If I had the sort of bankroll that allows people to commission video-art installations, I’d get a time lapse of a meal I ate at DaiLo recently: a window table in darkening evening, a blur of wine glasses and nunchuck-fast chopsticks, a fast-forward orgy of intemperance, of compulsion, of crunchy and savoury, juicy and funky, of mind-melting deliciousness framed tight from directly above.
There would be hunks of smoked trout bundled with satay sauce into betel leaves. There’d be crisp-fried octopus with braised pork, wrapped in rounds of jicama that crunched like fall apples.
There’d be pomelo salad, jellyfish coleslaw, Hakka-style wontons, the sweet and sour pork hock recipe the chef learned from his grandfather. The shot would linger an extra second over the cheeky Chinese steamed buns that the restaurant aptly calls “Big Mac bao.”
You’d see sweet-hot steam from Singapore chili crab, messy fingers, a sensational plate of fried rice buried under truffle shavings. Clouds of whipped cream would breeze through in the final seconds, flushed to Szechuan pink.
That video would be a trophy. It would also be historical proof for disbelievers. This is how incredible the eating could get in Toronto, early in the fall of 2014.
DaiLo isn’t perfect. I had a second meal there that was less memorable. But, at its best, the new-Asian spot on College Street, run by the chef Nick Liu and front of house veteran Anton Potvin, is an extraordinary place.
Mr. Liu’s mother is Chinese from South Africa; his father Calcutta-Chinese. Yet their son, born soon after their arrival in Canada, learned to identify first as a French chef. He spent nine years cooking at Scaramouche, three as a stagiaire in Europe and Australia, two at Splendido and four as executive chef at Mr. Potvin’s Niagara Street Café, which closed at the end of 2012.
His reinvention since then as a chef focused on Asian flavours has been public, minutely chronicled on social media. It has been painful at times. Mr. Liu threw high-profile pop-up dinners, joined and split with business partners and gave every indication that he was about to commit his concept, then called GwaiLo, to a permanent address. He couldn’t deliver. One city food writer labelled Mr. Liu “The boy who cried restaurant.” It looked like the label might stick.
About a year ago, a couple of enlightened investors reached out to him, hoping to build a new restaurant. Mr. Liu called Mr. Potvin, who had just left his post as sommelier and general manager at The Chase.
The room, which opened in early August, is warm and elegant, the service intelligent. They bring hot towels when you arrive. The décor is sophisticated, never over-the-top. The rough plaster walls are hand-painted with chinoiserie-style landscapes. There are brass-plated filigree screens between the banquettes, and painted red dragon motifs on the hanging lights.
Dai lo means both “big brother” and “gangster boss” in Cantonese. The room nails the swanky, prewar Hong Kong gangster bar look.
Yet, Mr. Liu’s cooking is the star. That smoked trout is a terrific beginning: fresh and moist, with a glimmer of smoke and a daub of peanut sauce and umami crunch from fried shallots. The betel leaf is emerald green and shiny; you fold it up around the fish. It tastes of grass, bright chlorophyll. Betel leaves are chewed along with betel nuts as a stimulant in much of Asia. I swear I felt a buzz.
The fried watermelon is mind-altering for different reasons. It’s red, sweet watermelon, but rolled in garlic and chili sambal and sealed into a crunchy, fried corn-starch shell. It’s blazing on the outside, cold in the middle, deliciously disorienting. You eat it with pickled watermelon rind and tufts of “pork floss,” the soy-braised and dried pulled pork.
There’s pork in the pomelo salad, also: ground and fried hard so its fat and juices commingle with the citrus fruit and green papaya, with the crunch of almond crumble and the sweetness of coconut and caramel dressing. It hits nearly every flavour: salty, sweet, sour, savoury, the full range of bitter. It’s covered with a lacy, beaten-egg net. (The recipe comes from the celebrated Longrain, in Sydney, where Mr. Liu cooked for four months.)
Mr. Liu’s sweet and sour pork comes from closer to home, from his late grandfather Kemp Sing Key. The cubes are soft inside, crisp on their outsides – Mr. Liu works textures like few other chefs in the city.
If you’re with a group, you should also order the whole-fried trout. You should order that and the $40 beef plate, a 90-day dry-aged ribeye from Olliffe’s. The age gives the meat a nutty, blue cheese-like depth and funk; it is controlled rot made into art. The meat is medium rare, sliced, with a thick cap of buttery fat on it, with “Asian chimichurri” and a salad made from raw young bok choi. This is a superlative steak.
And Mr. Liu’s truffled fried rice is the go-to accompaniment. It’s a mix of white, wild and puffed rice, wokked hot and fast with egg and edamame, moistened with homemade XO sauce. It is finished with shaved black truffles. It’s easily the single greatest rice dish in town.
So why 2.5 stars and not 3 or 3.5? Mr. Liu’s kitchen hasn’t settled in yet. The menu’s too long for a two-month-old restaurant; the killer-to-filler ratio some nights is out of whack. On one visit, the glutinous rice ball the kitchen sent out as an amuse bouche was fried too hard; it was dry instead of moist and chewy. This was an odd way to start the evening, defeating the point of glutinous rice balls and amuse bouches. The shu mai weren’t as tasty or finely made as what you can find at a cheap yum cha house in Chinatown.
The “roasted Nagano pork loin,” a play on Korean pork bone soup, was bland and charmless, with little of the texture and sinus-clearing deliciousness of the $7 pork bone soups you get in Koreatown.
Despite all that, I have little doubt the kitchen will become one of the best in the city with time.
Mr. Liu’s kasu cake, a steamed dessert made from rice flour and the residue left over from sake brewing, is a very fine ending. It’s light, almost like angel cake, but rich-tasting, dressed with coconut cream, tart sea buckthorn berries and exotic-smelling threads of julienned lime leaf.
I’d want that on my video also, only you’d barely get to see it. We ate it in roughly the space of a single frame.
No stars: Not recommended.
* Good, but won’t blow a lot of people’s minds.
** Very good, with some standout qualities.
*** Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
**** Extraordinary, memorable, original with near-perfect execution.Report Typo/Error