Two years can be an eternity in the service industry. Ask chef Nick Liu: that’s how long it took him to find a home for GwaiLo, his long-anticipated “Asian brasserie.” But he’s confident that it will be worth the wait. Not only has he found what he considers to be an ideal location—he’s taken over Grace’s space in Little Italy—he has partnered up with front-of-house maestro Anton Potvin, his former comrade at the now-closed Niagara Street Cafe.
“Nothing could be more perfect,” Liu says. “The stars aligned.”
It’s been a tough road for Liu. He was quick to generate hype for GwaiLo at pop-up dinners (his whole-fried trout, glazed with caramel and soy, was a particular hit), but he encountered a number of snags. In seeking a location, he got caught up in vicious bidding wars, and three potential spots fell through. His original business partner, Christina Kuypers, was forced to move on to other projects. He considered giving up. Then he met David Dattels and Jen Grant, who were looking to become restaurateurs; he credits them with giving him a much-needed morale boost. In October, Potvin left his post as general manager at The Chase, and the four of them teamed up.
“After all those failures, the world just shined down on me,” Liu says. “I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather start a restaurant with.”
Designer Ian Rydberg will decorate the 70-seat restaurant. (He’s responsible for the aesthetic of La Carnita next door, and he’s quickly becoming the go-to guy for new restaurants across the city). The food will be familiar to Liu’s fans: Asian flavours combined with local ingredients and Western cooking techniques. He expects his General Tso’s sweetbreads to appear on the menu, along with his fried trout, his Japanese bolognese and his crispy pork hocks.
Potvin, of course, will handle front-of-house duties and libations, while the other owners will have limited day-to-day roles.
In addition to dinner, Liu is looking to get into dim sum for Sunday brunch. (In the past, he has served lobster har gow and scallop pot stickers). The hope is for GwaiLo to be open by summer.
“It’s going to be a very exciting corner,” Liu says.