A native of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, John Wabeck received classic training, from garde-manger to crème brûlée, at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, before launching his professional career at Red Sage and the venerable 1789 in Washington, D.C. After stints at Nora Pouillon’s two eponymous D.C. establishments, Nora and Asia Nora, and after getting rave reviews in the kitchen at New Heights in D.C.’s Woodley Park neighborhood, Wabeck was lured from the pols and pundits of Washington to California wine country, to take the executive chef position at Brix in Yountville.
Although Wabeck wasn’t particularly suited to the California lifestyle (“Everything about me says East Coast,” he admits), his time in Napa Valley was well spent. Wabeck amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of California wine, and even put in three months at Darioush, a 10,000-case boutique winery on Napa’s Silverado Trail. By the time he left Napa to return to the eastern seaboard, Wabeck was more determined than ever to make wine an integral part of whatever restaurant he ran.
In 2001, a retired Washington food critic and fan tipped Wabeck off to chef positions at a pair of dual Kimpton Group-owned lounges — the Zen-inspired Topaz and the sanguine-toned Rouge — where he was hired and developed instantly successful menus incorporating Latin, and Asian and Latin, respectively. “I was an unknown entity,” says Wabeck modestly, but his work didn’t go unappreciated. When the 90-seat Firefly, another Kimpton property, opened in October 2002, Wabeck was given carte blanche to develop the menu. Wabeck now jokingly refers to Firefly and the lounges as “my little kingdom.”
The dining room at Firefly centers around a striking “firefly tree” hung with candlelit lanterns, which exudes a welcoming warmth. “This is a neighborhood place,” explains Wabeck, “where people can get good food and wine every day.” Dupont Circle locals love the bar and lounge area for drop-in dining, although reservations are strongly recommended in the dining room. The restaurant also attracts a global clientele, as it naturally would in cosmopolitan Washington, where it’s a rare night out when one doesn’t hear at least five languages in the dining room.
In recognition of his success, the 35-year-old Wabeck was just awarded a 2003 “Rammy Award” as Rising Culinary Star from the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.
SCOTT PAUL PINOT NOIR CUVEE Martha Pirrie Willamette Valley 2001 ($25)
Chef John Wabeck calls this Oregon Pinot a “perfect match with Firefly’s roasted Atlantic salmon with black-eyed peas, bacon, and red wine vinaigrette.”
The wine list at Firefly, which John Wabeck put together himself, reflects his love of Rhône varietals such as Syrah and Viognier. “But now I think I’m starting to prefer Pinot Noir,” Wabeck warns. Here are some illuminating selections that reflect the excellent choices at Firefly.
EQUUS VIOGNIER CENTRAL COAST 2000 ($16) California’s Wild Horse Winery makes this crisp, tangy Viognier with fresh, juicy peach fruit.
SWANSON VINEYARDS PINOT GRIGIO NAPA VALLEY 2001 ($20) Round and creamy with a firm backbone of acidity and stony, mineral notes.
DELAS FRERES SAINT-JOSEPH CUVEE François de Tournon 1999 ($20) A charming Rhône red — bright and bursting with ripe Syrah fruit.
TRUCHARD VINEYARDS ROUSEEANNE CARNEROS-NAPA VALLEY 2000 ($25) A creamy, complex Rhône-style white with lots of spice.
ROCHIOLI VINEYARDS ESTATE CHARDONNAY RUSSIAN RIVER VALLEY 2000 ($30) This Chard is noted for lovely, sweet fruit firmed up with lively acidity.
FRANCISCAN OAKVILLE ESTATE Chardonnay Cuvée Sauvage Napa Valley 2000 ($35) Fermented with wild yeasts, this wine is spicy, intense, and balanced with sweet new oak.
JIM BARRY SHIRAZ MCRAE WOOD CLARE VALLEY 1999 ($35) Sweet, jammy blackberry fruit and rich density make this an Aussie classic.
ARCHIPEL 68% SONOMA 32% NAPA VALLEY 1999 ($40) An elegant Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet and Merlot with loads of style.
DARIOUSH SHIRAZ NAPA VALLEY 1998 ($52) Spicy, bright, and tangy with fresh plum fruit and good structure.