The Toronto restaurant scene is a very exciting place right now. It's beginning to shake-off its stayed puritan roots and is really embracing the thrilling possibilities that can only happen when multiculturalism begins to mature and evolve.
Over the past 60 years a steady influx of immigrants have come to the G.T.A. introducing residents to their cultures and cuisines. The second and third generation of those immigrants have benefited growing-up with the flavours of their heritage in the home kitchens of their parents and grandparents as well as training in the top western kitchens of the city and beyond. They're now in a position to open restaurants of their own. As they're doing so they're looking to cook the flavours and dishes of their childhoods, but with a modern interpretation based on their restaurant experience and culinary training. The best part is the dining public seems to have reached a point where they're also ready for this confluence. It's a perfect storm.
One of the best examples of this is chef Nick Liu, who recently left Niagara Street Café, to open a modern Asian brasserie called GwaiLo with business partner Christina Kuypers, who is known for making some great cocktails at Splendido, the Black Hoof and the Drake. Both have Asian heritage, but grew-up and trained here. Liu's has been successful utilising flavours from his Chinese heritage and other Asian cultures in his food at Niagara Street Café and has consistently heard great feedback. So when he wanted to bring that to another level, a modern Asian brasserie was a local progression. After having difficulty securing the right space for it, Liu and Kuypers decided to test the menu and introduce their vision to Toronto with a series of pop-up dinners. I was invited to attend the second one held in the upstairs space of Niagara Street Café.
The evening began with Kuyper's Double Happiness cocktail, a beguiling concoction with a base of six-year-old Jim Beam Bourbon and accents of Amaro Montenegro (a mild Italian bitter), pineapple shrub (a sweetened vinegar-based drink) and ginger. Properly boozy and a bit sweet, sour and tangy it possessed some nice warming heat on the finish courtesy of the ginger and a touch of pleasant herbal flavours from the bitters. The combination was beautifully balanced, but the sneaky note of pineapple really shone through and captured my interest. The flavours were also a bit reminiscent of Asian tea so pouring it from a tea pot into Chinese-style mugs was no accident. In fact it was a harbinger of things to come during the six course meal.
For example instead of a traditional bread basket Liu intends to serve the crispy fried bread you often see in rice noodle roll-wrapped crullers at dim sum. The salty complex flavour of toasted nori and smoky-savoury miso broth in the crispy silken tofu starter was a great way to begin the meal. One of the great dishes of the night was the duo of Perth Pork terrines. It expertly played with different textures, an integral part of Asian cuisine, which is often overlooked in a lot of Western food. The crispy sweet and sour terrine provided a ying-yang flavour combination with a crispy, yet tender texture. The sliced terrine's pork fat melded beautifully with an undercurrent of five spice. But what made the dish for me was the touch of acid, tang and the gelatinous crunch of the pickled jellyfish. When introducing the dish, Liu pointed out that given they're overrunning oceans, jellyfish are one of the most sustainable, but underutilised ingredients Liu pointed out .
Their whole, fried Trillium Farms trout, served properly with head, tail and all, was beautifully crisp and perfectly done without any hint of greasiness. That was not a small feat with the small kitchen and the fact that the 60 or so attendees were all served family-style, nearly simultaneously. As impressive as that was the best was saved for the end with a roasted Nagano pork loin. The pork's natural sweetness was contrasted with the slight bitterness of lotus leaves. The dish's finishing touch, pork bone broth served table-side from a kettle, had a beautiful depth of flavour and a bit of spicy heat from flecks of red chili.
Dessert also didn't disappoint. A tapioca pudding base was garnished with the refreshing almost kumquat-like tang of buckhorn berry sorbet, which came from the same farm as the duck that went into the Peking duck almond brittle. In the brittle Liu managed to capture the spice combination and the savoury essence of Beijing's most famous dish without crossing over too far into the savoury spectrum of flavours.
If there's one criticism that I shared with Kuypers and Liu it's that I was expecting a bit more heat especially in the nahm jim dipping sauce of the fish course and Thai-inspired eggnet salad. No matter what their cultural background diners who want to eat the type of food Liu and Kuypers envision have sambal oelek in their pantries, Sichuan peppercorns in their spice rack and bird's eye chills in their fridges. They want the bit of spice and heat that gives Asian food some of its vibrant kick and spark.
Early in the evening they addressed the restaurant's pseudo-contentious name and its “are you a banana or an egg?” branding—if you're confused think carefully about the colours or those two foods. Liu explained he grew-up in Markham and although he can order a great spread of Cantonese fare in it's authentic restaurants and can cook-up a feast of family favourites that's about the extent of his ties to his Chinese heritage. In fact he's been called a gwailo his whole life. The deprecatory term meaning ghost man or foreign devil has ties that stretch back to China's complicated past with Western colonial powers especially the Opium Wars and their aftermath. But over the past twenty years the term has lost much of its bite to the point that even the Canadian Broadcast Council has ruled use of the term in a context like this merely “impolite” rather than derogatory.
Every ethnic minority community has a pejorative term to refer to those of the second and third generation who are culturally more a product of where they were born than their heritage. Although there's a more accurate Cantonese term, Jook-sing, to describe this Kyupers and Liu have colloquially co-opted gwailo and used it as a cheeky way to create a bit of buzz. That's invaluable in the hot Toronto restaurant scene where exciting new restaurants are opening almost daily.
If the preview dinner is any indication Kuypers, who will run the front of the house, will have diners served well. Napkins were folded when attendees left for the washroom, water glasses were topped-up seamlessly without interrupting conversation and servers knew all aspects of the dishes. There won't be a set date for opening until they find the perfect space, so if you want a taste it's best to follow GwaiLo on Twitter for future pop-up dinners. The next one with chef Matt Kantor, Fielding Winery and Muskoka Brewery is on the 22nd. But once they do find that spot it should be a great addition to the Toronto restaurant scene where food lovers can get an exciting and inspired meal and cocktail that's just a little irreverent, but always delicious.
Written by Mike Di Caro
Michael Di Caro covers all things vinous at Spotlight. His lover affair with Ontario wine began over a decade ago and he’s been in front of tasting bars trying to sweet talk staff into pouring a taste of a library wine or the latest unreleased bottle ever since. Since good wine can’t be made without great grapes, you can also catch him amongst the vines trying to persuade the winemaker into revealing his/her next big thing for you on Spotlight. His epicurean tendencies don’t just stop in the glass either. During the rest of his free time you can find him searching for the perfect bowl of Dan Dan noodles, exploring the city’s best tasting menus or baking cookies and mucking about in the kitchen.