Published on BespokeRSVP on 20th December 2011:
Pushing past a crowd of excited Asians, I spot a familiar looking blonde sitting at a low slung metallic table. As I was about to pull up an electric blue plastic stool, the screwed up face I saw was one of confusion. Upon closer inspection, this wasn’t a familiar face at all. Embarrassed, I quickly apologised and shuffled a couple of tables down, narrowly missing the low hanging light, before perching against another booth. Hoping that the neon adverts overhead will provide enough of a distraction from that little mishap, I surveyed the scene.
Soy and chilli sauce decorated the table, travel paraphernalia pasted the corrugated iron walls and the odd Lonely Planet guide was spotted lying around. Lined up against the simplistic tables were an eclectic selection of colourful plastic, wipe clean and metal chairs. This was the quintessential backpacker’s food stop – just where one needs to go on a gap-yah.
Heavy into the lunch hour, the place was a hive of activity. The tables around me were all heaving and laden with food. The open kitchen certainly did its part too, to fill my nostrils with exotic scents of chilli, tempura and a hint of ginger. A queue of people short of time soon formed at the crowded counter for takeaways. I almost felt sorry for them for having to take their food away when my fine feast of street food arrived.
The gentle crunch of the tempura vegetables offered contrasting textures to the goi cuon (rice paper rolls) while the coconut prawns cooled the fire of the kimchi served with the Bulgogi (marinaded grilled beef). Then just for the satisfaction of a full platter, gyoza and tod man khao pod (corn fritters) were served up too. Someone on the next table orders a cocktail, it arrived in a bucket with straws. Novel.
Snacking over, it was on to the more serious business of a beef panang curry with steamed jasmine rice – addictive stuff. That or the laksa (noodle soup), pad Thai, com Hué, bo luc lac (shaking beef)… You get the picture. Somehow the high flavoured power selection allowed room for something a bit sweeter. The bubor pulot hittam (sticky black rice pudding) wasn’t quite the sugar hit I was after so I was glad to be able to dip into some caramen chuoi ran (fried bananas) as well.
Lunch over and a pit stop at the on-site mini-mart later, I was out of the door and heading towards Oxford Circus.
I guess I forgot to mention that I was somewhere between Fitzrovia and Soho. East-Street on Rathbone Place in fact – the latest venture and seventh restaurant from Nick Jeffrey and David Fox, the restaurateurs behind mini Asian chain Tampopo. Jeffrey and Fox had both backpacked extensively through East Asia and fell in love with the food and culture, which then became the inspiration behind their restaurants.
Packed within days of opening, there were clearly many who came to relive their backpacking experience at East-Street but many more to just have interesting food. Within the habitat of that typical East Asian street food set up, I can understand why. After all, I had dined from Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan without ever leaving central London.
East-Street 3-5 Rathbone Place London W1T 1HJ