It’s rare that you walk into a restaurant, eye the Hispanically kitsch decor and you ask yourself, “What would the whores make of all this?” I however did at El Piano when informed that the cute medieval spot on Grape Lane once used to be a brothel. That’s right, behind doors 15 to 17 was a pulsating shrine to vice cloaked in the shadow of the York Minster. Today, though, the contrast couldn’t be starker. Gone of course is any trace of its former debauchery; and now along with it gluten, most allergens, palm oil and animal produce. What’s left is a vegan kitchen that’s principally celibate – and proud of it.
But that’s not to say El Piano won’t show you a good time. This family business cooks with a confidence that good, hearty vegan food doesn’t have to be an oxymoron. The restaurant has been around for years, happily detached from whatever those places with the tall buildings and tiny portions are doing. Exhibit A is a mound of “Mexi Trio” consisting of warmly spiced Cuban and refried beans over rice like a skinned veggie burrito. It’s a satisfying bowlful satellited by sweet salsa, moreish crusty falafels and creamy hummus. With no single flavour working to stifle others (garlic can only be so garlicy) the multi-ethnic mash-up harmonises without offence.
And if the food doesn’t go well together it’s your fault anyway. The mix-and-match main courses take their cues from Subway as the menu commands that you “choose one hot dish”, “add a fritter”, and “now the cold salad”. The vegan theme might be nothing novel but I’ve never eaten a compulsory fritter before. Perhaps other eateries should go ahead and force their own parsnip balls on us because these extras turn out to be a saving grace. Another trio centres around “Thai style” tofu, a cluster of redundant grey blocks atop some soft treacly cabbage flavoured with ginger, not enough chilli, and tamari, a wheat-less soy sauce. Save for mild heat the tofu is bland as a Lib Dem’s necktie, but improved by deep-fried croquettes of sweet potato and rosemary, and lightly acidic vegan coleslaw.
A £9.95 El Piano main is basically a mish-mash of side orders, but I found this ensures enough flavour variation to keep things fresh. “Hate us, carnivores, go on we dare you,” the swede whisperers say. Yet, sat on the cosy first floor surrounded by rays of sunshine painted on the walls while clappy, transcultural music plays overhead, it’s hard not to chill out. Wherever the dishes may misfire, the place’s bohemian homeliness or even the food-mile menu annotations (if you’re into that) are there to win you over.
Rather than pud the lunch ends on half-litre smoothies: strawberry, banana and apple juice is the drink of the day. Its frothy simplicity sums the place up as I warm to the infectious laid-back vibe, not long after being turned into the kind of person who says things like “vibe”.
And the old whores of Grape Lane? Well, they’d probably stress how much nicer this all is than syphilis. Indeed, largely defined as it is by its absences – “no this”, “no that” – El Piano makes for a more subjective food experience than usual. I liked it, anywho.
Atmosphere: Bustling on a weekend lunchtime.
Service: Smiley if inexperienced.
Value for money: 7/10 (10% discount for student cardholders)
Address: 15-17 Grape Lane, York