"Don't get that," said our Chinese server in a voice that was quiet but firm. "It's really stinky."
My friends and I were well into our meal at Silver Pond Chinese Restaurant in Lauderdale Lakes. We had already ordered a first round and were deciding on main dishes. Adam wanted the three of us to order one of the more unusual listings on the menu: baked preserved fish with pork, chili, and spiced salt. Presented like the macerated innards of dumplings in the form of a pancake, the dish piqued our curiosity. Was "preserved fish" like gravlax, a fast cure in sugar, salt, and booze?
"Really, you'll like something else," he said, pointing to three substitutes on the menu. The conversation continued in rounds. The more he advised, the more Adam said he wanted it. The waiter underestimated us, Adam argued, because we're white.
So we ignored the waiter's warning. He scowled in response, likely aware of what would happen next. He was right, of course, and soon we would find out just how bad "smelly" can be.
There was significantly less friction when we first arrived at Silver Pond. "Is this table OK?" asked our congenial Chinese host, guiding our group to a table suited for people-watching. Awash in pink linen tablecloths, the dining room is framed by assertive maroon wallpaper with a Chinese mural at one end. Fluorescent lights blared. Behind us, a wall of tanks displayed feisty, various-sized lobster and a handful of Dungeness crab. Smaller groups of Chinese families, the only ones using chopsticks, flanked the back of the dining room.
A chef I had recently profiled suggested Silver Pond when I mentioned craving Chinese food. Turns out it was an excellent recommendation. Silver Pond is as close to an authentic Chinese culinary experience as you'll find in South Florida. The menu is an epic of Cantonese dishes, differentiated in this restaurant by mellow spices, savory sauces, more seafood — such as sea cucumber, abalone, and conch — and a smattering of preserved meats and fish. That is, if you order from the green restaurant menu as opposed to the white one, which is an abbreviated list of Chinese takeout's greatest hits.
I eyed the table next to us greedily over an octet of wispy bird's-nest noodles and a plate of kung pao chicken, but my crew wanted to explore.
Instead, Adam suggested we order shark fin soup, the ultimate guilty pleasure. Having followed the recent shark fin ban in federal waters this past fall, I know it's harvested unethically. Adam tried to justify his choice: "They'd eat you if they had a chance."
I didn't agree. But he placed his order, and I couldn't help but try it once the small, $15 bowl arrived as our first course. Served in a glossy, gelatinous broth akin to egg drop soup, shark fin is a tradition served since the Ming Dynasty, an aphrodisiac that allegedly promotes health and slows aging.
"Are the glass noodles shark cartilage?" I asked the waiter, who confirmed. Fine-dining Chinese restaurants serve shark fin as mushroom-like ears in a consommé. Here, the tubes had been feathered apart, lacing the soup with deep, savory flavors. A contrast of textures align the mouth, of silky broth, flaky crab, and cylindrical shark fin.
Our waiter hovered. "Eat faster," he chided as it cooled. It wasn't about the speed we were eating. He thought we did not recognize the delicacy of the dish. We weren't being reverent enough. "We've got ourselves a soup nazi," said my other friend J.J. to our amused table. I hadn't been bossed by a server in a while. Here, it was part of the adventure.
As we slurped our last spoonfuls, there was a flurry of plates: a $22, one-pound, flash-fried lobster smelled savory, garnished with piles of pulverized black bean, garlic, and pork; a $12.50 burbling plate of chicken dressed in black pepper sauce was garnished with greens; and a Hong Kong chicken, expertly butchered, bone-in, its lacquered skin dressed with a near-neon hot and sour sauce. We dove into the lobster first, our favorite of the three, the sweet shellfish, the savory pork, and starchy black beans complemented by scallions and lime.
And then it arrived as a pungent announcement, the $17.95 dish the waiter tried to warn us against ordering: a paddy of preserved pork and fish, swimming in oil on a plate.
Turns out it's nothing like gravlax but rather fish that has been cured in a barrel for what smells like eternity. If you've ever opened a spiky durian fruit, the smell is a malodorous knockout, so much so that international airports feature signs banning the fruit in transit. Our dish bested durian. The table of eight old guys next to us gave us the hairy eyeball as a cloud of fermented fish scent descended over the dining room. "Check, please!" they urged.
It was the first dish I've had that inspired panic by a cloud that smelled of cheese, feet, and urine. It reminded me of a show I'd seen on the Scandinavian delicacy of fermented fish that's eaten only outside. This dish also has no business in a dining room.
The rest of our entrées went to gray scale, dimmed by the smell. "Well, we have to eat it," said Adam, reaching to the far corner of the table where we'd pushed it. He pulled a tiny morsel to tine of his fork. He led the bite to his mouth. We waited for disaster.
"It's not bad," he said reservedly, "but then you get that smell at the finish." I went for a forkful, concerned that I might lose it. It went down fine. But then came the smell, a pungent brume that drifted from my palate and into my nostrils. It was worse than burying your head in the garbage truck on pickup day in the summer.
Within ten minutes of our having gotten our plate, the entire dining room had cleared out.
"We have to get this out of here so we can eat," I conceded. By this time, our table was laughing maniacally, chafed that we'd been defeated by our selection. Despite the smell, it hadn't pummeled our appetites or our enthusiasm for Silver Pond.
We called our waiter over. "You're done?" he asked, shaking his head in disapproval, whisking the offending plate away. A parade of servers peeked over from the kitchen and the dining room, watching the scene, inspecting the other dishes we'd ordered.
After our defeat, we moved to the safe plates, particularly the chicken, one I'd wished had more heat like numbing Sichuan peppercorns. "I liked the sheen of the sauce," said Adam, though we craved more flavorful thigh meat rather than chicken breast pounded into paillards.
We never got around to ordering the Peking duck, the traditional dish that's one of the reasons we had chosen Silver Pond. Despite the smelly mishap, we remained intrigued by the huge menu left to explore. There will be many more next times. I'm ready to go back for lunch.