"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...
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!
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.
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.
"and that squid is probably the most exotic item on the menu."
Hahaha... that's why I ordered it...
Should have known better...