Once upon a time, I made a fool of myself on national TV. In the early '90s, I appeared as a guest on CNBC's tabloid talk show Real Personal, where I shared my experiences on the subject of "Women Who Do Something Because of Something" (you'll have to bribe a CNBC archivist to find out what the somethings were). Sleazeball Bob Berkowitz was host, the show aired live, and I remember looking at the man's surreally pancake-makeup-layered face about three minutes into the program and realizing I'd made an unaccountably horrific mistake. When the show ended, I bolted from the studio in hysterics.
I agreed to this monstrous proposition because I knew I'd never get another chance to see how it felt to be on a sensationalistic TV talk show fielding live phone calls from Wichita and emoting about why I had somethinged. It was the closest thing I could imagine to jumping from the 45th floor and living to tell the tale.
So I have some sympathy for Fort Lauderdale Chef Carlos Fernandez, who has found himself pressure-cooking on the second season of Bravo's reality show Top Chef (airing Wednesday nights at 10), composing quickie amuse-bouche from peanut butter, corn flakes, and frog legs. Under the circumstances, the man's utter humiliation is guaranteed. The directors are going to identify Carlos' most embarrassing moments and suture them together. His small acts of kindness and intelligence will end up on the cutting-room floor, while every idiotic phrase, every botched sauce, every hideously executed entrée will be painstakingly lighted and framed for the delectation of viewers who experience television as a blood sport.
3000 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale
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Still, it's irresistible, isn't it? He really has been such a royal ass so far, and we're only three shows into the season. Fernandez and his partner, Chuck Smith, have run Hi-Life Café off Oakland Park Boulevard for 11 years now; it's a gay hangout and neighborhood focal point very much like another café to the north, Rhythm in West Palm Beach. Both Rhythm and Hi-Life serve tweaked comfort food; they're the kind of places whose regulars crave the roasted chicken, the mashed potatoes, the chocolate chip cookies, the Coca-Cola cake, and where the "everybody knows your name" (and your dirt) ethos makes customers feel well-loved.
Fernandez is a self-taught chef. It's a fact he makes much of on the Bravo show. He also makes much of the four stars the Sun-Sentinel awarded the restaurant last year, not to mention the Zagat ratings, a Best Of award from this paper, and a recent accolade from the Miami Herald. Fernandez has said he hopes his appearance on Top Chef will provide "some sort of vindication," evidently to prove that you don't need no stinkin' culinary school diploma to be a chef. I doubt if this gossipy, product-forward program is going to provide the kind of recognition Fernandez has in mind this is the foodie equivalent of Road Rules, the focus squarely on the contestants' immaturity, crassness, and egomania; these folks have characters with the consistency of consommé.
My favorite moment came at the end of the first episode, when Fernandez faced a panel of judges handing down the verdict on his frog leg/peanut butter/corn flakes fiasco. Judge Tom Colicchio (formerly executive chef at one of my favorite Manhattan restaurants, Gramercy Tavern), lip visibly curling into a sneer, queries our hero: "Is this a dish you would be proud to serve at your restaurant?"
"It wasn't my crowning achievement," Fernandez responds. "But I didn't think it was crap on a plate."
Cut to Colicchio, whose expression reads: "I beg to differ, Sport."
Nothing, Colicchio muses, "can cover up poor seasoning and poorly conceived dishes. I had a major problem with that dish; in fact, I had a hard time getting it down."
Clearly, there's a yawning chasm between "a hard time getting it down" and four stars from the Sun-Sentinel. So I hied myself over to Hi-Life the other night to find out whether the chasm could be bridged.
You have to judge Hi-Life on its own terms. Its '90s-something neighborhood bistro aesthetic is straight out of California by way of Provence. In a city where the $35 entrée has become the norm, Hi-Life is still laid-back affordable, even post Top Chef-hoopla. There are entrées on this menu that bill for an unheard-of $16.95. Even the fancy osso buco and strip steaks come in under $30, and there's a very reasonable prix fixe menu served early in the evening and all night on Sunday. You could take a first date here and be confident the one you want to impress will find something edible; your bill, even with wine, should come in well under $100, and the atmosphere, while often noisy, is also cheerfully romantic. You might find yourselves, like so many of Hi-Life's regular customers, coming back weekend after weekend for the fun of voyaging around the menu and getting to know one another.
The food is plentiful. It's comfort food unlikely to cause any riots with the exception, maybe, of the super-hot shrimp-stuffed jalapeno kisses ($10.95), an appetizer that might have the occasional customer hopping around frantically fanning her mouth. Fernandez has named foam-spewing surrealist Ferran Adria and French food giantess "Julia Childs" [sic] as his favorite chefs, but except for a frog legs appetizer, I was hard-pressed to identify where, exactly, either had left their influence on dishes like Granny Smith-apple-stuffed chicken, pork osso buco, and crab cakes.
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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.