Stars: 3.5 (out of 4)
Address: 503 College St. 647-341-8882, dailoto.com
Cuisine: Contemporary pan Asian, sharing style
Noise Level: Energetic
Dress Code: Casual
Wheelchair accessible: No
With pan Asian tapas-style restaurants popping up as fast as self-serve frozen yogurt shops in Toronto, I always worry that the next one will be just another unoriginal rendition of the previous. And while that day is bound to come soon, for the time being so many of these Asian fusion restaurants have successfully found their niche in the market, each one with slightly different heritages in their cuisine. From Toronto’s proven players like Lee, Guu, Oddseoul and 416 Snack Bar, all the way to young newcomers like People’s Eatery and Little Sister, each one just seems to be outshining the previous — and DaiLo is certainly no exception.
After accomplishing a series of wildly appreciated pop-up shops under the name GwaiLo, Chef Nick Liu has finally opened a permanent location at College and Bathurst in the former location of Grace.
The remarkable aroma immediately hits you as you walk in the door. The décor is also charming. Birds and flowers are delicately painted on deliberately weathered concrete walls. With intricate small plates and impressive platters flowing out of the kitchen in all directions, we can’t help but check out what everyone else is ordering. Judging by the lively crowd of patrons, you know you’re in for an experience the moment you enter.
Service begins with warm towels and a choice of complimentary still or sparkling water — a pleasant surprise at this casual, mid-priced establishment. The server guides us through the cocktail menu and directs us to the fiery five spice Dark & Stormy and the fresh and bright Manila Galleo, based on our said preferences.
The food menu is laid out in order from small to large dishes, ranging from pork to tofu, deep-fried to steamed, and even raw dishes. We start with the Big Mac bao, our special request from the menu upstairs at LoPan, Liu’s snack bar. While there was a playful mention of it being “our little secret,” there was no real hesitation from our server or the kitchen on accommodating our desire for this special dish made famous by Liu’s GwaiLo pop-up ventures. The Big Mac bao is exactly what it sounds like: a marriage of Chinese dim sum and the McDonald’s classic. A fluffy steamed bun encases tender beef and house-made cheese sauce, placed atop a bed of lettuce, crispy potatoes and Liu’s “special sauce,” his version of the infamous Mac sauce. Though an unlikely pairing, Liu’s extreme attention to detail allows him to accurately capture the nostalgic North American fast food flavours, elevating them with high quality ingredients and an Asian flare. At $6 apiece, this snack does run slightly small, with only enough for two or three bites. Nonetheless, we’d certainly order it again.
Next, we ordered the crispy octopus fresh roll. Slightly deceiving in the name, these bite sized treats were not a roll at all — but none of us seemed to care. The lightly battered, perfectly cooked octopus paired with sweet and spicy red braised pork sat atop a mini jicama ‘taco’ shell. Topped with sambal mayo, the combination of rich flavours married perfectly together on top of the refreshingly crisp, thin-sliced jicama. With only two tacos, and three of us, our server cleverly suggested adding a third — an accommodation that the kitchen was well-equipped to make.
To lighten things up, we ordered the Egg Net Salad — basically a play on a green papaya salad, topped with an elaborate spider web of thinly drizzled, lightly pan-fried scrambled eggs. While the dish looks impressive, Liu’s take on the green papaya salad is really just mediocre. The ground pork, pomelo and almond crumble pair nicely with the papaya; however, the dish is simply missing the sweetness promised by the coconut caramel dressing and could really use a hint of spice. While the Egg Net Salad was a nice accompaniment to our meal, I much prefer the Sashimi Slaw served over on Ossington at Soos, and it’s certainly no comparison for Susur Lee’s Singaporean Slaw.
To round off our selection of “smaller” dishes, we chose to go with the Hakka brown wontons and the fried watermelon, something we haven’t seen before on a Toronto menu. Pulling from his Hakka roots, Liu serves up a mini version of freshly steamed wontons. Filled with a combination of both pork and shrimp, the wontons are perfectly chewy and topped with a wonderful combination of sauces that left us wanting more. Liu’s house XO Sauce — a spicy soy, shrimp paste condiment originating in Hong Kong — is absolutely mouthwatering. Paired with the nuttiness of toasted sesame oil and the crunchy almond crumble, these mini boiled wontons are a dish to remember.
Now for the fried watermelon. You might not imagine this counter-intuitive dish being well-suited for dessert, but it all made sense the moment we took our first bite. Exploding with both juice and flavour, the sweet cube of watermelon is wrapped in a crispy cornstarch batter. Topped with refreshing Thai basil, sweet and sour pickled melon rind and salty dried pork floss, The Fried Watermelon was a definite highlight of the night.
What was once a rare, highly coveted ingredient, truffle has certainly been popping up on more than just a few Toronto menus. So when Liu puts truffle fried rice on the menu, he knows that just about every table is going to be curious enough to order it. Unfortunately, this dish was slightly underwhelming. With a disappointing absence of true truffle flavour and a virtually non-existent fried egg, the rice was tossed with a few lackluster mixed vegetables and topped with three dramatically placed shavings of black truffle. With that said, this dish did have its merits. Liu’s use of wild rice added a lovely crunch, contrasting the fluffy texture of the rest of the dish. Also, alongside the rice came a serving of Liu’s XO sauce, which I would be happy to drink by itself. If only Liu had modified his fried rice by tossing it in the XO sauce during the cooking process, this dish might have been extraordinary.
Almost every sharing-style restaurant has two or three star dishes consistently hauled out from the kitchen. They’re always served on large, fancy platters and are meant for the whole table to share. At DaiLo, Liu serves up a $40 90-day aged rib eye served with an Asian chimichurri and a $30 whole fried Giggie trout. We opted for the trout. Served on a large wooden platter, the trout is expertly filleted and cleverly cut into goujons for sharing before being fried in a delicate, perfectly crispy cornstarch coating. Each goujon is cooked to perfection with a light, flaky inside that’s bursting with the moist, sweet flesh of the trout. The skin beneath the cornstarch coating adds a wonderfully crispy element of texture to the buttery fish. Topped with an almond crumble and accompanied by a sweet and spicy nahm kim, refreshing green curry aioli and savory soy glaze for your choice of dipping, the trout is certainly one of most unique and flavourful whole fried fish’s I’ve ever tasted.
While unquestionably more than satisfied with the filling meal, the succulent sound of Liu’s unique desserts left us longing for something sweet. With choices of Soju poached pear, kasu white sugar cake, Asian banana split and the special of the day (an Asian inspired crème caramel), the banana split won our vote. Sitting on unbelievably accurate house-made five-spice and toasted sesame ice creams, each of the mini bananas had a crispy, glass-like coating of caramelized sugar. Topped with sesame seeds, a spicy dark chocolate drizzle and freshly toasted coconut shavings, Chef Liu has surely raised the bar when it comes to modernizing the banana split.
At three and a half stars, I still feel there’s room for some improvement. While the service was exceptional and each dish was undoubtedly individually delicious, Liu’s repetitive use of flavours, such as the almond crumble and his house XO sauce, leaves me wondering if he has truly pushed his boundaries to the limit. After tasting a plethora of magnificent and complex flavours throughout the meal, I am convinced by Chef Liu’s ability to deliver on inventive flavour. I only hope to continue to see his menu develop beyond its current variety.
In any case, there’s something to be said about a team of delightful servers who are truly as passionate about the food and customer experience as I imagine Liu is himself.