After losing out on a Dundas West space for his new Asian brasserie, former Niagara Street Cafe chef Nick Liu is going the pop-up resto route to test out his menu.
Although it’s been more than a month since chef Nick Liu has left his job at Niagara Street Café, he was back there last night to host a preview dinner for his upcoming Asian brasserie Gwai Lo after the space he and co-owner Christina Kuypers put a offer on recently fell through.
“We have our staff, we really have everything. Right now it’s just finding a home,” says Liu, whose wife Trista Sheen can currently be seen on the second season of Top Chef Canada. “We’re looking for a turn-key operation and hopefully it’ll be two months before we open. I’m also doing some work for The Stop right now and doing pop-up parties to introduce people to our food.”
After losing out on their small space on Dundas West, the Gwai Lo staff took over the second floor of Niagara Street Café Tuesday night to host a sneak-peak dinner.
Instead of bread the restaurant will serve youtiao, Chinese fried dough with a congee (rice porridge) dipping sauce.
The six-course meal started with a crispy tofu in a miso broth followed by a starter of “eggnet salad” consisting of green papaya, mung beans, pomelo, mint, pecans, lime leaf and a carmelized coconut dressing blanketed by a delicate webbing of egg. Meat dishes included a pork-hock terrine served two ways (one of which was garnished with jelly fish), a show-stopping crispy whole fried trout, as well as roasted pork loin with a spicy broth poured from teapots. For dessert: a tapioca pudding with a tart sea buckthorn sorbet, a savoury almond brittle made from Peking duck skin and every Chinese kid’s favourite nostalgic snack: Kong Guan egg roll cookies.
Liu and Kuypers, who previously worked at Splendido and The Black Hoof and will now be running Gwai Lo’s front of house, met while she was working at The Drake Hotel and he was a diner.
“We hit it off and chatted about what type of restaurant we wanted to open and it turned out we wanted the same thing: modern Asian cuisine with a modern Asian cocktail menu,” says Liu. “We put everything on paper and had it all planned. This was about a year ago.”
As for the state of Chinese food in Toronto, Liu says he’s underwhelmed with what the downtown core has to offer.
“I’m disappointed, especially in Chinatown with how things deteriorated,” says Liu. “I’m from Markham and I get amazing different kinds of Chinese food there. It came to a point where I don’t even eat Chinese food downtown anymore. The Asian dishes that I was doing at Niagara Street Café were some of the most talked-about dishes, so I wanted to go with that.”
As for the name of the restaurant—the white elephant, if you will—Liu says it’s a light-hearted reference to his Canadian-Chinese upbringing as well as style of cooking. “My food isn’t Chinese. It’s a mixture of cultures and my French technique, so that makes it gwai lo,” he says.
For those wondering, gwai lo literally translates to “ghost man” in Cantonese and is a reference to the skin colour of people of the Caucasian persuasion. The word was originally used as a pejorative to describe foreigners but, in some circles, the term is now being reclaimed by younger generations. The Canadian-raised Liu adds he’s been called a gwai lo all his life, though if we’re pulling at straws, a more accurate slang word to describe a person of Chinese descent who grew up in a western environment would be “jook sing.”
“People who know me know my sense of humour,” he says. “So far, we had a lot of good responses and people see the humour in it.”
Names aside, the food was well received and diners are eagerly waiting for Liu and co. to find a space. Those who weren’t at the tasting dinner can try Liu’s cooking on March 26 at The Drake Hotel, where he’ll be serving the crispy pork hock as part of a launch dinner for Food Network host Bob Blumer’s new show, World’s Weirdest Restaurants.