2201 Bandywood Dr.
Lunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Mon.-Fri. Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Sat.
Price range: $$-$$$
Let me get this straight: color is the new black, 50 is the new 40, and downscale is the new upscale, at least when it comes to restaurants. That must also explain why Firefly Grille is the new Deer Park Grille.
When Deer Park Grille opened in Green Hills in March 2002, it was aimed at an upscale crowd looking for a mid-scale dining experience. To that end, owner Curt Cole designed both an interior and a menu evocative of a warmly elegant neighborhood restaurant (if your neighborhood happens to be on the tony side of town), with a price point that would invite those folks to drop by once or twice a week.
Though residents of the 37205 and 37215 zip codes found Deer Park to be comfortably familiar and familiarly comfortableparticularly when it came to spotting friends' and neighbors' faces in the dining roomthey were not dropping in quite as frequently or as spontaneously as Cole would have liked. So a few months ago, he executed a makeover on the interior, the menu and the name. What seemed like an overnight switcheroo was actually much longer in the planning stages, but Cole barely lost a beator a day of businessbetween closing the door on Deer Park and opening the door to Firefly. When I spotted the new sign recently and pulled into the parking lot to check out the new restaurant, I was surprised to find the same smiling face at the maître d's podium.
Many of the same faces remain on the floor as well, which must've eased the transition for Cole and his customers, who so far seem to be giving the new concept ("upscale casual") a thumbs-up. While Firefly still plays host to well-heeled diners looking for an alternative to the Belle Meade Country Club, the clientele also includes a good number of young families, along with folks getting a bite before catching a movie or stopping in after a day of shopping. Cole's timing is right to capture the consumer crowd, who are already filling up the nearby mall and strip centers as they gear up for the rapidly approaching holiday season.
I loved the bar at Deer Parkcozy and intimate, one of my favorite places to meet for drinks and girl talkso I'm glad that, other than a string of hula girl lights across the glass rack, it remains virtually the same.
The transformation of the dining rooms, though, is dramatic. Striped and polka-dotted sheers hang on the windows and serve as room dividers, the ceilings are strung with twinkling lights and a rainbow of Japanese paper lanterns, and the black-enameled tabletops have been jazzed up with painted patterns. Large, colorful canvases hang on the red-glazed walls, which are also adorned with framed black-and-white publicity stills. The photos are kitschy, and would work better if there were more of them. My guess is that Cole wouldn't mind customers contributing their own mementos and souvenirs to create a sort of a community mural. But I would ask before nailing up my 8-by-10 of Slim Whitman.
The wall is also where customers will find the downsized, downscaled entrée menu, written on dry-erase boards. A list of reasonably priced wines sits on the table for perusing and choosing, but otherwise, diners wanting to know about the rest of the menu will have to listen to their server. In addition to listing the appetizers, the server describes the sides for each of the nine or 10 entrées available nightly. Their memories are far superior to mine: by the time we got to the salads, I had totally forgotten what came with the seared yellowfin tuna that kicked off the list.
The menu changes frequently, though not daily. Expect a red meat (currently rib eye), a couple of fish offerings (salmon and something else), crab cakes, a pasta, and fish- or fowl-topped salads. Nothing is priced higher than $19, and on my visit the entrée-sized salads were just $11.
I am hoping that chef Scott Witherow keeps the mussels puttanesca appetizer, which came to the table in a robust and chunky sauce of tomato, garlic, onion, olives and artichoke hearts. We made quick work of the two dozen bivalves, then went to town with a basket of bread sopping up the flavorful broth at the bottom of the bowl. With a small side salad, it would satisfy as a meal.
Crab cakes can be had as an appetizer (two to an order) or as an entrée (three, with sides). Either way, Firefly's proportion of crab to filler leans more heavily on the latter, but the cakes are tasty nonetheless, with a crisped exterior around a moist filling, much enhanced by a tangy citrus aioli. The spring rolls made good use of diced duck from a special a few evenings before; mixed with some raw veggies for a nice crunch, the meat was wrapped in rice paper, deep-fried and served with a sweet-tart sauce.
Entrées are generously portioned, so much so that Cole must buy to-go boxes by the truckload. Main dishes generally come with a starch (mashed potatoes, risotto, polenta, sweet potatoes) and fresh salad greens, with a choice of champagne vinaigrette or Green Goddess dressinga culinary flashback if there ever was one. Since it is so hard to remember all the side offerings, I would simply ask the server one question: does the dish come with asparagus? If not, request it. Chef Witherow has a magic touch with the vegetable; simply dressed with butter, salt and garlic, the stalks were perfectly cooked on every visit.
Of the entrées one might expect to see on a regular basis, I would advise diners to reel in the salmon or whatever the fish of the day might be. Or, if you're especially hungry, order the spicy, hearty crawfish étouffée. On two visits, the rib eye was nicely seasoned, but very fatty, which is a plus in some carnivores' books, though not in mine. I did love the thick, fresh onion rings piled on top.
Firefly's chocolate creme brulée is a torrid affair. Punch a spoon through the crusty top, and the rich chocolate cream oozes out, insinuating itself past futile promises of "I'll have just a taste." Trust me, you won't stop at one bite, but the dish is large enough for at least two to share. Chocolate fortune cookies from Chicago send it right over the top. This dessert merits its own visit to Firefly; with a glass of champagne, it is the ultimate indulgence.
The creme brulée may well sum up the appeal of Firefly Grille: your meal will feel indulgent and upscale, but the restaurant is a genuinely casual affair. You can go expecting well-prepared food, moderate prices and professional service, all overseen with warmth and ease.