't offer as much excitement or reliability as you'd expect from a seasoned chef like Travi. Despite his tinkering, the bar scene still trumps the food. Still, it's one of the better places to eat, especially late night, along this stretch of the boulevard.
Rating: one star
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level.***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.
Location: 11720 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; (818)762-1833; http://www.fireflystudiocity.com (site under construction)
Prices: Appetizers, $8 to $15; main courses, $19 to $25; small plates and sides, $6; desserts, $9.
Details: Open 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday to Saturday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday. (Kitchen closes about an hour before.) Full bar. Corkage, $18. Valet parking, $5.