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"East" on Queen West - a warning for Chowhounds

Last night I had the misfortune of joining my GF and her friend from out of town at "East"... a restaurant right across the street from the City TV building.

I have to say that if it were not for the charming server (and the staff in general) it would rate as one of the most terrible dining experiences I have had in the last 10 years I have lived in Toronto.

I should have noticed when I sat down that although the restaurant was packed there was not one Asian face to be seen bar a hostess and a lone busboy.

The restaurant has a very 90's interior, one that time has not been too kind to. That's the problem with restaurant design that tries to be too "now" as opposed to "classic".

I'm not saying that the space isn't attractive, it just feels as if it has been specifically designed to impress out-of-towners who are no doubt terrified of the more frequently found strip-light and formica of Chinatown. "East" feels like an Asian restaurant forced into the architectural straightjacket of a style bar/lounge/nightclub... which is kind of ironic as (if my memory serves me well) the space used to be a real dive bar before the renovations.

I feel it would be simply too kind to label the food as being bland... as it was bland to the point of being utterly offensive. I am a firm believer in the theory that a skilled kitchen can make a delicious meal from even so-so ingredients if they have an understanding of spices and seasonings. In the case of "East" the food appeared to have dumbed down and sanitized for some of the least adventurous palates in this great country of Canada. My wonderful Mother from Edinburgh, Scotland would have been more than happy with any one of the dishes which we were served... which is by no means a compliment... actually... let's just say that "East" is Asian street food as reimagined by my Mother... with all of the fire, soul and passion taken out of it specifically for the palates of Western bedwetters.

I had to send my grilled baby squid back... as it appeared that said grill had just been switched on and was no where near the temperature that even the amateur cook knows is needed to instantly caramelize the points where the squid touches the bars of the grill. Thankfully our lovely server took them off our bill when I told her they were simply inedible.

Somebody at work had mentioned that it was International "Steak and BJ" day so I thought I would give a cursory nod to such celebrations with the beef in black bean sauce main. Big mistake. On previous occasions (at other establishments) I have reveled in the rich pungency of similar dishes, with a good sauce lifting even the most lackluster meat to a higher plane. If anything, this dish tasted of one thing... dirt cheap beef. One could barely pick out the black bean or garlic. I do have an appreciation of subtle flavourings, but here they were seriously pushing the envelope when it came to lack of flavour of any sort!

I think my GF read me pretty well and offered to pay as she had suggested we go there (as it's her friends favourite place)...

Well, I had 3 Blanche de Chambly beers, and they were good...

I hope I don't sound too whiney... but it really was terrible...

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  1. Would it have helped if I had told you that East is just a gussied up Spring Rolls? Bland, bland, bland. Sorry for your experience!

    1. You're certainly not alone with your experience. The general buzz on here about East has not been good. My only visit was similar, very mediocre-to-poor food, and rushed service. At her last job my wife was dragged there numerous times for lunches with co-workers and never had much good to say, either.

      East was also packed when I was there. And I mean totally packed, with every table full and crowds waiting at the door. It's hard to understand. My guess it has to do with the location and the trendy decor.

      For some reason East (and all its Spring Rolls sister restaurants) has managed to hit a perfect niche that appeals to people who want to eat in a "cool" looking restaurant that serves "exotic" food that really isn't exotic. That a place like East can thrive only steps away from Chinatown really is astounding, and is a testament to style over substance, I guess.

      That's just my opinion.

      1. I think "safe" is the keyword here. On my first and last visit to East shortly after it opened two or three years ago, this is the word that came to mind when I read the menu and tasted the food. This is another of those restaurants in which people who are non-adventurous eaters feel safe. They know that nothing will assault their tastebuds with "foreign" flavours, and that squid is probably the most exotic item on the menu.

        The rest of us know better and stay away.

        1. "and that squid is probably the most exotic item on the menu."

          Hahaha... that's why I ordered it...

          Should have known better...

          1. I too, had ONE horrible meal there.

            1 Reply
            1. re: nummanumma

              Actually, we've each had two meals there - our first and our last. :-)

            2. I too have only been once, and I can only characterize my lunch as "mediocre", nothing terrible, but what I expected from a chain tourist trap, however, it was in the summer and we sat on the patio where my entire party (including me) got well, um, crapped on by seaguls- classy, I know. Yes, we were brought some water, but only after WE asked for it and the waitor seemed a little surprised, and the manager came out to tell us,hey , it happens every once in a while.. and that was it. I dont even think they offered to move us, so we ate on a freshly crapped on table.

              1. East has to be one of the most revolting places I have eaten...everything...and I mean EVERYTHING tasted like ketchup!!!!! Even the mango juice. Stay away like it's SARS!

                1. This post reminds me of another recently horrible meal had at Queen Mother. Friend said place was good, went there with said friend and had the Khao Soy Gai (figuring a traditional Laotian dish would be the best thing on the menu since they are "famous" for their Lao-Thai cuisine). Oh, bad, very, very bad. I repeated to the server twice, very clearly, that I was not shy with traditional Asian dishes, either in spice or in flavours (after she asked me whether I wanted my dish "spicy"). It was served with a big glop of artificial hot sauce, which nary added any heat, but at least provided some flavour. Gross.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: Splendid Wine Snob

                    I dunno. My meal at the Queen Mother was decent, and nowhere near as bad as what I had at East. And I respect a few people who really love certain dishes there. I certainly wasn't blown away, by any means, but the food was reasonably tasty and I would willingly return should an opportunity arise. In my experience the Queen Mother doesn't qualify for nearly the same sort of arse-woopin' as East does.

                    1. re: Splendid Wine Snob

                      I think I had the same thing when I went a month or so ago. It was inedible and disgusting. No one else seemed all that pleased with their meals either although the people who ordered the non-Asian dishes were happier (I'm not sure how much this says about the actual food or the people ordering it). Never again, which is too bad since there really isn't much in that immediate area.

                    2. So the steak was bad but how was the BJ? and by BJ I'm assuming you meant Baked Jalepenos

                      1. Having been to East as well as various Springrolls (not my choice, many times a corporate choice) I have made a vow (as should all Chowhounds) to NEVER eat there again - I would rather eat streetmeat or starve. The food is not only bland but in many cases inedible. I have tried the soups, the noodles, their Pad Thai, etc...they cannot get anything right. Nobody I know personally that has been has liked the food. Yet they are always packed?

                        The success of Spring Rolls in downtown is probably the biggest food mystery in Toronto. (maybe the owners signed a deal with the devil?)

                        1. The funniest about this review is that I'm fairly sure they opened post 2000 so the dated '90s decor was that way since day one.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Atahualpa

                            Yes, I knew that actually... it was my way of making a point...

                          2. Oh, I hated this restaurant so much when I went there I wrote a long email with a review to my friends. I was thinking "If only there was some kind of internet forum where I could post my review!" This was long before I came across chowhound!

                            I can't remember the meal now, but this is what I said at the time. I am so happy to have finally found a place to post thoughts like these! Yay chowhound!



                            D and I stopped for some food before checking out the Contact festival this past Friday. Feeling rushed and hungry and against our better judgement, I pulled D into East!, the newest offering from the people of Spring Rolls. It was so bad that I was compelled to write about it. I forward it in the hopes that it will discourage you from making the same mistake I did.

                            The restaurant is pretty, the service is good, but where it counts most, East! sorely disappoints -the food is absolutely terrible.

                            Thai fish cakes are hard, gummy little pucks. Like everything we tasted, the food was spiced with a heavy hand. You could tell the chef was aiming for something Thai, with the overwhelming use of lemongrass and a sticky sweet chilli sauce, but the effect was unpalatable, with absolutely no regard for the nuanced balancing of flavours so integral to Thai cooking.

                            The "super" spring rolls (spring rolls with chicken and shrimp) were even worse. When they say chicken and shrimp they aren't kidding, as those are the only things in there. One sad shrimp surrounded by a brown mass of ground chicken, once again spiced beyond recognition. Instead of the pleasant crunch of sprouts or other veggies, we had extra thick wrappers, and even those weren't crunchy, but soft and oil-laden.

                            For mains, we ordered from the daily specials menu. The food was better, sailing far above the almost inedible appetizers into the lofty heights of mediocrity. The Mongolian beef sits in a strongly spiced sauce, but unlike the traditional version, East!'s is missing the punch of chilli peppers and is too heavy on everything else. The beef sits next to sticky rice on lotus leaves, a sad little grey mass with a little taro mixed in.

                            The blackened fish with shrimp is by far the best plate of the evening. A piece of fish sits surrounded by julienned mango and zucchini in a fruity chilli sauce, with inoffensive steamed rice and Hawaiian-styled fruit salsa on the side. The effect is almost charming. The chef's brutal hand is softened somewhat by the sweetness of the fruit. The grilled shrimps are plump and tasty, the veggies fresh and crunchy. The blackened fish, however, is slightly overcooked and tastes like it has been deep fried in the same vegetable oil they use for the taro fries. I realize that a traditionally blackened fish panned fried in butter might not mesh with an Asian inspired meal, but East!'s solution is disappointing and detracts from the overall quality of the dish. But, after the other food of the evening, it was a delight. As we threw down $70 for dinner for two with one drink each, I cursed myself for not taking the 15 minutes to walk over to Spadina to get better food for half the price. It was then that I realized that, by allowing myself to be sucked into East!'s non-threatening suburban hipster vibe, so endemic to that stretch of Queen West, I had been the author of my own indigestion.

                            1. hahaha...as soon as I read the title to this thread I thought of mentioning that my mom suggested it loved it when she was in town...painful to sit there and smile as she raved about the food...love you always mom!..but East sucked...

                              1. I'm find this post to be unfairly negative, and I've dined there many many times. Here's what it is NOT: Fine dining or a culinary "experience". Here's what it is: VERY affordable and reasonably prepared food, in a decent environment. A good meal for a little more than what you might expect to pay at Swiss Chalet. If your expectations don't meet the price range, expect to be dissapointed. I love this place for quick after work meet-ups and pre-movie dining, and honestly I have yet to be dissapointed. In fact, I'm heading there again tonight after work. Try the cantonese chowmein and the fresh rolls. The fish is usually pretty good, too. And don't order steak from an asian restaurant - go to a steakhouse for goodness sake.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: desmo

                                  He didn't order steak. He ordered "beef in black bean sauce". Think that should be right up the alley of a mainstream Asian place, don't you?

                                2. Just chiming in to make sure that no-one confuses this restaurant with "East on Queen" in the beaches. No comparison what-so-ever!!!

                                  I agree with all these reviews though. "East by Spring Rolls" falls short on all levels.