With such a large number of people who “like it” on Urbanspoon.com, and also with a noteworthy number of good reviews, it seemed to me that East is East was a shoe-in (weird idiom, huh?) for a great dinner… and so Emme and I decided to pay a visit for dinner when night when we were cruising along W Broadway anyway. In any case, I’m always up for trying new restaurants, and Emme is always up for Indian food.
We arrived relatively early in the evening, which was probably a good thing considering how busy it soon got after we sat down. The interior décor and overall atmosphere seriously made the two of us feel as though we had walked into a restaurant in the Middle East, with the large front window being the only thing that reminded us that was not the case. Wooden tables are nicely spaced out throughout the dining area, so you don’t feel cramped or as though the dining party next to you is encroaching on your personal space, and most tables have a comfy couch on one side. Wooden benches are the other seating option, though they don’t have backing so neither Emme nor I felt compelled to sit on them… Nevertheless, the décor is very traditional and unique, and transports you to an entirely different place… where there also happens to be wonderful food.
We were actually given some chai tea samples to start off with, though I don’t know what type they were exactly. A lot of things on the menu seemed really delicious, and Emme and I were both fairly hungry, so we didn’t wait long to start ordering and both decided that we would go with “Silk Route Feast” platters. With the promise of complimentary refills of any dish on the platter, it seemed like a great deal, in any case.
Emme asked for three of the optional items from the list right off the bat (as I said, we were hungry!): Mango Butternut Squash, Afghan Eggplant, and Chicken Masala.
The Mango Butternut Squash was very sweet and creamy (the latter of which is pretty clear from the picture), and Emme said it was “interesting” and that the mango flavour was quite pronounced, although there was a subtle and delicious taste of coconut… but barely noticeable kick from the spices as well. It did have the consistency of baby food, however, and Emme commented that it wouldn’t be something she would eat alone – so it was a good thing that there was rice alongside it.
Next on the tray was the Afghan Eggplant, which certainly did not disappoint. I think it was Emme’s favourite dish of the night, actually… It came with some yogurt (raita, I think, actually), which gave the dish a nice complexity in terms of the blend of flavours. The eggplant was perfectly cooked: wonderfully tender and stringy. The sauce was a fantastic complement, as well, with a nice tang from the yogurt and mildly spiced. Needless to say, it was one of the dishes Emme ordered again once she had finished off these initial three.
The Chicken Masala was actually a dish that Emme did not order again… It’s not that it was bad, but it certainly wasn’t a clear favourite like the Afghan Eggplant. The sauce was really too mild, and Emme wasn’t a fan of the dark chicken meat. White meat probably would have worked better, especially if the sauce were made a little bit stronger and the flavour amped up a bit with some more spice.
As for the rice… The Afghan Rice that comes with the Silk Route Feast was wonderful. The raisins and carrot pieces gave some much-needed flavour to the rice, although it seemed as though the coconut in the Coconut Rice did not do the same for that half of the rice portion…
For myself, I also got a Silk Route Feast platter, however ordering was actually quite tricky. I’m mildly allergic to coconut, but the waitress didn’t falter and was more than happy to ask the kitchen which dishes I could have, even with that allergy. It seems that the kitchen is making an effort to use coconut milk rather than cow’s milk in almost all of their dishes, now, in order to better cater to the lactose-intolerant folk and vegans. In the end, though, everything worked out somehow – and I left without suffering from too serious an allergic reaction.
Allergies dictated that I avoid the classic Coconut Rice, but it was personal preference that I steered clear of the Afghan Rice. I’m not a raisin fan, though I like carrots, but I was given the option to change that half of the rice dish entirely to Brown Lentil Rice, which was really good. It was very flavourful and I loved the herb-pieces scattered throughout and the mildly spiced lentils that were ever-present.
Neither Emme nor I received a leafy salad with our dishes, so I’m guessing the tabbouleh-like dish was intended to be the Salad… In any case, it did the job of being a “cooling” dish throughout the meal. Nothing was really too spicy, but it was still nice to have the refreshing tabbouleh-ish salad to cool off your mouth and cleanse your palate when switching between dishes. We both really liked it, and I actually ordered a second one along with some other things.
One of the things that was safe for me to eat was this okra dish, which I’m calling Bindhi Masala because I’m pretty sure that’s what it is. It’s not listed on the menu, but the waitress said it was offered at their café upstairs and the chefs would be willing to prepare it, since it was one of the few non-coconut-based dishes. It was amazing. It was the dish with the most flavour and spice that I tasted that night, and better than I could have expected. I reordered it… twice. I probably would’ve ordered my fourth dish of it, but 1) I was filling up and 2) I was indeed feeling bad for requesting the chefs to prepare a dish they normally wouldn’t have to… and wasn’t sure how much trouble it was causing them to make it. Anyway, the spices and tomato flavour went beautifully with the okra, which were cooked perfectly and not slimy – the one characteristic that most people shun okra for.
I also tasted the spinach dish, Saag Paneer, only without paneer (not a fan)… so I think it’s Saag/Palak Sabji when there’s no paneer, though I’m not sure about the names as I’m improvising as I go along, here… It’s a good thing I like spinach, because the spinach flavour was very strong. Actually, it looked like the spinach you get when you defrost frozen spinach bags from the grocery store… and was a pretty bland dish overall. Its supposed to come with mushrooms, but those apparently got excluded along with the paneer for some reason, which was disappointing since I love mushrooms. I didn’t order it again, and probably wouldn’t in the future, were I given the chance.
Along with my repeated orders of the okra dish, I also decided to take a chance [because there is some coconut in this dish – not a lot] and get the Chickpeas. For lack of better words, it was “meh”. Maybe I think that because I’ve had better chana masala elsewhere and even at home, but what was given to me was flavourless relative to the other times I’ve had the dish.
Aside from the okra dish, my other two favourites of the evening were the pickles that came on the platter (I actually ordered another small serving of them) and the Dhal. It was much thicker than the other takes on lentil soup I’ve had before, but seemed to me to have more flavour than most of the other dishes on my platter (excluding the okra dish). That said, however, it was still very mild. I will note that I liked it more than the take on chana masala that I ended up with also.
As for Roti on the side – there isn’t much to say. It was okay. Not really good, nor notably horrible. It was cold when I ate it, and Emme said hers was as well – and it was one of the first things she bit into. I don’t know if it cooled down super fast since it was on a cool metal tray, but it would’ve been nice if it were served warm. It didn’t taste very fresh, though the roti that arrived when Emme ordered some more were a bit better and didn’t seem as limp and stale.
The food seemed very “hit-and-miss”, but the chai tea samples at the beginning were bursting with flavour and quite tasty – a little too strong for my personal preference, though. The service was also consistently fantastic. The water jug was left on a wooden table in the corner of the room, which was actually nice because you can refill your own glasses… although you’re probably not supposed to, heh. The waitress didn’t do a bad job of topping up our glasses, but once it was busier the service for tables that already had their food dipped a bit. However we did manage to get additional orders in pretty easily, and the waitress was very friendly, personable, and happy to provide a bit of conversation if you so desired it. Of course, I also appreciated how helpful she and the rest of the staff were in catering to a client with unusual allergies. (I’m allergic to a lot of tropical fruit. Mango, papaya, coconut, and even pineapple give me slight allergic reactions – though I’ll eat pineapple sometimes because I love the taste… just not the side-effects.)
With the awesome ambiance and décor, along with some pretty great service and the fact that your meal is fairly good value (especially if you get the Silk Route Feast and can get refills), would I go back to East is East? Although I adored the okra dish and Emme loved the Afghan Eggplant, I would still say no. Only because I’m allergic to practically the entire menu, and more so because the dishes seem so inconsistent in terms of whether they’re good or bad. The chai tea is very good – though I’m not sure which exactly, since they have quite a few varieties of chai – and so is the Afghan Eggplant dish. Most things seemed to be underwhelming in terms of spice, but otherwise the food is generally fairly tasty. (A lot of the drinks on the menu seemed really promising, too.) If anything, it’s worth going for the one-of-a-kind dining experience and unique atmosphere!