Full disclosure: Nick Liu and Anton Potvin are friends of GFR..
Toronto foodists have waited a long time for chef Nick Liu to open DaiLo. For years it seemed that his new Asian cuisine restaurant, which was to be called “Gwailo” was doomed. Months went by as he struggled through problems with a lease and did his best to keep a team together cooking at pop-ups, fundraisers and events at other restaurants. Then, in the last few months Nick’s fortunes changed. At the very moment he figured he’d have to give up and try a jog in someone else’s kitchen, Nick met Jen Grant and David Dattel, a couple who were interested in opening an Asian-themed fine dining restaurant just as his former front of the house man and top sommelier Anton Potvin found himself unemployed and at loose ends.
Nick, of course, made his name as one of the city’s top chef at The Niagara Street Café, which Anton owned and managed during its brief but legendary tenure as one of the city’s top restaurants, and a favourite hangout among the induestry. Joining them is celebrated mixologist and restaurant veteran Shane Mulvany, and a crew of seasoned vets. DaiLo means “big brother” or sometimes “big boss”, and the restaurant is in the old Elipsis/Xacutti/Grace space on College between Markham and Palmerston. Upstairs is LoPan (see Big Trouble in Little China), which will be the centre of their cocktail program and serve dim sum until 2AM. Downstairs is divided into a dining room area with booths and tables that can be reserved. For walk-ins only is a large bar area, that was once a courtyard, now enclosed and crowned by a big sky light. The interior design is by Solid Design and Build, and is appropriately elegant and playful. DaiLo promises, in other words, the synthesis of a dream team in a sweet spot.
Oh! Wait, there’s also food… While Toronto has no shortage of Asian restaurants, and restaurants doing Asian(y) things, there are very few cooking at Liu’s level. Early in the preview meal we are served a simple green papaya salad, garnished with a delicate latice of egg. Complex, but harmonious, no taste (sour, hot, sweet, bitter, salty, umami) was absent, yet all the flavours from the dressing and other ingredients were there and accounted for. And the textures: in the great crunch of the salad set off by the softness of the egg, or in a dish with octopus a crispy coated tentacle yet with flesh inside as soft and as sweet as a sweetbread. It’s not a secret that the man can cook, but it’s still a bit of a revelation to see and taste these new dishes like Sweet and Sour Pork Hock, or a new take on his signature Whole Fried Trout, because they work in a way that’s both classically composed and restrained where others would be excessive but also a lot fun. This is still food that will be dug into and enthusiast loudly about.
For all the success and praise Liu and Potvin have collected over the years, there were both visibly nervous at the media preview dinner, despite having had two previous friends and family run-throughs earlier. I don’t think it was the crowd; we were mostly there as friends, eager to support the new restaurant and excited to part of what guess will be culinary history being made. (There were no appropriately restaurant “critics” per se, at any rate.) It occurred to me in my taxi home, foggy-headed as I may have been from Mulvaney’s cocktails and Anton’s crisp white wines, that expectations are high for DaiLo, and so are the stakes for both men who very dearly want to live up to them. I don’t think for a second that they have to worry – I am very confident that DaiLo will be the “it” restaurant right into TIFF and through to the holiday season and if I owned a bar on College street I would anticipate bigger sales from all the people who will be hanging around waiting for a table. But it’s endearing that they do worry, and probably in the end why dining at their restaurants is so much fun. I’d recommend GFR readers go check it out as soon as they can, but they were going to do that anyway.