Fantastic Voyeur

I take a surreptitious interest in watching my dinner guests eat, if for no other reason than the fact that I enjoy people who also love food. So I can understand why, at Hallandale's two-month-old Club Dynasty, the multitude of cooks (master chef O.A. Chu and his thirteen assistants) deserted the kitchen for the dining room to gaze at us while we feasted on their expert preparations. I can also appreciate (in theory, anyway) the legion of unblinking attendants stationed around our table like bodyguards. Superfine service is emphasized here -- every time we reached for a serving dish, the soldiers in this polite but poorly orchestrated army leaped forward, colliding with each other, and beat us to it. Water glasses were refilled so conscientiously that we were surprised no one held them to our lips for us. Any table conversation held a above a whisper was an invitation for blatant eavesdropping and, in some cases, interruption (our initial discussion about what to order, for instance, during which several different servers felt compelled to make suggestions).

In South Florida, where diners can practically faint with hunger before their orders are taken, it may seem frivolous to complain about hovering service. And the acute attention did have its advantages -- a square table for four was instantly transformed into a round table for five to suit our party; requests for chopsticks and refills of the free appetizers (Chinese pickles and roasted peanuts) were instantly granted. Moreover, the truly fine fare rendered any complaints academic.

Chef Chu, whose credits include stints at B.C. Chong, Tony Chan's Water Club, and Westchester's Tropical Restaurant, prepares authentic Cantonese and Taiwanese gourmet cuisine. (Dubbed "Southern" on the menu, Chu chose this regional fare for its subtropical compatibility with Florida's indigenous fresh seafood and vegetables.) Part owner Alan Krinsky, who also operated the restaurant's former incarnation Lux (reviewed by New Times six months ago), had always intended to team up with good friend Chu and his business partner Dick Lee, but couldn't close the deal in time for last year's opening. Now Chu, two-time winner of the American Culinary Federation's "Chef of the Year" award, fulfills Krinsky's vision -- and his own -- by taking Club Dynasty to the pinnacle of upscale Asian dining.

We began our meal with an appetizer of paper-wrapped chicken, which had been marinated in chopped ginger and scallions, then wrapped with black mushrooms in sticky rice sheets and fried crisp. -- tangy-sweet hoisin sauce was spooned on top of the crunchy morsels by the waiter, who was then faced with a serving dilemma: four pieces of chicken for five customers (we split one). His bewilderment increased with the arrival of the prawn franaais, a single jumbo shrimp sliced down the middle and stuffed with a creamy combination of minced seafood, chicken, and vegetables. Breaded and baked to a light bronze, the shrimp was delicious, despite the fact that it was not a starter that was meant to be shared.

Soups, on the other hand, which range in price from seven to thirteen dollars, were ideal for a group. We sampled the four-treasures soup, comprising shredded dried scallops, shrimp, chicken, and pork in a thick broth. Reminiscent of hot-and-sour soup (which is not on the menu, nor is won ton or egg-drop), this tasty concoction easily divided into three bowlsful. And emerald shark-fin soup, whose price varies according to the number of servings, was ordered for one but provided our entire party with a good-size taste. Appropriately gelatinous, the spinach-green base supported tiny bits of chicken and equally small shreds of shark fin. We weren't impressed with this too-bland version of the expensive delicacy, though a dash of table salt emphasized the slightly smoky flavor of the soup, and improved it.

Another exotic dish, duck feet with whole black winter mushrooms in a clay pot, was delicious. Soaked, skinned, and boned, the duck feet, which have a unique, somewhat tough consistency, were cut in half and braised with meaty mushrooms and subtle bok choy, a masterful play of textures -- though one that might not be appreciated by every diner.

Live seafood is held in the fish tanks near the front of the restaurant, allowing customers to choose their own dinners. We trusted the chef to select an appropriate specimen for our entree of spicy sea bass, a deep-fried whole fish in a pleasantly pungent brown sauce. Served on a metal steamer to keep it warm throughout the meal, the sweet-fleshed fish was accented with ginger, scallions, and red pepper; bits of pork added complexity.

"Braised surprise" was a mix of meats and seafood -- duck, chicken, beef, pork, scallops, and shrimp -- in a nicely balanced brown sauce. The biggest surprise was the sea cucumber, a mollusk with the consistency of a cooked gummy bear that was included along with the more staid water chestnuts and bamboo shoots. In contrast to this mixed bag, a platter of golden chicken was both plain and poetic, an outstandingly simple, meat-only dish. Described as "marinated, wind-dried, and oil-showered," the bird, chopped unboned into two-inch pieces, was browned, crisp outside and juicy inside, absorbing the flavor of the oil as it cooked. Dipped into a salt-and-pepper mixture served on the side, the chicken was a table favorite.

Ho fun noodles (more commonly known as chow fun) with black-bean paste and beef, a Hong Kong specialty, were as beautifully managed as the chicken. Slices of beef were seared so briefly they were still rare, soft as the wide, flat and slippery noodles that provided the dish's base. A zesty black-bean sauce was perfect for clinging to the slippery noodles.

More New York than South Florida, Club Dynasty certainly has an odd charm to it, one that appeals to me despite -- or maybe because of -- some entertaining idiosyncrasies. A cocktail waitress from the lounge, clad in a black dress that looked more like a shirt, took our drink orders. A singer armed with a keyboard and a gift for mimicry crooned hits by Elton John and Marvin Gaye. And as an alternative to the open kitchen, video monitors transmitted the frenetic wokking to the dining room floor, the mirrored walls doubling the images on the screens. Still, the combination of reflective, well-lighted Eighties decor, video monitors, and staring waitstaff was ultimately discomfiting.

Fed up with feeling all those eyes on us, we did some staring of our own as we waited outside for the valet to bring our car around -- at a couple who walked in and then walked right out, apparently unimpressed by the lounge-lizard atmosphere that greets diners at the door. Had the valet taken a little longer, we would have stopped them and assured them that Club Dynasty is well worth a closer look.

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