Restaurant Review: El Solar Cafe

Latin-Mediterranean fusion fare lights up a block on Newburgh’s main drag

Despite Newburgh’s reputation as one of our more “stressed” cities (New York State’s delicate assessment), it has its bright spots. The most dazzling is the made-over waterfront district, where restaurants are ranged along the riverbank, and crowds of people stroll about on warm weekends, gazing at the lovely views; the historic district is charming as well. On the other side of town, Il Cena’colo, one of the finest Italian restaurants in the Valley, has been luring diners to an unlikely-looking building since 1988. And for the past couple of years, El Solar Cafe has brought a ray of sunshine to the crest of the hill where Broadway meets Prospect Street. 

It’s not easy to get noticed on Broadway, a boulevard so wide you have to flash a neon sign to attract the attention of those driving by. El Solar Cafe isn’t flashy, but it’s worth looking for. (Trip Advisor rates it number one of the eateries in Newburgh.) In warm weather, there are a few sidewalk tables that help it stand out; off-season, look for the warm glow emanating from its big storefront windows.

Jose Hernandez opened the restaurant with his wife, Gisela, and her brother, Marcelo Pacheco, in July 2012. All three of them worked for many years for Sali Hadzi, the force behind Il Cena’colo (and its waterfront offshoots, Cena 2000 and Cafe Pitti) — Jose and Gisela as servers and Marcelo as the pasta and sauté chef. (More recently, he cooked at Il Tesoro, Goshen’s gem of an Italian place that, sadly, is now closed.)

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toasted bread el solar cafe dining room

Toasted bread (left) is covered with fresh lobster, celery, onion, tomatoes, and a yogurt-lemon mayo sauce; at right: El Solar Cafe’s elegant but relaxed dining room

“We trained at one of the best places in the Hudson Valley,” Jose Hernandez says of their experience at Il Cena’colo. “Sali is like an institution.” When the three decided to strike out on their own, they were ready to deploy all they’d learned about good cooking and personable, accommodating service — and it shows. What they didn’t want to do was compete, so they created a fusion menu of Latin and Mediterranean cooking, boosted by daily specials inspired by what Hernandez and Pacheco find in the market. The regular lineup usually includes calamari and ceviche among the appetizers; two or three soups (like pasta e fagioli or spinach-chicken); three salads; a couple of pastas; a risotto; and four meat-based and seasonal fish entrées.  

At lunchtime, around $10 or $11 will buy you a vegetable and Fontina panini; or a salad of plantains with avocado and shrimp; or tapas with chorizo or smoked mozzarella and mushroom, served like an open-faced sandwich. “People love the burrito,” Hernandez adds. “Everything here is fusion, so ours is a chicken carbonara burrito, creamy Italian style with caramelized onion, then we add everything else that comes in a burrito.” 

When we visited on a chilly evening, our first impression was that the room’s subdued lighting and warm colors create a welcoming retreat from the bright, broad street. There’s a tiled bar in the back, and 16 well-spaced tables, some with glass tops over their white cloths. Chairs are mismatched on purpose, Hernandez says, to create a different ambiance in different corners. Little shelves holding wine bottles and doodads are dotted about on the walls, giving the look of an Old World bistro; soft background music — Phil Collins was crooning about something in the air as we sat down — add to the relaxed mood. And the owners and staff seem genuinely pleased to serve you.    

We made short work of the complimentary corn chips and a spicy remoulade of roasted yellow and red peppers. Hernandez then appeared to recite the night’s specials, which he described in terms of preparation rather than relating where each ingredient was procured, as has become the sometimes annoying vogue. 

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I nabbed that day’s last special appetizer: just-ripe figs, cut in half, paired with tissue-thin prosciutto and little chunks of Gorgonzola, and drizzled with olive oil. It was a lovely combination of sweet, salty, and tangy with an enjoyable variety of textures.

My husband rarely passes on calamari, so his only dilemma was whether to choose it sautéed in white wine and tomato sauce, or go for the classic fried and crispy. The fried version won — and it was a real winner. A light batter supplied some crunch while allowing the flavor of the calamari to shine through; and the tomato dip, served warm, was nicely spicy yet more subtle than a typical fra diavolo. Although he was born in Brooklyn, my spouse came over all British and pronounced it “simply marvelous.” 

plantain and shrimp salad brazilian lobster tail osso buco

Left to right: The plantain and shrimp salad is plated with Hass avocado and organic baby arugula; roasted Brazilian lobster tail comes topped with olive oil, garlic, cilantro, and a white wine sauce; traditional osso buco — veal shank cooked with carrot, celery, onions, white wine, garlic, sundried tomatoes — is accompanied by truffle-flavored polenta

Our server popped out to show me my oven-roasted whole branzino, a Mediterranean sea bass, before nipping back to the kitchen to bone it. The rosemary, garlic, and lemons roasted with it gave the fish’s delicate, buttery flavor a lift, and although it came with a pesto-oil dip, I preferred it without. Chunks of al dente peppers, carrots, beans, and zucchini provided a fresh-tasting side, and the roasted potatoes were so good, I asked for more. 

A pair of thick loin lamb chops were perfectly cooked to a tender medium rare, and topped with a bright chimichurri sauce given extra zip with cilantro. They were presented simply, teamed with farro studded with diced vegetables, and dressed up with a swirl of balsamic reduction cream. Delicious.

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Desserts include American standards like cheesecake, molten lava cake, and bread pudding, along with sorbets and gelato. We ordered that Latin American favorite, tres leches, which was light, fluffy, moist and scrumptious, if not quite as drenched and trifle-like as it sometimes is. Nevertheless, it was a pleasing indulgence at the end of a very enjoyable meal.

“I come from Quito,” says Hernandez, who sees similarities between his native and adopted cities. “A lot of history, a lot of beautiful buildings. Newburgh was once one of the best cities to live in — we have to revitalize this town!” Opening the restaurant on Broadway was “a risk,” he adds. “People said, maybe nobody will see you, nobody will come. But they did come. Maybe somebody will open another restaurant like this near us, and then another one. It will be like Beacon… Of course, we opened the restaurant to make money, but we’re doing something for the community. That makes us proud.”

If you go…

El Solar Cafe
Lunch and dinner daily; closed Sundays
Lunch $8-$12; appetizers $7.50-$16.50; entrées average $15-$20 (specials can run higher); desserts $6.50

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