Los Moros has a big act to follow after taking over the tenancy at York’s lost and lamented El Piano, but it’s doing well for starters.
On the last day of August 2018, Magdalena Chavez held her final service at El Piano, the vegetarian/vegan restaurant she had run for 21 years. After hanging up her apron she set off for a new life in Scotland. Magda had flown the flag for meat-free, dairy-free, gluten-free and palm oil-free food long before the current vogue and had built a devoted following.
It was not just the restaurant. Magda ran a B&B, wrote cookery books, held cookery demonstrations and filled the pretty bow windowed restaurant on York’s Grape Lane with cookware, ceramics, books and ethnic rugs. When she announced she was closing, people wrote in dismay begging her to stay.
While customers were mourning the loss of El Piano, as many were congratulating Tariq Abdeladim on taking over the tenancy. For the past four years Abdeladim had been running a popular street food kiosk in the Shambles Market and was ready to expand. When El Piano came up, the opportunity to establish a full-blown restaurant was too good to miss.
The building has been given a gentle makeover; a lick of paint, new signage, some judicious de-cluttering, a scattering of Moroccan lanterns and a wall of zellige tiles giving it a mild North African vibe while the pine tables keep it casual.
The menu he announced, would not be the exclusively veggie food that Magda had championed, though there would be some non-meat dishes, but the self-taught cook promised “modern North African” dishes that had picked up from home and family in Algiers.
Los Moros opened last October with 54 covers upstairs and downstairs plus a little courtyard garden. At 6pm on Friday, it had a lively hum with waiters crossing the floor with loaded plates from the open kitchen and an atmosphere of contented folk kicking off their weekend.
It was a bit heart-sinking then to be ushered upstairs to the second best room with none of the atmosphere of the main dining area. Here we were met by bright lights, bare walls, save for a few Moroccan plates, and a request to vacate our table by 7.30pm.
The menu reprises dishes from the kiosk: tagine, merguez sausage, hummous and falafel but with new additions of aubergine dip, harissa chicken wings, halloumi with chermoula, whipped feta, spinach, feta bourek and crab bourek.
“Sorry the crab’s off,” says Abdeladim. “We have salt cod croquettes with callak kyoli.” “Callak kyoli?” “Sorry it’s my accent: ‘garlic aioli’.”
It’s my theory that anything crisp and deep-fried on a menu is a guaranteed winner. Four little salt cod croquettes arrive, dry, crisp and piping hot straight from the fryer. They are filled with a soothing mixture of gently salted cod and mashed spud. It’s an all round terrific dish with the subtle garlic aioli bringing it all together.
Spinach and feta bourek is another cracking dish. Again, hot from the pan, with pastry that shatters at first bite, the filling, a mix of sharp feta and bitter spinach, though I missed the menu promise of honey and pine nuts.
Whipped feta is gorgeous. Sharp feta beaten with yoghurt and tamed into a soothing dip then finished with a spike of hot Urfa pepper. We scoop it up with soft, billowing pillows of pitta and then order more.
The rest of the menu is made up of “big plates” and side dishes. We order three big ones then discover each one would feed two generously. They arrive bubbling in their cast-iron dish and look troublingly similar: tomato stew. The best of them has butterbeans and Tariq’s own made lightly spiced lamb merguez sausage in a tomato sauce and hot Urfa pepper. A classic shakshouka has slow- cooked red peppers melting in a sauce of tomato spiced with paprika with two eggs dropped in and poached in the sauce. The butternut squash tagine is a spin-off from the kiosk. Tomato again with squash, chickpeas and apricots. It’s an OK mix of sweet and savoury though the couscous gets lost beneath the stew.
There are side salads: the ubiquitous Middle Eastern favourite of chopped tomatoes, cucumber and red onion dressed with olive oil or carrot and mint, but we opt for the “signature slaw” of raw, finely grated beetroot, lightly pickled, the sharp vinegar tang a good foil for the rich stews.
Fresh mint tea comes fragrant in a glass teapot to round off dinner. It was decent value with small plates/starters pegged reasonably at around £6 and mains between £10 and £16.
By the time we leave the room has filled up. Tables have been pushed together for a party of eight, there’s a convivial buzz and no pressure to chuck us out at the 7.30pm deadline.
With a number of familiar dishes, Los Moros isn’t especially “modern”. Starters excite more than mains but for relaxed and good value dining, Los Moros is proving itself a worthy successor to El Piano.
Los Moros, 15-17 Grape Lane, York YO1 7HU, 01904 636834, www.losmorosyork.co.uk. Open every day, noon to 10pm. Dinner for two inc. bottle of wine and service, £70.