Sunday, July 26, 2009

What I did on my Summer Vacation

Sometimes a girl just needs a vacation. The time had come for mine. Work was relatively slow, gas prices were relatively low and my favorite vacation spot was available for a two week jaunt. I was off to the beach.Beautiful Florida, land of amazing sunsets and crab sushi.It's also the home to two of our oldest Friends of the Blog, Season Two Top Chef Survivor, Chef Carlos Fernandez and Chuck Smith, long time partners and owners of the Hi Life Cafe. They are certainly two of the best sports when it came to Big Shamu Shenanigans.It was only natural to point the Shamu-mobile east from the Sanibel compound and head for the Hi Life Cafe. I had some serious Top Chef in person chattering to do. But first......I had to get through Gator Alley, otherwise known as I-75. During a wicked, barely can see while driving, rain storm. Happily no flying gators. Finally I made it to Hi Life where Chef Carlos greeted me with a huge grin. Ladies, this man is even more gorgeous in person than TV can do justice.So is his restaurant. Two rooms, one with the bar, just the right size to be manageable but with enough table turning to cover your basic costs. Warm and cozy with fun details gathered from Chuck and Carlos' life together. Sadly I did not get to meet Chuck in person which is too bad because front of house is his baby and it's gorgeous. With our pre-food chatter out of the way, Carlos hustled back to his tiny kitchen to start the night. First a little teaser of Sweet Potato Fries.Crispy on the outside with sweet tender sweet potato flesh inside and just lightly salted. Quickly gone. Next was my soup and salad course.
The salad course I know would have been a favorite if the Java Junkie had been my dining companion.Endive leaves filled with tomatoes, walnuts and blue cheese (Stilton, I think) drizzled with a champagne vinaigrette. Normally I'm not a endive fan but with the creaminess of the blue cheese, the tang of mid summer tomatoes interlaced with the sweet vinaigrette puts the bitterness of the endive in the background of the overall flavors. Plus how can you go wrong with blue cheese? The soup was a creamy Summer Squash, Sweet Potato topped the wonderful blue cheese again, pine nuts, and I think a little chiffonade of spinach. Carlos came out to talk in between courses, OK, we gossiped about all things Top Chef. I have a feeling some former contestants want nothing ever to do again with Top Chef. Carlos is not one of them. He's a fanboy, plain and simple. First we both dug into Top Chef Masters and how much we loved the maturity of the show compared to regular Top Chef. We talked about reliving moments in our lives and how we would do them differently. I had to ask how it felt to live through Season Two's nightmare living space and then see Season Three's luxurious Miami digs. I'm thinking Season Three would have been a much better fit for this chef in so many way. Enough chatter, time for more food.OMG, the clams. Tiny little Manilla or baby clams, steamed in a chorizo studded white wine, basil, garlic broth. Normally this dish would be served on a bed of Capelleni pasta but since I was getting the tasting menu we went sans pasta. The clams were tender and juicy, full of the aromatic slightly spicy broth. I ate the clams, I ate the chorizo......I may have even slurped down the remaining broth like a chaser.
All of which was just a warm up to my favorite course of the night.The Jumbo Lump Crabcake with a Mustard Ponzu Raspberry sauce. Normally when I'm taking food photo shots for the blog, I take at least two or three so if one is blurry or badly lit, hopefully the others will be alright. This is the one and only shot of this dish because I was so anticipating getting my tastebuds on that crab. I related my tale of woe to Carlos, of not being able to find any crab NOT from somewhere outside US coastal waters. He just sort of grinned as he watched me devour that crabcake. No silliness with the numerous fillers lesser chefs pollute good crab with, just crab with enough binding to hold it together for the fry. If the meal had stopped right there, I would have been pig-slopping happy. But there's more.
The Sea Scallop with Citrus Glaze on Asparagus and Sweet Potato Mash. Again, heaven on a plate.
The Beef Two Way, tender beef with a blueberry flavored BBQ sauce, and a 12 hour braised short rib with mashed potatoes. That short rib is amazing. OK, I have to be honest, the BBQ sauce was just a tad too sweet for me and frankly that's more of a function of living in Kansas City and having developed a far ranging repertoire of sauces to sample from. It's still a good sauce.
But wait, there's still more.The Hawaiian Butterfish with Bliss potatoes, grape tomatoes and red curry sauce. The fish is crusted with a cashew and coconut coating. This is one of Carlos's newer dishes. I have a feeling it's going to be one of his permanent dishes because that fish rocks. So moist and juicy and makes a great canvas to the wonderful combination of the curry sauce and the coconut crust. At this point I cried No Mas but really, you can't really stop without dessert.Especially when it's real homemade Key Lime Pie and Orange Coconut Pie. We chattered more while I tried to clean my plate. Post Top Chef, Carlos nabbed some sweet gigs. An advertising campaign with 7-UP and a commercial for Goya, not to mention the upswing in business for the restaurant due to the publicity from his appearance on the show. I think many chefs expect instant success and financial backing to fall into their laps just from being on Top Chef. Little do they realize how hard chefs like Carlos worked prior to Top Chef, running a successful restaurant for over 15 years. It's not just cooking. It's making the hard financial decisions like, do you put a big chunk of money into a generator just in case a hurricane takes down your power? You learn how to do things like repair your own roof post storm so the water will stop leaking into your kitchen. You maintain a good relationship with your neighbors, lending out tools when emergencies suddenly emerge (yes, Carlos can wield a hammer). I'm sure there have been chefs who have made more Real Housewives appearances and think themselves popular but I still think Carlos was one of the smartest and most resourceful chefs Top Chef has had. And yes we talked some dirt but you know I was privileged enough to get to pick Carlos' brain that I would never consider violating the Hi Life Code of Silence. That and I'm coming back for more of those crabcakes.
Thank you so much Carlos and Chuck for an incredible meal, it was well worth the trip. If you are in the Fort Lauderdale, hell, even if you're anywhere in Florida, please make a point of eating at least one meal at the Hi Life Cafe. It's not even close to being Crap On a Plate.


NYD said...

I would find it very difficult to return home after eating what you described.

The picture of the 'Drinking Tanuki'caught my eye I see hin everywhere in Japan.

MakingSpace said...

Good goddess woman you know how to EAT!!!! Must remember to plan all future vacations upon restaurant recs from Big Shamu. Hail!

But what. No flan? Tsk...

moi said...

Thanks for sharing this experience and your rockin' photos! For years, YEARS, I believed the Moi Family Eating Gene existed only within my small band of genetically linked brethren. Obviously, this is not the case. You are one lucky ducky. It will be a long time before I get that butterfish dish out of my head. And we won't even GO THERE on how I feel about Key Lime Pie.

Big Shamu said...

So that is the name of the little guy. I didn't ask while I was there.

MS I was full the next two days. Some hungry gator missed out on a PHAT meal. No flan but pie is just as great.

Moi, the butterfish was incredible but it's that crabcake that made me most happy. AND the clam dish certainly made a former clam avoider into a believer. Carlos is very proud of his Key Lime Pie, explaining that juice from key limes are not green but pale yellow. I didn't care what color it was it was GOOD.

Buzz Kill said...

Great review Shamu. That was a mees of food you had. The endive salad and squash soup really sound good. Was the soup served cold? The crab cake looks good but I'm not crazy about the plating (this from the guy that puts stuff on corningware plates). And I loves me a good key lime pie.

It's interesting that Carlos finished low in season 2 but seems to have gone on to great success after the show (I looked at his website). I guess because he came off as a stand-up guy and really wasn't involved in all of that backstory stuff.

Just curious, did you make arrangements with Carlos before getting there to let him know you were a blogger, get permission to take pics, and actually chat/interview with him? It's excellent that he would do that. And will you email him this write-up to get a reaction? He might even link you to his website.

Thanks for sharing your vacation with us.

Big Shamu said...

Buzz, when we were blogging on our first site, TC2, we connected up with Carlos while blogging Season 2. He and his partner were really smart about having Top Chef viewing parties at the restaurant all the way until the end. They made them theme parties. We would announce the themes on the blog. In the following years, we had Chuck doing some wine posts, Carlos would stop in on some chats and we've always kept in touch. So when I knew I was going to in Florida I emailed them and it was game on.
Carlos is a great guy and a much better chef than his Season Two departure dish.

Dani said...

Sham, you are just the coolest chick I know!

Gorgeous pictures and write up!

Big Shamu said...

Oh man, Dani you should go. It's tasty. Lots of seafood choices.

LaDivaCucina said...

Wow! Great post, Sham, I love our mutual love of food and more importantly, sharing of the food porn photos! YUM! Good job!

Butta-fish? With a name like that, how can it NOT be good?

I'm mad at myself cuz I completely forgot about this restaurant....I recently had to meet hubby's clients up north somewhere and should have picked this place! DOH!

I think we'll have to make a spesh trip up soon one of these weekends...Carlos seems so sweet and very talented!

So glad you had a good time in my fair state.

Aunty Belle said...


Okay, ya had me wif'; the chorizo flavored clam broth, but the crab cake wins it. Fabulous review--and chiule' that is a LOOOOONG drive jes' fer dinner.

BTW, ever think of bein' a food stylist--in case youse thinkin' of a career change.

Anonymous said...

I miss Chuck.. The place is not the same.. Service is poor. Sorry, but for the price, it is not worth it anymore.