Spanish Evolution

Firefly’s Summerlin expansion is the latest sign of life in the tapas trend

Firefly took over the old Z’Tejas space on West Sahara.

One of the best Firefly tapas: chorizo clams.

Tapas, those savory little bar dishes from Spain originally eaten while standing, have taken a long time to catch on in this country. But the genre is finally hitting its stride, thanks to places such as Julian Serrano at Aria, and a host of other tapas restaurants scattered around the city. The most popular example is also one of the city’s first: Firefly, which opened along Paradise Road several years ago. In the past year, John Simmons opened two more branches, one downtown at the Plaza and the other in Summerlin last month. It brings credibility to the genre that this chef/owner, who has brought dishes such as paella, Spanish anchovies and merguez sausage to the Vegas dining public, has been such a passionate advocate for Spanish cooking. Small dishes have become a force in the dining world nationally. It was only a matter of time before the trend caught on in Las Vegas.

This new Firefly occupies a space that once belonged to Z’Tejas, and it has been thoroughly redone. Now the wallpaper is lurid red, and there are fireplaces in the main dining room and outside, on a heated patio. That’s where my dining companion and I sat during my last visit, because the main area was booked solid. Even the bar tables—tall tables where you’ll perch on tall stools—had a waiting list. I’ve been here three times, and each time both the parking lot and the restaurant were jammed to the gills.

Things get off to a tepid start with complimentary Spanish olives and almond butter, plus herb-brushed house bread. The olives are delicious but the bread is cold, so it’s hard to spread the butter.

The cold tapas on the Firefly menu have merit, such as boquerones (Spanish white anchovies served on toast with roasted red peppers) and a terrific sausage plate (lomo and chorizo) accompanied by cornichons, capers and mustard. I would have liked the beet salad with goat cheese more had it had less cheese and more beets, and the house gazpacho is overly acidic.

But most of the hot tapas—especially the ones based on seafood, meat or poultry—are excellent, although larger portioned than their Spanish cousins. I’ll always order a plate of Padron peppers (mild, salty and pungent) every time I come here. You eat every part except the stems.

The ham-and-cheese croquettes need more ham, but they are deftly fried and a splatter of pink mayo makes them swooningly rich. One of my favorites here is chorizo clams: two kinds of sausage and clams in the shell in a bath of white wine, garlic and herbs. And even better is merguez, spicy lamb sausage that originated in Morocco. It is long, lean and blackened.

If meatballs are your thing, try albondigas, spiked with cumin. Chicken skewers are ho-hum, without much flavor. Ditto the crispy duck rolls, a deep-fried version that lacks the taste of the bird it is named for.

The entrées—none more than $20, and all huge enough to feed two—are not what the restaurant is pushing, really, but they are among the best things to come out of the kitchen. The paella can’t cut it compared with the one at Julian Serrano, but at half the price it’s more than reasonable, with crunchy rice on the underside and good flavors. There is also an excellent herb-roasted chicken and a tasty rib-eye steak, both served with the terrific house fries.

Naturally there is sangria: red, white or sparkling, spiked with fresh fruit that has been marinating in the wine for three days.

For dessert, try the toothsome chocolate and cherry bread pudding, or the terrific chocolate tres leches cake, which drools milk when sliced.

A little bit of Spain has made a three-point landing in Summerlin.

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