Toronto is a true cultural mosaic. There used to be streets and neighbourhoods which defined a specific cuisine. Danforth is Greek, Spadina is Chinese and College West is both little Italy and Portugal. Over the years the barriers have crumbled and now there are no boundaries when it comes to a opening a new restaurant. I remember the now defunct Strata 241, which offered all day Italian pastries and pizza/pasta dinners, opening in the heart of Chinatown. Now the tides have turned with Dailo, an Asian snack bar which has graced the border of Little Italy albeit beside La Carnita’s Mexican concept.
We showed up on Friday night with fingers crossed hoping to get a table. There was space at the bar, so we were quickly seated and handed the bar and food menu. We were quickly greeted by a young lady who looked fresh out of college. She enthusiastically explained the menu, adhering to the common how to order off a small plate speech and the importance of balance in Asian cuisine. Drinkwise, we started with a trio of cocktails; the Manila Galleon, Tom Yum Booze and the 5 Spice Dark and Stormy. Watching her make the drinks was like watching a student trying to please her parents by getting an A on a science project. She was meticulous in everything from setting up the glasses to laying out the necessary ingredients. She tasted every drink before delivery and dumped one which was 90% complete while having a mild hissy fit. When they did arrive. we were treated to some of the more innovative cocktails I’ve tried this year. The Tom Yum Booze gets an A, having all the hallmarks of Thai flavours including kaffir lime, lemongrass, ginger syrup and coconut water. It was spiced with chilis resulting in a refreshing drink with a bite. The addition of the five spice and some star anise to a traditional dark n stormy worked wonderfully. Another A. A Manila Galleon was a name for a 16th century ship which hauled goods from Spain to Mexico to Manila and back again. The ingredients, mainly tequila, ginger and lime pay homage to this. In addition, rhubarb was a highly sought commodity by Marco Polo. As for the aperol…I have no idea why that’s in there. Regardless, it’s another smart cocktail which definitely gets a passing grade.
For the food order, we chose a number of dishes but our calculations didn’t compute with our server. She suggested that our choices, although good, were somewhat out of balance and suggested we supplement with another couple of dishes. What was funny is I didn’t see this an any kind of salesmanship whatsoever. I think it was a honest request to ensure we had a meal which had a yin and yang foundation.
In adherence with the small plate code of Toronto “the dishes arrived as they were prepared”. In most cases this means quick but the service was slower than average for most of the night. The first two were the crispy octopus freshroll ($8) and the jellyfish salad ($6). The use of daikon as a taco shell of sorts and the clever combination of pork and octopus in the freshroll was brilliant. The slaw was well seasoned with a good balance of sweet and acid, bursting with asian flavours including sesame.
The next duo of dishes included fried watermelon ($9) and duck tacos ($6). The first (which I think is off the menu now) was a clever dish which used the melon’s sweetness and texture as a foundation along with a crispy batter and finished with asian flavours. It was a great example of sweet meets salty. The filling in the duck tacos was a little scarce so I was only able to get a hint of the flavours which couldn’t keep up with the overwhelming taste of the fried taco shell. It was like eating those free wontons you get when you spend more than $30 at your local Chinese takeout joint.
The third wave consisted of the silken tofu ($11) and the sweet and sour pork hocks ($13). The tofu had a beautiful texture and was nicely complimented with the earthy flavours of seaweed and mushroom. The pork hocks were both crispy and tender and seasoned with the familiar taste of a Chinese sweet and sour sauce laced with garlic. It was a safe dish but enjoyable nonetheless.
The next arrival was the hakka brown dumplings ($9). Flavoured mainly with sesame a bit of heat, the consensus at the table was they were below average. They were sloppy, mushy and lacked any real consistency.
The first of the “bigger” dishes was the truffled fried rice ($19). I love egg and the use of edamame was a smart twist. I was pleased to see the use of fresh black truffle instead of truffle oil and that it didn’t overwhelm the other complex flavours in the dish. It had a spicy kick very similar to that of the dumplings.
The final dish was the Singapore Curry Cauliflower ($16). The purple potatoes were a great marriage for the cauliflower and made for an attractive presentation. Flavourwise, it was a pretty decent curry. We were halfway through it before they realized they forgot the rice and it soon arrived with an apology. Once again, it had the same signature heat of most of the other dishes. I’m a fan of heat and although the flavours of the dishes were diverse, the level and type of heat wasn’t. It just became a bit monotonous after a while.
For dessert we ordered the Kasu White Sugar Cake ($8). More like a rice pudding, it was served with a caramelized sauce and garnished with sea buckthorn. The quick consensus was that we didn’t like it. The barkeep seemed to take it personally and reaffirmed its authenticity and asked what the issues were. The sauce was undercaramelized and just didn’t have a clean and consistent sweetness. The addition of small strands of lime leaf was strange and disjointed. In the end, although they may not have agreed, we weren’t charged for the dessert.
Dailo is the long awaited restaurant from Nick Liu. Even though it took forever to open, it immediately hit the waves of social media, receiving both accolades for a great vibe and criticism for overpriced Asian food. I think it’s a little of both. It’s loud and crowded but it’s fun. I swear I even saw Richmond Station’s Carl Heinrich hanging out at one of the tables. I can summarize this vibe in one word…passionate. Whether it was the hissy fit over an ill-prepared cocktail, a lesson in balancing food or a concession about a dessert we didn’t like, the staff had a swagger and fervor which can’t be taught although in general the speed of service was generally below average . The patrons also added to the zeal. Beside us were a couple who took hundreds of pictures all over the restaurant (including over the shoulder of the chef at times) while taking numerous shots of sake on tap in between.
The prices do push the boundaries of acceptability (eg. six cubes of watermelon for $9). If you’re looking for nothing more than some good Asian inspired eats the pundits are right; there are a million dumpling houses and eateries along Spadina, Dundas or College which can satisfy that craving for half the price. With that, however, you are likely to get service and an environment which is much less exciting. If you want a fun evening with innovative cocktails, decent food and suave clientele and are willing to pay for it, Dailo is a good choice. Plus, if you go you’ll be cool. Remember, the foodie doesn’t make the place..the place makes the foodie.