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Hi-Life Café
3000 North Federal Highway
Fort Lauderdale, Florida
(954) 563-1395

www.hilifecafe.com

Located in Plaza 3000, an attractive cluster of shops just off the bustling Federal Highway, the Hi-Life Café is a cozy two-room storefront that manages to be both funky and romantic at the same time. Here you discover an intimate granite-topped wine and Champagne bar, soft, subdued lighting, a rose adorning each candlelit table, and perfectly complementary piped in jazz. Young and frisky, local celebrity chef Carlos Fernandez holds forth in the kitchen, and his upscale bistro fare fits the ambiance like a glove.

You begin with a down-home amuse-bouche of sorts, an offering of crisp sweet potato fries that proves to be completely irresistible and an auspicious harbinger of the good things yet to come.

And appetizers would never be characterized as standard bistro fare, as Chef Carlos always manages to add a number of noteworthy embellishments that propel his starters far beyond the realm of the ordinary. Consider his greenery, for example... The Belgian endive salad ($8.50) sports individual leaves crowned with bleu cheese, chopped pecans, and tomatoes drizzled with a lively Champagne vinaigrette. But even better, in my opinion, is his artistically presented arugula salad ($7.50). An oblong arrangement of pristinely fresh leaves at the centrum is flanked by two sides of diced tomatoes. The crowning touch, of course, is an outstanding bacon vinaigrette, which proves the perfect foil to the peppery arugula.

Among the regular appetizers, the Southern scallops ($9.25) are something of a sine qua non. Bay scallops and corn en casserole are topped with crushed pecans. This extraordinary triptych is then baked until the corn and bivalves merge into a creamy gestalt perfectly counterpoised by the crunchy pecans. And for those who like it hot, the Cajun kisses ($10.95) - grilled fresh jalapeño peppers stuffed with shrimp and cheese and wrapped in bacon - are something of a must.

Even the normally overworked and overwrought eggplant Parmesan ($7.50) receives a new lease on life here. For starters, the two eggplant medallions are lightly breaded and perfectly sautéed. Set one atop the other, they are garnished with a rich, robust marinara and tiara of melted Black Wheel Parmesan Cheese. So very bistro... and so very, very good.

Among the entrées, treasures of the sea abound... The Hi-Life salmon ($19.95), one of the chef's signature dishes, is first pan seared then finished in the oven and topped with a light but zesty Dijon mustard sauce. It arrives at table on a seabed of sautéed spinach surrounded by tender sections of roasted bliss potatoes. And the crab cakes ($26.95) are equally appealing. Two large panko-crusted balls of rich crabmeat are set on a pillow of green beans and flanked by a delicious white-wild rice combo and mustard-ponzu sauce adorned with artistic squiggles of raspberry. I also highly recommend the Hawaiian butterfish ($24.95). Incredibly moist and meaty, it is sautéed in a cashew-coconut crust and sided with a spicy red curry sauce.

If you enjoy bistro fare with a comfortable and comforting Southern flair, nothing quite tops the chef's incredible "Chicken Fried Chicken" ($16.95) A boneless chicken breast is battered and then flash fried. The result, of course, is an appealingly crusty golden crust that yields to a tender and delightfully juicy core. The accompanying mashed potatoes are positively silky and the cream gravy a revelation. Not to be missed.

And the very same may be said for the impossible-to-resist braised short ribs served up in a heady red zinfandel reduction ($24.95) and the pork osso bucco ($26.95). The Hi-Life also served up a 10-ounce New York strip steak ($24.95) and an 8-ounce filet mignon ($28.95) paired with the diner's choice of au poivre, Dutch Dijon cream, or sun-dried tomato-shiitake mushroom steak sauces.

Desserts ($6.00), all made in-house, are down-home and delicious. The Key lime pie is benchmark, the best I've ever tasted, and co/proprietor Chuck Smith's mother's recipe for orange-coconut pie is outrageously good.

The Hi-Life Café also boasts an exceptional wine list, a recipient of the Wine Spectator's Award of Excellence, to complement you evening at table.

A totally beguiling dining experience and highly recommended on all counts.

The Artful Diner
January 2007

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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