By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
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By Laine Doss
I'm hard-pressed too to see what all the fuss is about. If anything, Hi-Life's menu and aesthetic is rather dated Fernandez's "signature dish" of seared salmon fillet ($19.95) over wilted spinach with bliss potatoes and a drizzle of mustard sauce seems so quaintly last-decade. It's as if this restaurant exists in a kind of dreamy, warm-and-fuzzy time warp not that one minds terribly. The sweet potato fries served as starter freebees could be hotter and crisper, but they're tasty enough. The grilled jalapeno kisses ooze yummy Monterey Jack and cheddar around their luscious mouthfuls of shrimp, and the bacon they come wrapped in lends a satisfying richness. Of course, bacon makes everything taste better. "Chef Carlos [sic] own version" of vichyssoise ($6.50) is simply the classic cold potato and leek recipe cool, creamy, and refreshing but certainly not his "own," unless he's channeling the great Louis Diat from the grave. This was where, even while I was enjoying my soup thoroughly, I started to get annoyed. There's something amateurish and self-congratulatory about all this: Does Fernandez imagine he invented vichy-ssoise? Or believe he's improved on the master recipe? He didn't, and he hasn't.
I probably shouldn't sound as twitchy as I do, because in the main, Hi-Life serves good food. The mashed potatoes that appear with many entrées were buttery, fluffy, and addictive, and the "signature" salmon was perfectly cooked, the fish almost creamy, although they were out of spinach the night we stopped in and offered chard instead (we opted for asparagus, and the bliss potatoes were missing). An appetizer of eggplant parmesan ($7.50) was excellent too, with a tart, spicy tomato sauce and the right balance of cheesy parmesan bread crumbs on top but let's be frank: It's nothing you couldn't manage at home with about ten minutes of prep work.
As for desserts, somebody's palate must be sugar-proof, because the chess pie ($6), Coca-Cola cake ($6), and Derby pie ($7) were all sickeningly sweet. The kind of sweet that gives you a throbbing headache after three bites. Everybody at our table agreed on this, so it wasn't just me. And that's a shame, because these Deep South classics, derived from Chuck Smith's mother's recipes, are the kinds of desserts I usually adore; you almost never see them in restaurants these days. The coconut chess pie had a lovely, silky, orange-infused custard, but the crust was dense and coarse instead of flaky. Derby pie had too much milk chocolate with too few nuts to cut its (Karo-?) syrupy filling (greatly improved by the freshly whipped cream). Chocolate Coca-Cola cake was soda pop given three-dimensional form, without a whisper of bitter chocolate to balance its cloying flavor. I'm sorry, but ugh.
I'm predicting with some confidence that Chef Carlos is going to get whacked fairly early in the Top Chef season. His brand of comfort food just doesn't evidence enough finesse or imagination to compete with some of those New York whiz kids, whose sensibilities seem a lot more au courant. Which doesn't mean that comfortable old Hi-Life isn't a fine neighborhood café, a popular show likely to run for many future seasons. Even if Carlos doesn't earn the Top Chef gold as they say, all publicity is good publicity.