Sunday, 31 August, 2014

Published May 05, 2014
Adventures in salt and spice
Life Is Beautiful delivers tasty bar bites via the deep South; just don't expect to eat a full meal, says JAIME EE
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Crunch and combust: Moist buttermilk-infused fried chicken has an enjoyable – if overly salty – crunch, and the brave (or foolish) might want to dip it in a devilish side dish of super-spicy chili relish

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Life Is Beautiful Kitchen & Bar

99 Duxton Road

Tel: 9172 2740

Open for dinner only. Tues: 6pm to 12am. Wed-Sat: 6pm to 3am.

YOU know you're old when you step into a restaurant and expect to be - how shall we say - fed. As in, a place where you're greeted by a hostess who shows you to a nice table, with servers who know a little bit about their cuisine and a menu that offers a conventional range of starters, mains and more than one dessert.

Maybe they should put warning signs at new semi-eating places where drinking, music and hard partying hold sway over the food, like "If you don't know your way around a DJ console maybe this isn't your kind of place".

Not that signage is a priority for the owners of Life Is Beautiful - its corner spot in Duxton Road (just before you turn into Duxton Hill) is left deliberately nameless, to draw the curious into its gritty-chic space. Cement screed is the wall covering of choice; red lounge sofas (plus aforementioned DJ console), gleaming steel open kitchen, sturdy wooden tables and chairs complete the transformation of this former KTV lounge. By the way, tell us again why they're chasing KTV lounges out of Duxton and other conservation areas? Because people there drink hard, party hard and speak too much Hokkien?

Nonetheless, an early dinner is necessary for foodie Cinderellas who want a taste of the self-styled New Orleans menu before the Mardi Gras begins. Never mind that you're so early that the chefs in the spacious open kitchen are still fiddling with their smartphones, and they're joined by a bunch of black clad guys milling around looking like the stage crew for Snoop Dogg.

Don't mistake them for serving staff and ask them for a menu or anything as they're likely to ignore you. Instead, there are two very sweet and helpful young ladies dressed in schoolgirl-type outfits who are more than willing to help.

The New Orleans, 'Big Easy' affiliation makes for a nice concept so long as you don't expect to see stalwarts like crawfish etouffee, gumbo, po' boys or grits on the menu. But it does take its spice seriously so expect most dishes to clock high levels of spice and salt - typical for a watering hole that wants you to drink as much as possible.

Your journey into the deep South starts off gently enough with three not-so-fresh oysters ($15) bathed in the aniseed-sweetness of absinthe sorbet - a refreshing glide down the throat. It prepares you - sort of - for the onslaught that follows: juicy deep fried frog's legs ($25) moist and tender under a crisp, salty crust of chilli powder, tempered a little by a bed of sweet apple puree. Beats chicken wings anytime.

Other Louisiana swamp critters are also turned into fodder for the adventurous: such as 'gator & fennel boudin ($28) where crocodile meat (yes it tastes like chicken) is minced and turned into juicy spicy meatballs rather than the more traditional Cajun sausage. The innocent-looking meatballs hide a fierce chilli kick that hits you unawares, just like the pot of what looks like tomato relish served with the buttermilk fried chicken. If you unwittingly take a big spoonful of it, you are likely to self-combust because it's pure chilli torture. But before you do, enjoy the crunch of the moist buttermilk-infused chicken and crackling golden crust ($38), even if it leaves your tongue hanging out from the salt content.

If you're still hankering for more punishment, you could also try the green onion hush puppies with jalapeno mayonnaise ($17), an Indian vadai by any other name except that the chilli is ground into the deep fried dough ball with an armour like crust and a stodgy interior. Cool reprieve can be found in the smoked tomato salad ($21) with tasty grilled corn niblets - but we might have enjoyed it more if not for the waterlogged tomatoes and its acidic regular cherry version.

There is only one dessert choice - daily tarts by Heidi, who could be the resident cross-dressing DJ-cum-home-baker for all we know. She makes decent tarts though, in your choice of lemon or chocolate - simple cookie shells filled with creamy lemon curd or sticky chocolate.

You don't so much as eat a full meal at Life is Beautiful as fill up on bar bites. You wish they could at least offer beignets for dessert, or a well made bowl of grits and gravy, or any of the artery-clogging of staples that are synonymous with Southern hospitality.

But there we go again, showing our age and thinking this is an actual restaurant, which it ain't. Snoop Dogg's crew will attest to that.

Rating: 6.5


10: The ultimate dining experience
9-9.5: Sublime
8-8.5: Excellent
7-7.5: Good to very good
6-6.5: Promising
5-5.5: Average