Nidia Alexander’s dream was to open a restaurant. “It’s something I always wanted to do,” says the former Wall Street portfolio manager, who grew tired of her long commute after her son was born. But only in her dreams could she have imagined that Café Barcel, which opened in a quaint storefront on Nyack’s Main Street last November, would quickly turn out to be such a bustling success.
“My family has always been in the business,” says Alexander, who grew up in New York City. The name of the restaurant, in fact, is a tribute to her forebears. Barcel is short for both Barcelona (the one in Spain) and Barceloneta (in Puerto Rico), which are the hometowns of her grandmother and mother, respectively. And the Latin influence permeates everything from the menu to the drink specials, the artsy atmosphere to the musical acts that play the room every Friday night.
Nyack is on the outer fringes of this magazine’s coverage area. It took my wife and me well over an hour to drive there from our house in Highland (we eschewed the Thruway for the scenic route, snaking down Route 9W through the Heights of northern Rockland County). It was well worth the trip.
Café Barcel’s dining room is bright and open; ceiling fans spin lazily around, setting a casual and faintly Iberian mood. The décor is modern: dark wooden floor and tables, red vinyl booths, clean white walls adorned with art. The restaurant doubles as a gallery, where local artists exhibit their work; a row of paintings of chickens hung behind us, looking, it must be said, very Spanish. (Later, I found out they were painted by Rosie Reilly, the sister of executive chef Kevin Reilly, late of the Water Club and the Union Square Café in New York).
Owner Nidia Alexander and Chef Kevin Reilly
Right as we sat down, the waitress brought us a snack — mozzarella fondue on toasted baguette, one for each of us. This amazingly fresh mozzarella had the consistency of cream cheese. I could have spread it on the baguette with a butter knife. An auspicious beginning to what would be an exquisite meal.
It was high summer when we visited Café Barcel, and they offered up some snazzy cocktails — a ginger mojito, with ginger-infused vodka and mint; an agave negro, a pleasant mixture of fresh blackberries, lemon, mint, and tequila; “Mallorca Dreams,” with fresh blueberries, lemon juice, Tanqueray and Prosecco; and, for the designated drivers, a fresh berry spritzer — but we opted for wine. I highly recommend the Itsas Mendi, a sweet (but not too sweet) white wine from the Basque region of Spain which tasted like it was almost bubbling. When I finished the first glass, I asked for another.
The appetizers came with a flourish, each dish looking like its own miniature art installation. My wife’s soup was served in a big, white, oblong bowl, and my yellow fin tuna tartare, flanked by taro chips half a foot long, was (almost) as attractive to look at as it was to taste. The soup — sweet corn with shrimp and pickled jalapeños — was revelatory. “The perfect blend of sweet and spicy,” my wife said. (She would continue to talk about the soup for the next two days.)
Daily specials are all written in cursive on a giant blackboard on one wall, in rainbow-colored chalk. While not on the main menu, there are several that Café Barcel is already known for, such as the mozzarella speidini with white anchovy and caper sauce, and the shrimp a la plancha with green plantains.
We stuck to the menu, however. My wife had the seared rare tuna with yucca pancake, pea leaves, and carrot-herb sauce, while I went with the salmon fillet a la plancha with sweet corn, mizzuna, fava beans, and smoked tomato emulsion. Although salmon is ubiquitous on restaurant menus, it is difficult to cook. Often, it’s too well done, and a tad dry. Not so here. Each bite of salmon called to mind the best salmon I’ve ever had, which was at lunch at Jean-Jacques in New York. The sides, as well as my wife’s entrée, were equally up to par.
Happy ending: Fresh buñuelos with chocolate ganache — a dessert so good, it often sells out
In addition to the mouthwatering cuisine, Café Barcel has several other things going for it. First, half of the proceeds from sales of the paintings benefit the Rockland Family Center for Battered Wives and Children. Second, it’s open on Monday nights, as well as Sunday for brunch, where the fare includes strawberry cheesecake French toast and eggs Benedict with asparagus. Third, they use local produce, and one of the tap beers — Defiant — is from a microbrewery in nearby Pearl River. Finally, it’s two blocks from the Thruway on-ramp: really easy to find, even if, like us, you aren’t familiar with the Nyack byways.
For dessert, my wife opted for fresh buñuelos with chocolate ganache, while I chose the cheesecake crêpes with fresh strawberries, toasted almonds, and balsamic honey. As delicious as the crêpes were — the cheesecake was the perfect consistency, and the almonds and honey complemented each other wonderfully — the buñuelos were… Insert your favorite superlative here; words fail me.
A buñuelo is a Spanish doughnut — although the word we normally associate with a fast-food coffee chain does not do justice to what was brought to our table, piping hot, piled in a basket, wrapped lovingly in white cloth, and coated with sugar. These were not doughnuts. They were beignets. No, more than that. They were gourmet zeppoles. Let me say that again: gourmet zeppoles. If I lived closer to Nyack, I would come to Café Barcel just to feast on these treats.
Fare with flair: Café Barcel’s popular pan seared mozzarella speidini with white anchovy and caper sauce
And I’m not the only one who feels this way. Alice Gabriel, in her glowing review in the New York Times (which I didn’t read before my meal, although there is a framed copy by the front door), invests three of her nine paragraphs on the buñuelo.
“We sell out of those,” Alexander says. “It’s unbelievable.”
The brunch menu, incidentally, offers a different twist on the buñuelo. During the day, the doughnut is coated in confectionary sugar, instead of the usual kind, and comes with vanilla custard instead of chocolate ganache for dunking.
The only problem with our dessert was that the buñuelos were so good, the chocolate ganache was superfluous. We didn’t dunk the hot dough in chocolate. Instead, we savored the buñuelos, and when we were done, I polished off the ganache like it was a soup — a warm, thick, chocolaty soup.
And that was the only flaw in the entire dining experience: a surfeit of chocolate. Which, of course, is really not a flaw at all.
Open for dinner daily and brunch on Sunday. Appetizers range from $9-$16; entrées from $13-$21; dessert from $8-$10
162 Main St., Nyack 845-535-3133