50 Front Street
Lunch and Dinner, 7 days
Every May when the shad bushes are in bloom, my appetite invariable turns to the seasonal dishes of spring. Soon after the ice goes out, the shad and stripers and herring return to the river, ramps (wild leeks) appear in the greenmarkets along with fiddle heads and morels. At about the same time, the weather allows for outdoor dining and we, like the shad, return to the river.
Our Wednesday night sojourns frequently happen in Newburgh at this time of year, where we secure a table with a view of the river at Cena 2000. Cena and its sister restaurants Il Cena’Colo in Newburgh and Sapore Steakhouse in Fishkill are all owned by Sali Hazhibrahimi, who was instrumental in introducing rustic Italian cooking to the Hudson Valley twenty five years ago.
The first restaurant Sali opened was Il Cena’ Colo. I vividly recall my first visit. A friend, Tom Aposporos, called and insisted that we visit. He had been brought there the week before by a mutual friend, Jim Cater. We all went back for what was to be the first of many, many visits. The outside of the building that houses Cena was, and is, unimpressive. Cena’Colo looks like somebody built a foundation, ran out of money, and put a roof on it. What it offered inside however was a total revelation to any of us who had not yet traveled to Italy. I still remember the anti pasta table that you had to pass to get into the dining room. Plates of marinated vegetables – eggplant slices and roasted peppers in olive oil, and all kinds of summer squashes, and mushrooms, and entire wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano and loaves of crusty rustic breads – surrounded a carving cradle holding an entire prosciutto. I remember it like it was yesterday. I had never seen anything like it. It changed the way I thought about dining out. It changed the way I thought about food. It remains to this day my favorite kind of cuisine. At the time I was writing for the Poughkeepsie Journal and awarded the restaurant four stars. Harrold’s in Stormville was the only other four star restaurant in the area, and could not have been more different than Cena. Cena really did change the definition of fine dining in the Hudson Valley. I later learned that DaSilvano in New York City was one of the first to offer this style of rustic cooking in an upscale dining experience, and Sali had worked at that restaurant. At the time Il Cena’Colo was the only restaurant in the area offering this type of “Cucina Rustica”, but now we are blessed with many good choices such as Il Barilotto in Fishkill, Aroma Osteria in Wappingers, and Gigi Trattoria in Rhinebeck. Unfortunately none of these restaurants are on the river, which is what we are looking for today.
Ten years ago Cena 2000 opened on the Newburgh waterfront. The style of cooking is substantially similar to Il Cena’Colo, but ratcheted down a few notches on the fine dining scale, and also in price. Cena 2000 is much more casual. It is still quite good, and just as entertaining, which starts with the menu and special offerings. When we first started going to Cena’ Colo, we were overwhelmed by the number of specials that were offered nightly. The same routine awaits you at Cena 2000. The wait staff will launch into a ten minute recitation of half dozen appetizers , numerous pasta specials, six different seafood specials – tuna, swordfish, salmon, sea bass, striped bass, cuttlefish – multiple steak offerings, two veal dishes, three chicken dishes, and they are just getting started. Each is described in minute detail, including cooking method – sautéed, braised, roasted, etc. – seasonings, accompaniments, sauces, etc. All of this is done from memory. Rarely, if ever, does anyone look at a note. The first few times I heard this done I just could not believe that anyone could possibly remember that much information. After a few visits you realize what is going on. The specials never change. They recite the same thing every night. All right, maybe once in a while they change the fish, but the whole scene is a show. Wonderful entertainment, but it’s a show none the less. I guarantee you that tonight’s special will include a Dungeness crab pasta, served in the crab’s shell. (It’s actually quite good.)
In addition to the specials, they actually do have a menu, and once in a while we order something from it. Calamari ($11.00) is offered fried like everywhere else, but also alla griglia – tossed with a little bread crumbs and garlic and grilled. It’s a nice change, and one worth trying. I mentioned the cuttlefish (seppia), which is similar in taste and texture to calamari (squid) but is served sautéed in extra virgin olive oil. It’s always good. Along with the apps your waiter will bring out a basket of wonderful rustic bread accompanied by a small dish of sun dried tomatoes and olive oil. This is another dish that Sali introduced me to years ago that I now make at home. It couldn’t be simpler. Chop sundried tomatoes in a food processor, and add some good olive oil and red pepper flakes and blend to the consistency of hummus. I add some roasted garlic sometimes to give it a little extra zip. It takes literally a minute to make and beats the heck out of butter patties.
We usually break with a Caesar or arugula salad before ordering our entrees. The said aforementioned fish platters are consistently good, but I do feel more and more guilty about eating just about any seafood these days. Swordfish, farm raised salmon, and Chilean sea bass are all on the do not order list, each for their own ecological reasons. They sometimes offer a wild Alaska salmon, or rainbow trout. A special dish to listen up for is Vitello Tunatto – paper thin slices of roast veal, topped with a prepared tuna sauce. It tastes much better than it sounds, and I will almost always order it if available. Same for the grilled octopus, which the kitchen does a great job with.
The broiled veal chop served with the bone frenched for effect is always delicious. Another very good veal dish is the same chop, pounded flat, breaded, sautéed and served ala Milanese with cherry tomatoes on top.
Cena 2000 is equal parts good menu, good kitchen, an attentive and entertaining wait staff, and bustling riverfront cocktail lounge. It is one of the few riverfront dining establishments in the area where you would actually still go to eat if they were not on the river. The food is as good as the view, and that’s not easy to come by.
Follow us on Twitter @ NCntryRambler
Follow us on Facebook @ North Country Rambler