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Chorney-Booth: Gwailo brings a new “Hong Kong-adjacent” spin to a familiar space

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Sometimes a change to a restaurant space is drastic. New owners will come in and tear out walls, install new kitchens and completely transform a restaurant, almost as if they’re trying to erase all memory of the food enjoyed there prior to their arrival. In other cases, as with the new Gwailo in Inglewood, the switch from the previous restaurant, Gorilla Whale, has been much more nuanced.

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Customers would be excused for being confused as they walk into Gwailo since it still looks a lot like Gorilla Whale. The layout is the same and while the old Japanese rock posters have been switched out for quirky Asian-themed panels, the vibe is quite similar. Peek in the kitchen and you’ll see ex-Gorilla Whale executive chef Chris Wong cooking, and former operations manager Jason Wankel will probably be roaming the dining room. But despite a somewhat blurred transition, Gwailo is indeed a new restaurant.

The interior of Gwailo, formerly Gorilla Whale, in Calgary.  Azin Ghaffari/Post Media
The interior of Gwailo, formerly Gorilla Whale, in Calgary. Azin Ghaffari/Post Media Photo by Azin Ghaffari /Azin Ghaffari/Post Media

In January, Gorilla Whale management posted on social media that the restaurant would be closed for a spell, eventually announcing a permanent closure due to “financial pressures exacerbated by the pandemic.” Wong and Wankel weren’t ready to see what they’d built evaporate, so the pair decided to become their own bosses and are now co-owners of Gwailo, keeping all of the things that worked well, tweaking those that didn’t, and changing the food concept to better speak to Wong’s journey as a chef.

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“When we were designing the space, we really didn’t want to fall into the trap where every westernized Chinese restaurant looks the same,” Wankel says. “We wanted to add some spice and a little bit of funk and some interesting artwork and have it be a little more unique.”

Jason Wankel, Gwailo operations manager and co-owner, left, and Chris Wong, chef and co-owner at Gwailo.  Azin Ghaffari/Post Media
Jason Wankel, Gwailo operations manager and co-owner, left, and Chris Wong, chef and co-owner at Gwailo. Azin Ghaffari/Post Media Photo by Azin Ghaffari /Azin Ghaffari/Post Media

Wong was born in Hong Kong and raised in Canada, so while the previous restaurant featured plays on Japanese food, Gwailo’s menu draws on what he calls “Hong Kong-adjacent” dishes. The restaurant’s name is meant to be tongue-in-cheek — “gwailo” is a Chinese term that roughly means “foreigner,” and as a Chinese-Canadian, Wong says it reflects how he felt when he did a four-year stint working in Hong Kong. His new menu reflects some of the fun that customers may remember from Gorilla Whale but with a little more gravitas — there are still plenty of bites for sharing and some decidedly modern takes on the classics, but Wong also pays homage to traditional Hong Kong cuisine.

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“The best time I had was cooking some really modern interpretations of Chinese and Asian-influenced food in Hong Kong,” Wong says. “This food definitely speaks to me because it’s what I grew up eating. Westernized Chinese food hasn’t really changed in 30 years — why hasn’t anyone taken a shot at doing something different? That’s how this idea came about.”

Menu highlights include a solid lineup of appetizers, with garlic-infused tempura confit mushrooms ($16), “naked” soft shell crab Rangoon in a sweet and sour sauce ($22) and charcoal-grilled shao kao sticks threaded with halloumi cheese ($9) , lamb rump ($10), and other proteins, plus mains like a dan dan noodle bolognese ($21), steak fried rice with Mongolian beef and a fried egg ($21), and sticky Cantonese BBQ spareribs ($25). There are also some larger format family-style share plates like a half crispy chicken dinner ($65) and a kid’s menu. It’s all very approachable and full of flavor — Wong’s obvious love of this style of food shines with every dish.

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Naked crab rangoon, left, Dan Dan bolognese, right, cucumber salad in the back, with a guava drink and oolong sour at Gwailo.  Azin Ghaffari/Post Media
Naked crab rangoon, left, Dan Dan bolognese, right, cucumber salad in the back, with a guava drink and oolong sour at Gwailo. Azin Ghaffari/Post Media Photo by Azin Ghaffari /Azin Ghaffari/Post Media

Wankel is a fan of interesting wines, which make up a good portion of the drink list, along with some nice cocktails and beers. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner Tuesdays through Sundays and also offers a weekend brunch featuring some regular menu items as well as a selection of Chinese-inspired bennies.

Gwailo is located at 1214 9th Ave. SE and can be reached at 403-226-9883 or gwailo.ca.

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In other food news, the Taste of Waterton festival is returning to Southern Alberta from May 26 through 30. Once again, the popular food festival will feature a foot cruise with the Waterton Shoreline Cruise Co. as well as two chef dinners and plenty of opportunities to explore Waterton’s various restaurants. For a full list of activities or to book one of the events, visit mywaterton.ca.

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And new on the Calgary food scene, local fashion stylist Leah Van Loon has spent much of the pandemic making and posting videos of beautiful craft molded jellies on her Instagram account and this month she’s turned her hobby into a business with the official launch of Jelly Lab Every week, Van Loon releases a limited number of featured gelatin desserts set in vintage gelatin moulds. The feature gets released each Monday and customers can book their jellies on Instagram via her de ella @jellylab_yyc account. The wobbly jellies are fancy enough for special occasions but Van Loon also takes pains to use unique flavours, making them taste as good as they look.

Elizabeth Chorney-Booth can be reached at elizabooth@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @elizaboothy or Instagram at @elizabooth

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