Vancouver's Chai Lounge

Sherman dines on authentic and accessible Middle Eastern dishes

The restaurant serves Afghan eggplant, which includes baked eggplant sauteed with herbs, tomato, onion, and garlic with a yogurt topping.

Once upon a time... I decided to organize a blogger's dinner at East Is East (Broadway location).  Back then, that was a relatively doable exercise as there were only a few truly active blogs. If we were to do such a thing now, we'd need a rent a hall or something. I came away from that dinner relatively pleased since the food was above-average and the price was right (yes, I realize I just named a TV show...). Three years later, I got an invite to try out their recently relocated spot on Main. Since I could bring a guest, I enlisted someone who was at that original blogger's dinner: Mijune. Oh, and the fact she could eat a whole cow herself was another determining factor. And this is not a joke, the "thing" to order at East Is East is the Silk Route Feast which is essentially an all-you-can-eat menu for $25 per person.

We did end up ordering the Feast, but not before we noticed some interesting items unavailable on that particular menu. Hence, we decided to start with a half-and-half order of their Mango Prawns and Prawns Masala. We found the mango prawns to be the better of the two with a rich, creamy sauce that exhibited a understated sweetness to start while finishing off with spice. The prawns themselves had a nice snap and were cooked just right. As for the prawns masala, they were bathed in a tomato sauce that only had a hint of tang while exhibiting a mild-to-medium level of spice. The Vegetable Pâté with hemp also caught our attention. I was a bit skeptical at first because I am a full-blown "Meatatarian," however, it was much better than I thought it would be. The texture and flavor could be best described as mushy processed meat (akin to that defunct canned pâté from Puritan). Now yes, that may not be a ringing endorsement, but in a strange kind of way, I didn't mind it. I kept eating it, so I didn't dislike it right?

Now on to the Feast. We had a choice of soup, salad, and carbs for the meal. We ended up with one each of the Mystic Soup and Squash Soup. One sip of the mystic soup and there was a definite lemongrass/ginger hit. It was possibly too strong as it overwhelmed the creamy coconut and mild green curry flavors. nterestingly, they used both button mushrooms and enoki. As for the squash soup, it was more like lentil soup as the texture was more hearty than smooth. It had this mulligatawny thing going on which made it complex in flavors. For our salads, we tried the Tabouleh and Beet Salads. I found the tabouleh to be pretty good with vibrant ingredients and mildly dressed while the beet salad was sorta ho-hum. The beets were a bit soft while the flavors were sweet but understated.
Now this is where the eating got serious as we started round one with four items. I gave the Afghan Eggplant a go first. It consisted of baked eggplant sauteed with herbs, tomato, onion, and garlic topped off with yogurt. I found the eggplant to be moist yet not a complete mush. The flavors were a pleasing combination of tartness, spices, and the cooling effect from the yogurt. When we originally ordered the Alu Gobi, they informed us that it was not ready just yet. When it finally arrived, we gave it a try and it was indeed not ready. Both the cauliflower and potato were too firm while the flavors did not mesh with the ingredients. However, we got another order later and it was much better since it was given some time to cook down. The ingredients were softer while the tang of the tomatoes really announced themselves as well as some spice.

Moving onto some meat dishes, we had the Lamb Pan Kebab roasted in ginger, onion, tomato, garlic, and five spice curry. This was my personal favorite as the lamb was only slightly gamy exhibiting a really nice char. The meat was sufficiently tender and flavourful. It was further amped by the smooth and creamy sauce that gave a hint of spice. We also liked the Minced Beef Kebab with mushroom, green pepper, tomato, and herbs. The formed beef kebabs were moist and soft, yet still meaty in texture. Once again, there was a good char which naturally added some smokiness. The mild lentils underneath were nice texturally as they still maintained a bite.
Our second round consisted of the two fish offerings from the menu. The first was the Seasonal Fish which was Basa Thai Curry. By flavors and appearance alone, it looked like a yellow curry. It was creamy and had a nice kick. The fish itself was cooked just right as it was flaky and moist.  However, the Wild Salmon was nothing but. The darn piece of fish was cooked far beyond what it should been. The meat was a dry, chewy mess which was neither appetizing nor really all that edible. Too bad really since the flavors were quite nice. There was supposed to be miso, but we could hardly pick it out, but the mix of red and green curry was quite nice as it had a nice kick to it.

Continuing on with the Mijune diet (emphasis on "die"), we had the Palak Paneer. This was pretty good and admittedly, better than some Indian restaurants I've been to. The whole thing was super smooth and creamy. It was quite mild, yet the texturally on-point morsels of cheese highlighted the entire dish. The last time I had the Mango Butternut Squash (at the Broadway location), I was in the minority when I stated I liked it. Most people, including Mijune, thought it had the texture of baby food.  Well, I can't disagree with that, but the flavors really hit a homerun for me. The combination of squash, mango, coconut milk, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and curry leaves created a flavor explosion. The flavors of tart, sweet, spice, and savoury were all there, especially the tang from the mangos. 
Something not found on their online menu, the okra, was an interesting dish. It was a combination of okra and potatoes in a spicy and tangy tomato sauce. The okra was predictably slimy, yet not overly so. It still had somewhat of a bite. The dish was pleasant enough, but somehow, these flavors seemed a bit redundant. And on the topic of re-occurring flavours, the Eastern Ratatouille seemed to echo that sentiment. It was a combination of zucchini, lentils, potatoes, eggplant, and garlic sautéed in herbs and spices. So naturally, we had the tang of the tomato with a mild combination of spices.  Either we were getting really full (which was true) and/or we were experiencing familiar flavor fatigue.
Onto another common Indian dish, we had the Chickpeas (or Channa Masala) in an onion and tomato sauce with herbs and spices. I found the chickpeas to be on the softer side, but they still maintained their shape and were not mushy. The usual spices were there such as coriander and cumin which of course were found in some of the other dishes we had as well. And these spices were repeated in the Chicken Masala as well except with a creamy twist. In this respect, the flavors were similar yet different at the same time. The creaminess really complemented the moist chicken as well as the decent level of spice.
Now, as we were preparing for dessert, Mijune noticed that we missed one of the available dishes.  There was only one way to alleviate this problem... Get an order of it! So our last savory item was the Peas & Cheese with potato mixed in with a creamy, slightly spicy sauce. This was pretty straight-foward with soft peas and equally soft cheese. The whole thing was thick and rich, perfect with rice and/or naan, which we didn't have any left! But while we were eating our meal, there was no shortage of Boulani, Naan, Afghan Rice, and Basmati Rice. I know this may be blasphemous for me to say this, but I really liked the boulani. So much so, it was better than most, if not, all of the Afghan restaurants I've been to. Chalk it up to personal preference, but I found it to be the right thickness and crisp, light texture with just enough filling.

Now onto dessert. We shared two of them including the recommended vegan Chocolate Pudding.  Predictably, the pudding wasn't exactly smooth. Rather, it was a bit grainy. Yet, at the same time, it wasn't bad either having a rich dark chocolate flavor. The plethora of strawberries and cherries in a sweet syrup watered down the dessert somewhat. As for the Eastern Ecstasy, it was hands-down our favorite of the two. It consisted of rice pudding, ice cream, a warm galub jamun sprinkled with rosewater, pisatchios, and cardamom. The rice pudding itself had a nice texture, but lacked flavor.  However, the ice cream more than made up for it, including the always sweet galub jamun. This dessert had a kulfi flavour to it, especially with the pistachios and cardamom. 
Yes, we really did eat all this food and we left little to waste, too. Call it the hazards when eating with Mijune... In the end, we thought the food was consistent enough to be considered good.  Considering one orders the feast and can actually eat a lot, it is a fantastic value. East Is East succeeds in being a safe, reasonably-priced restaurant for those who want to venture past regular Western fare in favor of more exotic offerings.  
The Good:
- Although exotic sounding, the food is a good introduction for most people
- Feast is a good value
- Food is above-average
The Bad:
- Some artistic interpretation with a few dishes, it might offend those authenticity snobs
This post originally appeared on the blog Sherman’s Food Adventures.