15⁄17 Grape Lane
There's more to El Piano than meets the eye at first. On the one hand it's a very relaxed, colourful, quirky restaurant with eclectic food served in little pine-wood boats. On the other hand it's a restaurant with serious ethical aims. It serves a vegan and gluten free menu, it's supported by the ethical bank TRIODOS and it is part of the Incredible Edible group which focuses on the importance of locally sourcing food. Even the little wooden boats that the food is served in are biodegradable.
For a place that has such a serious objective, El Piano has a very friendly, relaxed atmosphere. We sat in the main restaurant, but they also have a sunny little courtyard, and a Moroccan room upstairs complete with low tables and floor cushions. We ordered the ‘fleet’: six tapas dishes, perfect for two people (for large groups they recommend an ‘armada’). The waiting staff checked we had everything we needed without fussing us, and despite the restaurant being full all evening, they didn't rush us through our meal.
El Piano’s menu is full of choice but it keeps things simple. All of the dishes are the same price, and come in either tapas size portions or ración size. There is a lot of variation in the dishes, which draw many of their flavours from Moroccan and southern-Spanish food, as well as occasional flavour cameos from other parts of the globe.
We tried the Dhal, which offered up delicious Indian flavours, and a dish called “Thai Thai”, which used traditional Thai flavours in a rather unconventional risotto. These two dishes were unanimously the favourites, but we also tried Mushroom and Basil Salad, Corn Fritters, Falafel, and a ‘Corn Basket’, which was full of corn bread (an agreeable new discovery for us), and corn tortilla chips. The amount of food in each dish varied. Whilst the dhal and the Thai Thai were substantial, the falafel and fritters came three a piece. This was a fine balance as part of the fleet, but when it comes to ordering dishes individually, some are better value than others.
We noticed that there was no salt or pepper on the table, but while often I’d ask for some there was really no need as everything was seasoned perfectly. We only wished that the corn fritters and falafels had come with a dip of some sort. Not a vegan myself, I was amazed that the food tasted so hearty and filling, and pleased that despite having tried so many seemingly rich dishes, we had in fact eaten a very healthy meal.
The deserts were unfortunately less of a hit. We tried the exotic and fresh-sounding Pacific Poké, (‘Coconut and banana over a dusting of maize with a hint of cinnamon’). This was in fact something rather more like a warm semolina. It was tasty, but was not what we were expecting from the description on the menu. We also tried the ultimate oxymoron: vegan cheesecake. This did taste surprisingly like ordinary cheesecake, however, as a diner unused to vegan diary substitutes, I missed the creamy texture of ordinary cheesecake. Whilst the savoury dishes were presented so charmingly in their little pine boats, the desserts fell a little short when it came to the style stakes. To finish, we tried the ‘best coffee in York’ and El Piano’s speciality Grenada Chai, both of which tasted as good as we had anticipated.
On the whole El Piano is a very good restaurant - you might just have to accept that vegan cheesecake will probably never be great anywhere. If you have specific dietary requirements that they do not already cater for, El Piano can make special arrangements for you. If you don't have any dietary requirements, you'll be pleased to discover that on the whole, the limitations of vegan and gluten-free cooking don't hinder the chefs from creating complex and flavour-packed dishes.
For more information, please visit: http://www.el-piano.com/
**Written by:** Emily Boyd