China Syndrome: DaiLo is a sexy, thrumming rendition of Toronto’s new wave pan-Asian cuisine
503 College St., 647-341-8882
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Chinese fried rice is one of my basic food groups, along with Nibs at the movies, cherry pie at a diner and, before shovelling the sidewalk, a bowl of steamy Cream of Wheat with a pat of butter. I’ve always thought straight out of a takeout box is best—the waxed paperboard imparts magical taste properties—but I’ve recently been spoiled by the version at DaiLo, the excellent new restaurant on College. Nick Liu, DaiLo’s 38-year-old chef, steams the rice with star anise, ginger and cinnamon, fries it with egg and chili-barbecue tofu, then goes all baller and adds truffle paste, truffle oil and black truffle shavings. It’s sweet and spicy and funky and rich—like Drake on a plate.
There’s a lot riding on that rice. Liu has been promising to open this place since 2012, when he left his job as executive chef at Niagara Street Café. His name for the restaurant was originally GwaiLo—Cantonese slang for foreigner—and before he’d even secured a location he promoted it with pop-up dining events where he served witty takes on sweetbreads (in General Tso sauce) and bolognese (with soba noodles and tataki-style beef). They were refinements of the Hakka dishes he saw his Indian-Chinese and South African–Chinese relatives cook. Liu’s ardent followers called him the next Susur Lee, and GwaiLo became the most hyped non-existent restaurant in the city. But he kept getting outbid by other restaurateurs on prime leases (one of the drawbacks of a thriving food scene). He also split with his wife and, without a steady income, moved back in with his parents in Markham.
While Liu fumbled, a new Asian food scene sprouted up in the city. Unlike the old school fluorescent-bright Chinatown noodle houses and interchangeable sushi counters, the new wave restaurants are run by second- or third-generation kids who grew up in the suburbs and have an effortless grasp of all that’s trendy. Their version of Asian cuisine is inspired by David Chang’s Momofuku restaurants, Vancouver’s Bao Bei and Portland’s Pok Pok. They obsess over street food and don’t fret over the authenticity of recipes—they just cook what they love. At People’s Eatery on Spadina, the menu combines Jewish deli staples with bao and Peking duck (it’s like that ’80s fusion spot Ginsberg and Wong, only good). I’ve waited an hour to get into Pai, a northern Thai, Sriracha-hot spinoff of Jeff and Nuit Regular’s Sukhothai mini-empire. And at Patois, a new Chinese restaurant on Dundas West, Craig Wong, who has Chinese and Jamaican roots, makes an amazing jerk chicken chow mein and an oyster sauce–slathered burger between sweet Chinese pineapple buns—a deliciously fatty feat. Each place is a total scene, usually with a queue out front of guys with neck tattoos and porkpie hats, and packs of women striking Beyoncé poses.
Liu finally found his location when the brunch destination Grace closed earlier this year. It’s one of the most pedigreed buildings on College, previously home to Nanci Giovinazzo’s late-’90s bistro Ellipsis and Brad Moore’s trendy Indian-fusion spot Xacutti. Liu assembled a set of partners: Anton Potvin (his former boss at Niagara Street Café, who runs the front of house) and two of his biggest fans, the financier Dave Dattels and his wife, Jen Grant, who supply the money.
He told me he changed the name to DaiLo because he wanted to signal that he’s grown from what he was doing with his pop-ups. DaiLo is how you address a gangster boss, which doesn’t precisely fit with the restaurant’s vintage teahouse vibe of gold mirrors, intricate screens and hand-painted murals of birds and cherry blossoms. It’s a pretty room and has become a favourite of a middle-aged, well-to-do crowd. The teal leather banquettes stretching the length of one wall encourage couples to snuggle and feed one another (cute until it happens beside you). There’s a skylit bar at the back where you can usually score a seat if the front room is booked. They make Asianified classic cocktails, like a dark and stormy with five-spice-laced Gosling’s rum. There’s a second bar upstairs named LoPan (after the gangster boss in Big Trouble in Little China) that serves more drinks and less food.
DaiLo, like every new restaurant these days, has a sharing menu of “single plates,” “small plates” and “large plates.” In my experience, no two servers ever agree on how much is too much to order, so I usually follow the get-what-sounds-tempting rule, which at DaiLo is pretty much everything. At first blush, his single plates sound like the gimmicky fast-food fusion dishes that colonized menus a couple of years ago. But I won’t say no to his spring rolls filled with Caplansky’s pastrami and horseradish, or his Big Mac bao, in which the steamed bun is stuffed with ground beef, shredded lettuce and a mayo-based special sauce (so good it nearly redeems the original). His are some of the city’s best bar snacks.
Liu’s bigger dishes are much flashier. He deep-fries cubes of watermelon and serves them alongside watermelon rind pickled in scallions, chili and garlic, topping each portion with pork floss—a finely shredded, fluffy jerky that usually shows up in Vietnamese subs. It’s an intensely pleasurable textural mash-up, hot and spicy where you least expect, all married by the whisper-light, soy-tinged pork. He makes exceptionally crispy-tender pork hocks in a sweet-and-sour sauce. I recommend ordering it with the Thai-style salad of shredded green papaya, bean sprouts, pomelo chunks and ground pork, all covered by a gossamer lacework of fried egg. He also makes an excellent rib-eye (a Toronto menu requirement this year), sliced over baby bok choy and drizzled with a gingery chimichurri.
The dish that’s become DaiLo’s signature is a whole trout, which Liu divides and fillets, dredges in cornstarch and deep-fries. The reassembled fish is presented at the table on a wood board along with fried Thai basil, a sprinkle of fried almonds, ginger and garlic, and three dips (green curry aïoli, nam jim and a soy glaze). It’s a spectacular sight, head and all. The farmed trout is deep pink and impressively meaty. The fillets were a little dry, but the fatty cheeks and collar were perfect. If I have one criticism, it involves Liu’s love affair with salt. He roasts his own with Sichuan peppercorns and five-spice, and everything fried on the menu gets a final christening. It left me and my guest, already known to her friends for her salty tongue, parched for hours afterward.
Liu hasn’t yet hired a pastry chef but makes a few desserts himself—easy stuff that can be prepped ahead (like five-spice ice cream and roasted sesame ice cream for a brûléed banana split). There’s a list of custom tea blends, including Spadina, a coconut-ginger-lemon grass black tea served in frilly bone china cups that Liu collects. You should take your time to enjoy it, but the only thing I could think about was the takeout box the server had dropped off. Inside was an order of truffle fried rice.