Michelin-starred chef Akira Back’s second Toronto restaurant is the perfect elevated eatery for Chinese food connoisseurs and newbies alike. A global ambassador for Asian cuisine, Korean-born Back has followed up his eponymous Bisha Hotel Japanese joint with a tribute to all things Chinese, offering a huge range of dishes inspired by the sprawling diversity of China’s authentic regional cooking with a cheeky nod to Americanized favourites (though the private upstairs karaoke rooms are currently closed, we hear whispers that there might be chicken balls on the menu up there).
The ambiance of DASHA is totally overwhelming, even on a Monday night at 9:30 with social distancing in effect. The large main room sports red neon lights but is somehow still far too dark to see the food clearly. The decor is extravagant with a huge central bar and birdcage-inspired staircase looming over the two-storey dining area. The music is deafening. While, on their own, none of these aforementioned qualities would seem like an endorsement, there’s something purposeful about DASHA’s unapologetic much-ness that strikes me as almost theatrical. It’s an immersive experience, a place as overwhelming as Shanghai itself and also completely at home in its performatively brash King Street West Toronto home. Yet despite the restaurant’s potentially off-putting hipness, it’s actually surprisingly comfortable. Deep booths and social distancing barriers pair with excellent service to set the scene for a meal so good you’ll forget you can barely hear yourself think.
The staff is knowledgeable and friendly, quick with a useful description or recommendation. For a share plate restaurant, portion assessment is key and the staff at DASHA nail the very tricky task of guiding you to the exact right amount of food without up-selling or glutton-shaming. Our waitress was quick with apologies and suggestions when the Peking duck was sold out and knew that we’d need a rice dish to sop up the delicious saucha sauce that accompanies the show-stealing black cod (we went with a vegetable fried rice that offered great textural diversity and a bit more flavour than plain steamed rice without detracting from the sauce). Though the opulently rich cod was the dish I’ll talk about at parties, the perfectly pitched miso eggplant and flavour-packed black pepper tenderloin are also plenty worth writing home about. In comparison, the steamed buns felt a bit commonplace but they also proved a crucial mop in the ever-raging fight against sauce wastage.
What’s perhaps most notable about the all-star menu at DASHA is its accessibility alongside its sophistication. The most basic of western patrons will recognize iconic names like Kung Pao Chicken and spring rolls on the menu but what the restaurant delivers explodes the greasy fast food image that lives in the North American imagination of Chinese food. DASHA can be at once a safe space for the relatively unadventurous eater and heaven for a cultured foodie while insisting that they share every dish. With his Shanghai-Toronto gourmet comfort food experience, Akira Back has wedded a dozen opposing forces to create plate after plate of magic.
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