York's South American-influenced vegan restaurant El Piano does great coffee. But how do its evening meals stack up? STEPHEN LEWIS found out

I'VE always loved the idea of El Piano, the bohemian little vegan café/ restaurant on Grape Lane.

It has genuine principles - not a hair on an animal's head was harmed in the making of any of the food here - and it's a lovely, warm, cheerful place to boot.

It's a great hangout for meeting local authors to chat about their latest book over a jug of uniquely brilliant fresh-ground coffee (which you pour into your cup through a strainer to remove the grounds). But while the coffee's great, the food has always been a little bit of a disappointment. Perhaps cooking vegan, gluten-free food that will appeal to those who aren't vegan and don't have a gluten intolerance just isn't that easy.

Or maybe it's just me. El Piano has won plenty of awards - café of the year in the York Tourism Awards more times than you can count, plus prestigious runner-up awards in the National Free-From and National Vegfest Awards in London in the last couple of years.

So, even though I'm a vegetarian rather than a vegan, I'm constantly drawn back.

Our latest visit was on a busy Saturday night.

It was chilly out, but the warm light coming through the restaurant's windows was inviting. As soon as you push open the doors you're greeted by a fug of healthy kitchen smells - all beans, lentils and enticing veggie aromas - plus light and laughter.

The decor's all very Amer-Indian - rich reds, browns and ochres, with woven fabrics on the walls and an assortment of ethnic objects hanging from the ceilings.

We'd booked, and were shown to a lovely table for two tucked away behind a partition with a great view out of the windows onto Grape Lane.

The evening menu (there's a separate but similar one at lunchtime) is simple. There's a small selection of starters for £3.95 each - the likes of hummus, sweet potato paté and tempura - then a tapas-style 'build your own plate' system for the main course. For £11.95, you get to choose one hot dish, one fritter and one salad from a selection of items on the menu. Or, for £33.95 (to share between two or three) you can opt for the 'taster tray', which features a bit of everything.

We ordered a 'fizz of the day' at £2.25 each (fresh fruit, in our case apple, pulped with a hint of fizz) then pondered the menu.

I chose the tempura to start - fresh chunks of broccoli and courgette, crisply fried in batter, and served with a teriyaki sauce dip. The vegetables were piping hot, the batter crispy, and the sauce gave a lovely, salt-and-ginger kick. Lili's sweet potato paté was less good. A concoction of baked sweet potato ' whizzed within our own creamy soya onion base', as the menu described it, it was rich and creamy in texture, but bland. A bit of lemon might have perked it up. The gluten-free bread was excellent, though: hot, fresh, and surprisingly moist.

For the mains, keen to try everything, we opted to share the taster tray. This was where the problems began.

Up to now the service had been fine - cheerful and friendly. But after ordering our main courses, we seemed to be forgotten. The minutes ticked past, and nothing arrived. After almost 30 minutes - during which our neighbours at the next table, who had arrived after us, were served - I had to go up to reception and point out that we were still waiting. There was a slight start of surprise, and then I was told 'it will be ten minutes'. It was. But all told we were kept waiting more than half an hour for a taster dish that should have taken less than half that time to arrive.

The food, when it did come, was variable. The Tinas - Bolivian-style carrot patties with a hint of spice - were great: spicy, smoky and nicely crisp. The Thai duo (a green curry of fried tofu with vegetables, lemongrass and lime on a bed of coconut rice) was also a winner, as was the tortilla espanola. This was described as an 'amazing eggless Spanish omelette'. It was more like a thick, soft pancake, but was delicious nonetheless: fresh and light, with a lovely sprinkling of tomato, salsa and coriander.

The dhal was too watery for my liking, though tasty enough, and the falafels too dry. But the mushroom fritters were great - crunchy, garlicky and warm - and the banana fritters tasty, sweet and slightly caramelised. The abondigas roberto, however - described as tender 'meat' balls in tomato and basil sauce - were far too salty. And the pink beetroot and cabbage salad was so gingery as to be almost inedible.

The state of our taster platter after we'd finished told the story of the meal: we'd left most of the abondigas and pink salad, but polished everything else off.

For dessert, Lili chose the non-dairy 'ice cream' bowl (two scoops for £4.95). Her soya-based strawberry ice cream didn't taste of either strawberries or ice cream, but the coconut-based rum and raisin was much better: rich, creamy and tooth-achingly cold.

My carrot cake (£4.95) was good - moist and crumbly - but spoiled by too much cinnamon.

Overall, it was a decent meal, in fantastic surroundings, let down by a couple of poor dishes and that long, long wait for our mains. It won't stop me going back to El Piano - but it will probably be for an afternoon pot of that great Gaucho coffee next time...

El Piano, 15-17 Grape Lane, York. Tel: 01904 610676

Food: Variable, 2.5

Ambience: Gaucho great, 5

Service: Absent-minded, 2

Value: Reasonable, 3