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516 Danforth Ave.
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GwaiLo Pop-up Restaurant is a premium casual Asian restaurant located by King St W and Spadina Ave in the Entertainment District area of Downtown Toronto.
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Review: GwaiLo pop-up dulls the Senses

By Alan A. Vernon, reviewed on November 29, 2012
 
Pop-ups or supper clubs are meant to reawaken our tired taste buds. Sometimes they are where upstart, wunderkind chefs are discovered before they eventually settle down at some fixed address, i.e real restaurants. In theory, they should be all about gee-whiz excitement, throwing all manner of culinary caution to the wind to delight die-hard foodies with their wild inventiveness and unleashed creativity. Though without the fear of bankruptcy hanging over their heads there might be less to lose for a chef, but critical foodies like myself will nevertheless expect some big deal spectacle and wow to help keep that buzz buzzing.

And a tasting menu is a great way to strut your savoury stuffs, a showcase of your ingenuity in its many forms. So, does chef Nick Liu have what it takes to wow with his GwaiLo Pop-Up? On paper, he certainly looks like he should. The former sous chef at Splendido and exec chef at the Niagara Street Cafe trained at the three Michelin star The Fat Duck in England and at Marque, one of Australia's top rated restaurants. Liu may have a knack for getting into the right places at the right time, yet thankfully, his pop-up will be gone by the time you read this. Having sampled his wares, you just might want to think twice before you smack down $75 for a "seven" course meal at his new location that, we're told, will open sometime in February, just in time for the Chinese New Year. Good timing, cuz after what we dined on, he might need all the luck he can get.

Signature cocktails are said to be one of GwaiLo's big draws thanks to the expertise of Liu's co-founder/manager Christina Kuypers. The expert mixologist is responsible for drinks like The Gov. Dawsonne ($13), a heady concoction of Hendrick's gin, green chartreuse, ginger and cucumber -- and enough jalapeño peppers to burn right through the tissues in the roof of your mouth. I prefer the Scooter with pisco, maraschino, guava, lemon juice, Boker's bitters and lemon, but only because this maraschino is the real deal, free of the Day-Glo carcinogenic FD&C Red #40 colouring. Otherwise it's pretty much just a ho-hum pisco sour.

Alas, pretty forgettable also is the room that GwaiLo decided to pop into, Senses, at the Soho Metropolitan Hotel. Let's just say the best thing about Senses is that it's going to close and be totally re-imagined - even if it is a decade too late. Moving right along, the GwaiLo menu is as interesting as it is familiar. No combinations scream out the kind of originality from the places he's trained at, but perhaps he will awe us with presentation and execution. Well, if the first course is any indication of what is to come, we are in for an evening of culinary yawns.

Smoked trout on a betel leaf with galangal, kaffir lime leaf and cured trout roe is flavourful and somewhat playful, but hey isn't this really yet another stylized version of the all-too-trendy taco? The second course is by far the tastiest and most original: a bison pastrami spring roll with highlights that include a brilliant Chinese mustard aioli and kimchi pickles. Though loaded with grease, the roll is jammed with tightly smoked meat, making it the heartiest portion of the entire meal. Of course tasting menus can at times lean towards starvation-sized portions, but this is ridiculous. By the time the third course rolls around we're checking our phone for take-out on the way home.

Course three turns out to be yet another take on tacos with crispy octopus and jicama for the shell. Insanely crisp octopus, black bean eggplant, iceberg lettuce and sriracha mayo should work well together, but I just can't get over my overly fried cephalopod looking like a fossilized seahorse, which is discreetly nudged to the side. Another crispy piece of Goossen's Farms trout on a banana leaf (Liu loves his leaves) has green curry mayo, soy glaze and an incredible nahm jim that we drink right from the cup. But Nick, the Bamboo was preparing plates like this back in the '90s, when one dish was actually big enough to be considered a meal.

Next up, the main event: a Nagano pork loin in a pork bone broth with daikon noodles and crispy brussels spouts, by far the biggest setback of the evening. The pork looks pink and tender but it's tough and chewy, and the broth is timid and cool. And using this type of radish to emulate noodles sure sounds neat, but uhmmm? did you taste it? We may as well have been served a julienne of raw potatoes because that's exactly what it seemed like. (And at least with the potatoes we would've had some added starch to help fill our grumbling bellies, since there were only a few morsels of meat).

To recap: so far it's been pretty much one colossal letdown. But then something arrives and I can at least see a glimmer of what chef Liu might be capable of. Too bad it's considered a mere "palate cleanser": a stunning ginger consommé with a cube of fennel gelee, goji berry and mint oil. There's that wow factor we've been waiting for. And I don't want to step on one particular mixologist's toes, but try adding some gin to this blend and you might have one pretty fine cocktail. But that temporary moment of genius was quickly supplanted by the last course: an Asian banana split with Thai grilled baby bananas and a six-spice ice cream that must have misplaced all six spices. All I could make out was a sickly smothering of sesame oil, a sesame praline and a Soma chocolate sauce that looked like a naughty child got hold of a bottle of Brown Cow. Okay it was good, but what's so special about a dessert you can get at any one of a hundred other joints?

And therein lies the problem with much of the menu. Nothing is truly original and repetition between courses really only emphasizes laziness. Out of seven courses, trout twice and three done crispy? Really! At $75, a seven-course meal might sound like a bargain, but it's really only five: the first is an amuse, and the sixth that stellar palate cleanser, making this one of the most incredibly overpriced repasts in recent memory, especially considering the calibre of cooking.

If Liu mastered any techniques during his internships at places like the The Fat Duck they're certainly not on display here, at least not on the night we dined. Instead of whetting our appetites with a sample of what's to come from chef Liu in the New Year, instead GwaiLo only demonstrates to me that chef isn't as exceptional as one might have imagined considering his impressive pedigree. I'm also not too sure why he would name his restaurant after a derogatory Cantonese term to describe Westerners, but let's hope that between now and then chef retires some of these tired tastes before this "foreign devil" pays him another visit.
Reviews are meant to describe a dining out experience at a given period in time and are the personal opinion of the writer.
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