The engaged, personable and enthusiastic owner of a dining establishment that straddles the line between mediocre and third-rate can pose a bit of a conundrum to the restaurant critic. An owner's pleasant disposition can have a mollifying effect, and even arouse compassion and empathy in the surliest of scribes (not that I'm surly). Before you know it, conciliatory notes have found their way into passages intended to lambaste and, frankly, that's a good thing. Very few restaurants I've visited have ever deserved a thorough undressing, but that's not to say a little tough love couldn't do a restaurant some good. It can and, with this week's review, it's my sincere hope that it does.
Lisa Amoresano and Jeff McNeil took over Taps in Winter Park Village a couple of months back, gradually transforming the space into Firefly Kitchen & Bar. They're a lovely pair, to be sure, but when our equally affable server pointedly directed us to shy away from the burgers, we knew something was amiss in the kitchen.
Thing is, the upside-down pineapple burger ($15) with brie and a sweet-spicy sauce wasn't all that bad, but the same couldn't be said of our server's suggestions – take the onion rings, for example, which resembled fried catfish thanks to a thick, heavy batter that pretty much negated any flavor of onion. The steak and mushroom flatbread ($9), another server recommendation, just looked hastily plopped together with chunks of overdone filet sparsely drizzled with a highly touted chimichurri. It really lacked that freshness factor in both look and taste, a condition that also plagued the trio of brisket sliders ($14). The meat, dry and stringy, just tasted off, and a couple of bites was all it took to relegate the plate to the edges of our table as we turned our focus to the classic poutine ($8).
McNeil, a Canadian, takes great pride in his poutine and, the few overcooked fries notwithstanding, I could certainly appreciate the dish's dark, peppery gravy and Wisconsin cheese curds. Amoresano has Southern roots, which show in the chicken-fried chicken ($16) slathered in country gravy. The superbly succulent meat, as well as the side of green beans, had us believing the kitchen has potential. But the ossified loaf of unseasoned mashed potatoes was beyond poorly executed.
Desserts, like the pecan pie ($6) and moonshine cake ($7), which are also available as shooters ($2 and $3 respectively), are recipes from Amoresano's grandmother, who lived in Georgia. We opted for the full portions of these Dixie delights and enjoyed them with a few brews (there are 128 from which to choose, as well as 48 wines) on their patio.
On one particular Tuesday night, $3 signature drafts were downed as trivia went on and we found ourselves having a bloody good time despite the food, which has to count for something. The joint has the bones and atmosphere to be a real Winter Park draw, but before that happens, Firefly's kitchen needs to churn out dishes that are, well, lit.