My friend Owen is crazy about East and South East Asian food. Several years working in the region, coupled with a healthy appetite, have given him an appreciation of the dishes from that part of the world, usually ahead of the trend.
He was the first person I knew to 'discover' Vietnamese food in London, and he’s always been a strong advocate of Japanese dining beyond what’s served up by the lunch chains. To be fair, I think the Northerner 'beat' him to Korean food (on account of her working for Samsung in the '80s) but on everything else, he’s my go-to man.
So when I decided to visit Ekachai near Liverpool Street Station, I sought his opinion. Ekachai is a popular institution in the City, which has lunchtime queues snaking out through the arcade and to the street. However, its cache has been diminished by the Wagamama and Wasabi chains, while the arcade it’s located in is only marginally better than the train station. Marginally.
Recognising the challenge, the restaurant has recently revamped to try and make Ekachai as much an evening destination as a 30-minute lunch stop. First impressions were good. The arcade was empty and eminently more bearable on a Friday night. The mood lighting and ambiance in the restaurant itself worked a treat. And the crowd was different too – more pre-club and evening diners, rather than after-work City drinkers, which made for an altogether better experience.
The menu is large, and covers most variant of East and South East Asian dishes imaginable, bar Japanese. We tried the soft shell crabs and prawn and crab siu mai dumplings. The dumplings were quite good; the soft shell crabs a tad overcooked. For mains I opted for the wonderfully named Malaysian Chicken Kapitan, allegedly the 'Captain' of all curries, with chicken in chilli, lemongrass, galangal, shrimp paste, mixed ground spices, roasted coconut and kafir lime leaves. The Northerner tried the Udang and Kangkung Goreng of prawns and water spinach wok fried with chilli, garlic and a hint of shrimp paste. The prawn dish was good with a reasonable depth of flavour. The Kapitan curry was too subtle even for my chili intolerant palate. We didn’t try for the desserts as the wine from the pleasingly short yet good list (four reds, four whites with a 50/50 old versus new world split) was flowing. The service was sharp and charming and the prices – at around £8.50 a main – were the cheapest I have come across in the City for a long time.
Ekachai is good value for money, but to crack the evening crowd it will need to offer a bit more. It feels like it’s on the right track in terms of service and ambiance, but the food still feels a bit 'fast' rather than restaurant. And what, might you ask, did Owen think? Well he’s 'heard good things', and a mutual friend is apparently ‘a big fan’ (implying that he hasn’t been yet). However, I’m not sure that its fast-food lunch model is for him. But with a few more tweaks, the restaurant model just might be.