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Restaurant Reviews

The Good Life

Hi-Life Cafe made a better impression on me than it had a right to. Don't get me wrong, the food was quite tasty and well priced, the wait staff friendly, efficient, knowledgeable about the menu. The place is good-looking, too: a small, elegant, and understated dining room with seductively dimmed lighting, billowy dropped-canvas walls in cream and light coffee tones, white linen cloths under glass tabletops, fresh flowers in vases, and dried roses framing sconces on the wall.

All of this would add up to a very nice, if unremarkable, dining experience, save one other factor: owner Chuck Smith, whose endearing Texas charm suffuses the restaurant without smothering it.

Hi-Life is located in an upscale strip mall well-stocked with antique shops, just out of sight of the intersection of Federal Highway and Oakland Park Boulevard. That it has thrived in its five years here is testament to impeccable word of mouth. Into our mouths, almost as soon as we were seated, went hot, crispy sweet-potato fries, a complimentary predinner treat. The cold soups that soon followed were super: a velvety vichyssoise that achieved the proper balance among potato, leek, and cream, and a refreshingly chunky gazpacho rife with coarsely pureed tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and onions.

Appetizers were only slightly less successful. Bay scallops weren't exactly "encrusted" with pecan and cornmeal, as the menu let on, but rather scattered with nuts and crumbled pieces of buttery cornbread. The dish was delicious, actually, but the tiny scallops, though moist and tender, were more or less lost under the savory cornbread cover. Even more overpowered were little tidbits of shrimp and melted cheese that came inside "Cajun kisses," four fresh jalapeño peppers wrapped in bacon. They were perfectly prepared, the bacon crisp and greaseless, the jack cheese oozy, the peppers crunchier than commonly used canned ones. Anyone who loves fiery foods will enjoy this immensely, but those without hardy palates might have trouble getting past the blistering heat.

Hi-Life expanded into the space next door just over a year ago, at which time they added a bar stocked with some 60 well-chosen wines, 20 of them available by the glass. Wine would certainly go well with the "herb-crusted" goat cheese over mixed baby lettuces; the cheese inside the fried, breaded crust was warm and delightful when blended with the field greens and full-bodied balsamic vinaigrette. A half-dozen endive spears, each one holding crumbles of blue cheese, pecans, diced tomato, and a dab of champagne vinaigrette, were more like hors d'oeuvres than a salad, even with the petite pile of greens that centered the plate. No quibble with the clean, assertive flavors, though.

Most waiters can be personable when things are going well, but a sure way to see the surlier side of service is to make special requests. When one of our party inquired whether there was anything on the menu with no garlic, our waiter passed the test, giving a patient and detailed rundown of options, pointing out the items that had no garlic whatsoever, those with just a little, and dishes that should definitely be avoided, doing so without making the person feel like his diet was problematic in any way.

The waiter's recommendation for sure-fire, garlic-free satisfaction turned out to be the highlight of the menu: Granny Smith's chicken. No, the recipe is not from Chuck's grandmother; the stuffing bristles with Granny Smith apples, along with homemade bread crumbs, almonds, and fresh rosemary, around which a breast has been rolled and baked, its crisped skin gorgeously glazed with bourbon sauce. Green beans, baby carrots, and mashed potatoes with just the right amount of milk and seasoning round out the plate and present a clear rationale for prefacing foods like this with the word comfort.

The other entrées, of which there are nine (along with a couple of nightly specials), include three beef selections: filet mignon with Dijon cream; chunks of that same meat in spicy habanero sauce; and steak au poivre, a hearty ten-ounce New York strip in a piquant demi-glace of green peppercorns and brandy. Steamed broccoli and "street corner potatoes" (would it kill you to call them French fries, Chuck?) accompanied the steak, which turned out to be more impressive on the plate than on the palate, imbued as it was with a tough, chewy texture. More the fault of the cut than the cook. As the person at the table who ordered the steak commented, "My meal is delicious, but they could use a new meat purveyor."

"Chicken-fried chicken," a skinless breast pounded, battered, and flash fried, looked mouth-wateringly good going through the dining room, the creamy gravy on top emitting wisps of steam. I didn't witness any grilled 12-ounce veal chop with shiitake-mushroom-and­sun-dried­ tomato sauce passing by, nor half duckling roasted with merlot and port-wine sauce, but I'll bet they're tastily prepared. My confidence in this kitchen crew, headed by partner/chef Carlos Fernandez, lay not in its ability to knock your socks off with colorful culinary wizardry but in the way the crew consistently presented food in fresh and flavorful fashion. This touch was no less deft with seafood; a two-inch wedge of tuna arrived impeccably grilled and bathed in tangy balsamic vinegar­ marinated roasted red peppers. A mix of white and wild rice came on the side, as did sautéed spinach that was marred by way too much lemon -- one of the kitchen's few missteps.

The desserts were delightful, prepared on premises from recipes passed down from Chuck's mother and grandmother. (Will the real Granny Smith please stand up?) One of mom's pies is a thin, custardy orange-coconut that satisfies simply with strong jolts of both sweet and tart. Coca-Cola cake, which sounds as intriguing as it does horrible, is really just a big square of homemade chocolate cake, the cola flavor not really coming through -- just as well, if you ask me. Grandma's stellar Southern derby pie is a light chocolate-pecan pie laced with bourbon, served warm and awash in freshly whipped cream.

We lingered over dessert and coffee for quite some time (this restaurant is conducive to leisurely dining) before getting up to leave, at which point "good nights" were tossed our way like bouquets. Hi-Life's personality is so darn winsome that to dine here for the first time is the culinary equivalent of meeting someone that you just know is going to become your friend.

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Lee Klein

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