By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Nov 30, 2010 at 9:02 AM

Vesna Madunic has an enduring memory from childhood that guides the Wauwatosa restaurant she owns, Firefly Urban Bar & Grill.

"My mom was an incredible cook," she says. "She never opened a can in our kitchen."

Fresh food prepared with care from scratch is the mantra at Firefly. "We know the public is aware of the dangers of overly processed food," Madunic says. "Even the chicken tenders (on the restaurant's kids' menu) are homemade."

Firefly has recently undergone some fine tuning, the result of Madunic assuming sole ownership. The changes have ranged from a new drink menu to some management and staff realignment. The basic concept and food offerings remain the same.

The daughter of Croatian immigrants, Madunic was majoring in international studies at UWM when she took a part-time job with the high-end catering firm Gracious Events. Her duties varied from cooking to event planning, and she discovered she had an affinity for the work.

"I loved the creative side of the business," she says. Soon her sister, Marija, joined her at Gracious Events, and after being employees for a while they bought the company in 1996 from the original owner.

Eight years later the sisters expanded into the restaurant business, opening Bjonda in an older building that housed an early Ford dealership in the Wauwatosa Village. The site had been occupied by the Cajun restaurant Jolly's on Harwood before the siblings moved in.

Gorgeously designed to be both plush and sleek, the new eatery was aggressively upscale. "We wanted to bring a level of style to Wauwatosa that people would enjoy," Madunic says. Being a restaurateur complements the seasonal nature of the catering business, she adds.

The restaurant's name, Bjonda, meant blond in Croatian. "My sister and I are blonde-ish," Madunic says with a smile." The word also describes a dominant color in the interior design.

Bjonda regularly served three and five course gourmet dinners, often at an eight seat chef's table in a small private room. The restaurant once provided a 14-course meal to a group.

But economic times changed, and in 2007 the sisters shifted gears, lowering menu prices, becoming more family friendly, and adding attractions such as a deejay who appears in the Skylight lounge at 10 on Friday and Saturday nights. Bjonda became Firefly Urban Bar & Grill.

The restaurant's visually interesting interior design remained essentially the same. That features the stunning 75-seat lounge with a skylight above the bar, a smaller private lounge with a fireplace and skylight, the private room that had contained Bjonda's chef's table, and two dining rooms that flank Firefly's entrance.

Value themed specials were added, including a free child's dinner Monday through Wednesday with the purchase of an adult dinner, an all-you-can-eat fish fry on Friday ($13.95), and several different pizza, martini and beer bucket deals. The Wisconsin Beer Bucket ($19) consists of a half-dozen craft beers from state brewers Lakefront, Capital, Point, New Glarus and Furthermore.

"The changeover from Bjonda to Firefly allowed our customers to approach our menu and their experience here in different ways," Madunic says. "That includes a lower price point."

Appetizers begin at $6.25 with hand cut double-fried garlic french fries served with a parmesan aioli, and they top out at $12.95 for a lamb sausage beer crust pizza with feta and picked onions or avocado asparagus sashimi tuna offered with an aji lime sauce and dark soy sauce drizzled over the plate. Hummus, nachos, calamari, fondue, chicken lettuce wraps, Buffalo chicken wings and two other pizzas are also on the appetizer menu.

The Firefly is known for its crunch salad of bok choy, baby spinach, wasabi peas and chili buttermilk dressing, priced at $8.95 for a full order and $4.95 for half. Chicken or shrimp can be added for $4.25. Other salads include a blackened duck ($14.95) and a chevre-poached pear-walnut ($12.95).

Nine sandwiches run the gamut from a double cheddar -- sharp white and yellow -- cheeseburger ($9.95) and tilapia po' boy ($9.95) to a grilled vegetable panini ($10.95). All sandwiches come with a choice of soup, salad or fries.

Everyday entrees start at $15.95 for dijon Amish chicken or grilled chicken pasta pesto. Bacon wrapped tenderloin with sauteed spinach, ancho chili onions, garlic mashed potatoes and crumbled gorgonzola is the most expensive item on the menu at $23.95.

Two of the more intriguing entrees are buffalo shrimp blue cheese linguini, which has a spicy kick ($16.95), and beef short ribs with peppercorn mac and cheese ($18.95). Portions are Wisconsin-sized.

Table side s'mores, featuring graham cracker/chocolate shortbread and marshmallows, head up the dessert list. They are priced at $4.95 for two persons or $6.95 for four.

"We're in a good place right now," Madunic says about the challenges restaurants are facing in the current economy. "We weren't about to give up. You can't let the hiccups get you down."

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.