Not to be confused with the south London street market also called East Street – where you’re more likely to pick up a bowl of winkles than some nam prik – this is a London restaurant from the people behind Tampopo, a Manchester-based chain. Like the Tampopos scattered across Middle England, it is a pan-Asian restaurant trying to span a huge range of cuisines.
East Street’s a busy, noisy room with shared tables and engaging staff, but the most striking impression is of the illuminated signs suspended from the ceiling. These cleverly ape the street signs for bars, cafés and other tourist services you can see across Asia, written in English or indigenous scripts.
The interior design is brilliantly evocative of many Asian cafés with brightly coloured chairs, fans secured to corrugated walls, and phonecards plastered all over the walls leading the loos. Watch the soundless Studio Ghibli cartoon that’s aptly projected on the rear wall, and you really can feel spirited away.
The distinctive typeface used for East Street’s own sign is remarkably similar to the curvy serifs created for Cabbages and Condoms, a delightful restaurant in Bangkok; the Thai restaurant’s calligraphy is in turn reminiscent of the iconic, international Coca-Cola signs in their many localised scripts.
But does the East Street kitchen deliver? Only up to a point, yes. This is a fast-food canteen chain, with budget pricing, so you can’t really expect the culinary precision of somewhere like, say, a Busaba Eathai, which manages to hit the right notes but at greater cost. And just as the Chinese characters of the illuminated signs here have been incorrectly copied, so that someone who reads Chinese will get the sense of it even though the detail’s a bit shaky, so it is with the food.
Noodles feature prominently. Singaporean-style laksa, and the Burmese/northern Thai dish called khao soi used remarkably similar-tasting spice mixes, and the yellow noodles used in both dishes were the same.
Nasi goreng tasted mainly of the fried rice, yet contained much the same colourful hotchpotch of ingredients found in many of the other dishes: boneless chicken, shiitake mushrooms, lime leaves, spring onion, red capsicum pepper… a jabberwocky of nations and ingredients unlike any version I’ve had in Indonesia. Tom yam, the hot and sour Thai soup, is served with vermicelli noodles in it; goi cuon, the Vietnamese ‘summer rolls’, were generously stuffed but lacked the shock of the unfamiliar, curious-tasting Vietnamese herbs you find in the Mekong Delta.
The real night markets of Asia celebrate dishes which are bitter, sour, very salty, on the bone, have exoskeletons, stink, are raw, or are still alive. In contrast, the East Street menu has been bowdlerised for its customer base of London office workers so that nothing offends. It evokes the East visually, but with the unpleasant smells, unfamiliar flavours and peculiar discoveries expurged. I liked it enough to visit three times, even though it’s not the ‘The Real Thing’ – but if that’s what you’re really looking for, you’ll need to buy a long-haul ticket going east.