EAST! (240 Queen West, at John, 416-351-3278) Complete dinners for $22 per person (lunches $15), including all taxes, tip and a lager. Average main $10. Open daily 11 am to 11 pm. Licensed. Access: two steps at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
An early evening stroller puts it succinctly and rolls her eyes as she heads west on Queen.
"Oh, Christ, not another Spring Rolls!"
The latest spawn of Spring Rolls - downtown's most popular pan-Asian eatery - has just opened across from Citytv and MuchMusic in what used to be the Beverley Tavern (RIP).
There were those who bemoaned the passing of their beloved Bev 15 months back - that'd be me, mostly - but in retrospect I have to admit the place was a dump. Besides, any cultural significance the punky new wave joint had as a breeding ground for Toronto's alternative art and music scene all those years ago was of no consequence to the owners, who'd been trying to unload the dive for decades.
Maybe it's for the best that almost all traces of the old girl are gone. (I did manage to salvage a remnant of Black Label-soaked carpeting from a dumpster out back.) But instead of desecrating a shrine, restaurateur Thua Hai and his Spring Rolls group have transformed this once gloomy space into a lively, forward-thinking room that's all upscale Asian elegance. And I can't remember it being this packed since Martha and the Muffins opened for me and my Dishes back in 1978.
It's easy to see why. The building's facade, now a wall of floor-to-ceiling glass, exposes an inviting interior that makes you want to join the party. Think Ultra meets Susur's Lee, minus the ridiculous pink plexi tables. Throw in an inexpensive menu of noodle noshes and no wonder come lunch chez East!, every moulded plywood Eames-knockoff chair has a firmly planted bum in it.
For the first time, East! introduces dim sum to the franchise. They're served in large, high-sided bowls similar to Lee's, and as with that far pricier bistro's tapas, there are so many of them the table's soon crowded. But an army of efficient servers in de rigueur black whisk them away quickly.
We begin with a tasty quartet of minced pork and shrimp siu mai dumplings, followed by another of whole shrimp har gow. Three Swatow-style chiu-chow dumplings (all $3.25) come stuffed with finely diced pork, peanuts and Chinese greens. All are worryingly sided with a small stainless bowl of Heinz's hot dog mustard, something methinks takes the fusion of East!-meets-West a step too far. Best to pass on steamed Soho fish rolls, sheets of rubbery seaweed spread with some unidentified seafood mousse ($3.50 for four), and soggy vegetable bean curd rolls as well ($3.25 for three).
Stylishly plated on a bed of mesclun, shaved purple cabbage, ripe strips of sweet red pepper and a Chinese chive or two, a half dozen lightly breaded chicken wings ($5.95) come marinated in lemon grass, moist and relatively grease-free. Equally delightful visually, Thai taro fries ($3.50) unfortunately pack the flavour of styrofoam.
Menu-described as "tiger shrimps in the eye of storm," Tornado Rolls ($6.95 for three) are better likened to an accident between a crustacean and a box of Nabisco shredded wheat. But beautifully grilled baby squids ($4.25) arrive at table as buttery as bocconcini and tangy from their brief lime-chili-garlic marinade. To finish, we polish off the last of our mugs of smoky Japanese green tea ($1.45) and split a serviceable mango crème brûlée ($4.95).
The dinner-in-one-dish pad thai is so ubiquitous locally, I wouldn't be surprised to see it on the card at Tim Hortons alongside the crullers and Old Fashioned Plains. We decide to put East!'s through NOW's Test Kitchen.
Modestly dubbed Famous Pad Thai ($7.95), East!'s rendition is virtually identical to its siblings', a much-too-pink (ketchup?) passel of pasta mixed with chicken, shrimp, pressed tofu and scallions dressed with a considerable pile of raw bean sprouts, crushed peanuts and coriander sprigs. Curry Pad Thai adds Singaporean curry paste to the culinary equation, while Unique Satay Pad Thai (all $7.95) deserves its sobriquet, tasting of sugary Italian-style tomato sauce laced with sour tamarind. Unique, however, does not necessarily mean good.
The Kitchen kids are at a loss to differentiate between Malaysian Spicy Fried Rice with chicken and shallots in Belachan shrimp paste ($7.95) and Thai Royal Castle ($12.95) other than the addition of a few tail-on shrimps, some fresh pineapple chunks and five bucks. They rate the house Cantonese Chow Mein ($9.95) as a perfunctory kitchen sink of stir-fried calamari, pounded chicken and beef as well as barbecued pork, thinly sliced zucchini, sculpted carrots and halved baby bok choy over fried skinny wheat vermicelli.
General Tao Chicken ($8.95) goes by as many names as it has legends about its invention, but East!'s version is easily the most accomplished they've encountered. Instead of heavily battered deep-fried unidentified chicken parts, this General comes closer to gristle-free tempura chicken, coupled with an al dente stir-fry of broccoli, sweet red pepper, frazzled scallions and whole red chili pods for heat. We upgrade its plain rice side to vegetarian fried rice ($3.50), which, despite its inclusion of frozen veg, gets extra points for being lightly grilled before being mixed with broccoli, sliced snow peas, chopped green onions and raw sprouts.
East! might not be the most cutting-edge cantina in town, but it delivers solid Southeast Asian fare at low-income prices in remarkably upscale digs.