Solera: Serving Rare Treasures at the Table
The best gooseneck barnacles, or percebes, come from Spain’s exposed coastal areas in the Atlantic—at the bottom of cliffs, where the waves relentlessly crash into the rocks.
These little treasures of the ocean are harvested by hand, making it a dangerous job for the gatherers. They taste intensely of the sea, “a cross between a mussel and octopus,” said Rufino López, owner of Solera, a restaurant specializing in Spanish cuisine.
López knows percebes well—he comes from Cedeira, Spain, a village perched about 2,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.
On a recent night, López’s friend and principal fishmonger, Patricio Osses, dropped by the restaurant, bearing some of the expensive cargo.
Osses has been furnishing most of Solera’s fish for about 20 years.
Originally from Chile, he is known for procuring fish and shellfish hard to find anywhere else.
The gooseneck barnacles are nothing next to picorocos, another kind of barnacle Osses sometimes gets from Chile. “They look like a volcano,” said Osses.
When López receives such interesting deliveries, it only takes a few phone calls for the delicacies to be claimed; diners will come in a little later to savor them.
Twenty-three years at Solera has taught López how to successfully walk the line between clients who are loyal to their favorite dishes and those looking for something new.
The restaurant is contemporary, not avant-garde—even if renowned Spanish chefs Ferran Adrià or the late Santi Santa Maria used the kitchen to cook for events while in town. Solera manages to retain authentic Spanish flavors, while also creatively incorporating ingredients from elsewhere.
And that openness of spirit is a welcome touch.
Case in point is the popular hanger steak ($28), served with pimentón potatoes. It’s a flavorful cut that takes very kindly to marinating. It follows an old recipe dating back to the 18th century, in the days where marinating was not just a technique to add flavor, but also to preserve meat longer. Honey and herbs permeate the meat, giving it a beguiling fragrance and a hint of sweet flavor.
I liked it just on its own, but some diners can’t get enough of the tangy chimichurri sauce that accompanies it. A law firm, for which Solera caters and which shall remain nameless, requested so much of it, López had to ask what they were doing with the stuff—were they selling it? It turns out it was so good people were just piling it on everything—potatoes, soaking their bread in it, and so on.
Chimichurri, that garlic-parsley sauce, is Argentinian, yes. But Solera doesn’t feel bound in any way by a Spanish canon, which a friend of López pointed out at the dinner table, doesn’t exist anyway. And as López said, the exchange of goods between the Old and New Worlds was vital to global cuisine, as we know it today. Take away the potatoes or peppers, or tomatoes—all from the Americas—from Spanish cuisine (or Italian, for that matter), what do you have left?
Likewise, Europe introduced citrus, garlic, and herbs like parsley. So we’re not talking even remotely about fusion cuisine here, but rather a creativity that has deep ties to history and geography.
Of course, I’d be remiss not to delve into the paella—especially from one of the first Spanish restaurants in the city.
At Solera, there are a few types of paella. One is festooned with beautiful seafood, tender fish, bright, wonderful lobster, mussels, clams, and shrimp; another is black paella with squid ink, with shrimp and fish. The vegetable paella and the “Fideuá” a Catalan paella made with noodles round out the selection. (Individual portions range $28–$34.)
For 20-some years, these have been the most popular dishes.
But the lobster, mussels, shrimp, and clams—these are purely secondary.
“The true foundation of paella is the rice,” López said. “The rice should be fantastic.”
Broth-laden, it bears the flavor not only of the stock, but also the sofrito (a base of garlic, onion, and other vegetables), as well as the ingredients that go into it, be it seafood or chicken. That’s why when right after paella is cooked, López said, it needs to sit for 10–15 minutes and allow the rice to really absorb the flavors.
Bomba, a short-grained Spanish rice, absorbs the broth and flavors beautifully, yet each grain remains firm and retains its shape. If you make it traditionally—outdoors and over a wood fire—the rice acquires a subtle, fragrant smokiness. At Solera, something of that effect is achieved too. Early on when the restaurant was opened, a smoker was built, and the rice is infused with fragrant herbs.
The paella also gets the addition of a little picada (garlic, herbs, a little olive oil) toward the end of the cooking. Any earlier, say during the sofrito stage, and that flavor gets lost.
The paella is first-rate, the kind that you might get full on but keep on eating nonetheless.
A small plate of pinchos (essentially bite-size snacks) is just enough to awaken the senses. Presented beautifully, each bite beckons with a different flavor, texture, from the light-as-cloud bacalao (codfish) fritter, to the little Spanish anchovy that was flown in the day before, to the fig wrapped in Iberian ham.
Tapas are popular at the bar, of course, paired with wine or sherry; or as appetizers. Many have their own unique twists.
The fried calamari are addictive little things, dredged with some light chickpea flour (finer than regular flour) and served with a pimentón aioli; the gambas al ajillo (shrimp with garlic) comes to the table, boiling, cooked in fish stock, with a bit of guindilla pepper and a dash of sherry beside the olive oil and garlic. The latter is not overwhelming, as it can sometimes be.
The white asparagus melts in your mouth, delicate and soft against the romesco sauce, made mostly with almonds, and some pistachios.
There are new specials every day, for the regulars who do look for something new. The stuffed piquillo peppers, for example, are stuffed with different meats every day or every other day. López rattles off different stuffings: chicken, crab, lobster, cheese, ham, rabbit, oxtail, and lamb.
On a recent evening, there were about a dozen specials, among them duck empanadas, piquillo peppers with shrimp and crabmeat, and a dorada a la sal with asparagus.
If you like to end on a sweet note, pair a dessert with a sherry or dessert wine, and kick back. The Cuarteto Leche Huevo ($10) is wonderful for people who love custard desserts: it’s easy to share four desserts: crema Catalana (a relative of creme brulee), flan, tocino del cielo—all with different textures, intensity, sweetness, due to the different ratios of egg to milk or cream. The caramel ice cream, as all desserts, is made in-house. It’s heavenly—the same could be said of the fig ice cream that accompanies the chocolate-pecan cake.
If something savory-sweet is more to your liking, the Picatostes ($10), chocolate on toast points, sprinkled with sea salt, is a nice combination.
And finally if you prefer to eschew desserts in favor of cheese, a marvelous tray of Spanish cheeses awaits (three for $14, six for $28)
Wine and Sherries
A strong suit at Solera is the extensive list of wines and sherries, which are exclusively Spanish, and some of them very hard to find. The selection includes around 150 wines, with about 20 more available by the glass (30 if you include sherries).
Among some unusual wines, López carries a wine called Sketch, from his native Galicia, in northwestern Spain. Pallets of wine are sunk into the ocean to age—the temperature is constant, the oxygen can’t get in, and the pressure is high.
Another wine, Ekam from Castell d’Encus, is from the sub-Pyrenées and is partially fermented in vats carved into stone. These fermentation vats were used by monks even as far back as the 12th century.
“I showed a wine importer, he didn’t believe me,” López said. “‘Come on,’ he said. When the importer was in Spain two weeks ago, he went out of this way, 200 kilometers, and took pictures of it, ‘It’s true, it’s true!’”
“Now they’re making wine from varietals that we thought were long gone, white varietals in Galicia like the albarino. … People love it. It doesn’t have as much sugar, it’s lighter, more acidic, more fruity than Chardonnay.”
López recommends whites from Galicia (Albariño, Godello), for reds, Riojas and Riberas.
Sherries are staging a comeback too. “This was impossible to sell for years. Now it’s hot.”
When it’s cold and dreary outside, nothing beats coming into Solera and ordering a glass of wine or sherry with some tapas. It’s inviting, warm, lively—a bit of Spain in Midtown East.
Every so often, López hosts the Solera Blind Tasting Fraternity. It started as a blind tasting among a group of friends, and there have been more than 60 tastings so far. “We rate the wines, but we don’’ publicize [the results], it’s a little bit like what happens in Vegas…”
Now the guests featured hold some renown: Spanish Raúl Pérez has attended a few times; as have Italian winemaker Gaia Gaja, Wine Spectator’s executive editor Thomas Matthews, and Wine & Spirits magazine’s editor Joshua Greene.
The atmosphere is relaxed, and the food crafted to match the wines.
The great seafood and excellent rice cross cultural boundaries, drawing in a significant number of Asian diners; maybe about 40 percent, said López. Japanese media has also highlighted the restaurant as a go-to spot.
Not just the food, but also the communal nature of the meal experience bears a resemblance to family-style eating.
The real way to eat paella is with a spoon, straight out of the communal paella pan, digging deep to the prized soccarat—the golden, crusty rice layer at the very bottom. Those who love Korean dolsot bibimbap, with the hot stone bowl turning the rice crunchy and delicious, will know what I mean.
López doesn’t forget his Spanish compatriots, though. Solera stays open for lunch during the afternoons—this is the hora española, when the Spanish go to lunch.
The restaurant’s namesake, solera, is a method for aging sherry, using an extensive barrel system. But it’s also an expression. When someone or something has solera (“Tiene Solera”), it carries a connotation of excellence. Like fine, aged sherry, there’s the weight and polish of tradition and years—very much like Solera itself.
216 E. 53rd St.
Monday–Friday: noon–11 p.m.
Saturday: 5:30 p.m.–11 p.m.