When a florist vacated the space in the historic Mercer Building on 104th Street, Kevin Cam and business partner, Justin Hill, wasted no time in signing the new lease papers.
The long, narrow space with copious amounts of hardwood and brick was exactly what they needed.
"Wouldn't it be cool if…" has been the start of many a modern invention. The fact that a substantial amount of cognac fuelled this New Year's Eve dialogue between Cam and Hill? Well, who are we to pass judgment on the birth of one's inspiration?
The result of that conversation is a 1930s style Shanghai speakeasy inspired by two of Cam and Hill's favourite Canadian restaurants: Dailo in Toronto, and Bao Bei in Vancouver.
Pink neon, Campari cocktails
When you swing wide the door, you are simultaneously hit with the glow of pink neon, heady incense, and the visual glory of a brightly hued peacock-and-flower mural painted by a roaming Spanish tattoo artist.
The impact is deliberate and sets the stage for a bacchanalian affair that will, more than likely, involve a cognac-based cocktail or three, and several plates of Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese dishes created by chef Alexei Boldireff.
Baijiu (pronounced bye-joe) is a Chinese word meaning liquor.
The cocktails, conceived by mixologist Tommy Cheng, have beguiling names like Kowloon Shakedown, Happa/Grappa Flip, and Nipo-Brasileiro beg to be tasted. If you need help in deciding, my recommendation is the Baijiu Milk Punch, a blend of rum, masala cream, soy milk, cinnamon and vanilla syrup. Or, head straight for the Kowloon Blood Alley if you're a fan of mezcal and Campari.
The cocktails are meant to pair with Boldireff's food, rife with ginger, fish sauce, kaffir lime, lemongrass, sesame, Sichuan peppercorns and a host of other Asian aromatics.
'So tender, it defies logic'
Despite the small menu, vegetarians will be satisfied to see many suitable options; carnivores and pescatarians, too, will be contented.
The Sichuan confit chicken is perfectly crispy on the outside, yet so tender, it defies logic.
The spicy stir-fried cabbage and the garlicky Korean Brussels sprouts will make a believer out of the staunchest of brassica detractors, and the beef carpaccio with a yin-yang sauce of sesame and ponzu will inspire you to sing in perfect harmony with your tablemates — or anyone within earshot not deafened by the pumping hip hop music.
Pork and shrimp Lion's Head dumplings shouldn't be missed, nor should the Tom Ka clams bathed in a kaffir lime-infused coconut milk broth.
Boldireff's fried bao ice cream sandwiches deserve special mention; the current bao, filled with a Cap'n Crunch semifreddo, had us reminiscing about sugar-filled childhoods.
His promise of a Cinnamon Toast Crunch variety in the works had us already planning a return visit.
Prepare for lineups. Baijiu will be a hot ticket for quite some time. Walk-ins only.