Chef Gardens: Rooftop to Glass at Firefly

Bartender Brendan Ambrose in the Firefly rooftop herb garden.
Bartender Brendan Ambrose in the Firefly rooftop herb garden.
By Ana Hurler
“Forget farm to table, I’m growing your drinks rooftop to glass.”
This slogan is how lead bartender Brendan Ambrose said he approaches creating and serving cocktails at Firefly since beginning work on its rooftop garden about a year and a half ago.
Ambrose’s signature drinks combine his rooftop harvests with 24 years of bartending experience for an end result that is both classic and fresh.
Cocktails such as the Transformation Cubed, a gimlet with a house-made basil-lime cordial poured over an Aviation sphere, and the Aw Snap!, with Plymouth Gin, Cointreau, sugar snap pea and tarragon cordial, and rosemary-lemon thyme syrup in a Genepy Des Alpes misted glass, exemplify his ability to incorporate the garden into his bar.
The restaurant’s seasonal offerings take a new spin on the classics, while incorporating fresh ingredients from around the region – and the rooftop.
Executive Chef Jammir Gray “is all about bringing classic American comfort food with a little bit of a modern twist using as much fresh and local vegetables as she can from around the region,” Ambrose said.
Although Firefly is adjacent to the Kimpton Hotel Madera in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, Ambrose said its main focus is “taking care of all Washingtonians.” After serving at nightclubs and sports bars for years around DC, Ambrose said he is lucky to now have the opportunity through Kimpton to take on projects such as the rooftop garden.
Today the garden is still in its infant stages, but it has made a great comeback from its previously forgotten state, as Ambrose tells the story:
“I had just started as a bartender and in passing one day I heard someone say, 'You know it’s a shame what happened to the rooftop boxes’ … So in hearing this, I ran up to the rooftop and it was literally just four 6-by-6 foot boxes that were just over-weeded and a mess. I didn’t even think they were growing anything. I would come in everyday about a half-hour or hour early an do as much as I could. Now, a year and a half later, we are really starting to see the fruits of our labor.”
Ambrose said he is currently growing “every herb you can imagine, from chamomile to lavender,” along with watermelon, cantaloupe, tri-colored beans, four different kinds of tomatoes, six different peppers, and Black Indian basil given to him by a guest.
Herbs are the garden’s main focus, but Ambrose hopes Chef Jammir Gray will be able to incorporate more produce in future dishes as the garden continues to grow.
“We are using 80 percent of what we grow on the roof in our cocktails,” he said.
Having this resource has allowed Ambrose to concoct beautiful, seasonal drinks as he adapts his years of experience to the ever-changing craft cocktail scene. One of his recent ideas is a make your own Bloody Mary bar for private events, where guests request the herbs they want and he uses them to create infused vodka.
Another creative idea happening this summer that incorporates both the bar and the outdoors theme is ‘Til the Fireflies Come Out Happy Hour, from 4 p.m. until sunset. Twinkling lights around the tree in the middle of the restaurant signal the emergence of the fireflies and the end of happy hour. During this time patrons can enjoy two more of Ambrose’s creations: the Firefly (vodka, triple sec, lemon juice, house-made dandelion-lemon-lavender simple syrup, and wildflower honey-infused Chai tea) and the Lightning Bug (rum, lemon-thyme-sage tincture, tropical safflower and cornflower blossoms syrup, fresh guava, pineapple, and orange juices, and coconut milk.)
Aw Snap! cocktail photo by Bonnary Lek

“If you don’t constantly think outside the box you are going to be left behind,” he said.
However, the garden is about more than just creating pretty garnishes for cocktails. Everything Ambrose uses has been upcycled – the raised boxes were made from delivery pallets and the soil is mixed with composted food from the restaurant.
“Everything is one big cycle here,” he said. “That’s what makes the end result of making these beautiful cocktails that much more important, and touches on how passionate I am for what I do.”
Ambrose’s passion and expertise shine through not only his craft cocktails, but also the transformation of his garden into a useful utility for Firefly.

“It’s absolutely amazing the bottom line when you really take in everything you’re growing and realize how much you’re putting out on that same product,” he said. “That’s what makes me think, ‘Why doesn’t everyone grow their own stuff?’ It’s not that hard.”
The Aw Snap! cocktail photo above is by Bonnary Lek. Ambrose shares his cocktails and ingredients via his Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/brendanambrose/.

"Chef Gardens" is a new weekly blog series featuring local restaurants with gardens in the greater Washington, DC area.

About the Author:
Ana Hurler, a senior multi-platform journalism major at the University of Maryland, College Park. Ana is interning with us this summer.

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