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New Jersey Restaurant Review

Café Emilia
705 Route 202 North
Bridgewater, Somerset County, New Jersey
(908) 429-1410

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online
2/23/04

"Actuality," novelist John Updike once noted, "is a running impoverishment of possibility." And this, sad to say, is the unfortunate saga of Café Emilia, a restaurant that promises much but ultimately delivers very little. The packaging may be Neiman Marcus... but the contents have Wal-Mart written all over them.

One cannot help but be impressed by the edifice itself, especially after twilight descends, when, gently illuminated by the warmth of a series of well-placed spotlights, it beckons out of the darkness like a precious stone shimmering on black velvet. And the interior is no less inviting... Reminiscent of a rustic Tuscan villa, soft sienna-tones, tastefully appointed wall sconces, and the voluptuous glow of votive candles pamper patrons with a wonderfully cozy mise-en-scène. Ahh... the unmitigated joys of romantic dining... If only ambiance were edible.

Not that the food is horrific... at least not in the sense that it is likely to set off pestiferous paroxysms in your delicate nether regions. Given the restaurant's upscale urbane aura and the tuxedoed wait staff, however, the cuisine could be and should be infinitely more palatable. And since our illustrious Garden State offers diners ample opportunities to indulge their passions for exceptional northern Italian cookery, I freely confess that I have sampled infinitely better victuals on more than just a few occasions. Chef Agin Syla's culinary offerings do have their high points... but these, in my opinion, are few and far between.

You do, however, begin with an excellent complimentary bruschetta. There is just enough tang in the finely-chopped tomatoes, just enough texture in the pleasantly crunchy toast rounds. And if you wish to continue on a roll, so to speak, be sure to opt for the Gamberi Gratinati alla Diavola ($11.00), clearly the stars of the antipasti. Jumbo shrimp are lightly breaded, perfectly broiled, and served up with an assertively spicy tomato sauce. This is a relatively simple dish, but it is carried off with style.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the breaded and fried calamari rings ($9.00), which are strictly standard issue. There is no question that squid can be a mighty chewy customer, but, in the right hands, also amazingly tender. Not so here. The proffered specimens are the consistency of rubber bands and not worthy of either the manic mastication or the monetary outlay. And the same may be said for the Vongole Sorrentina ($10.00), littleneck clams steamed in a broth of garlic, shallots, and touch of tomato sauce. The broth itself is quite good; but the bivalves, like the aforementioned calamari, are inordinately chewy and also marred by a considerable amount of sediment.

Zuppe is always a good indication of a chef's capabilities, and pasta e fagiole ($6.00) surely the acid test for an Italian kitchen. The representative here doesn't exactly receive a failing grade... but it is also not about to generate any undue excitement. The homemade chicken stock -- awash with the usual assortment of white beans, prosciutto, onions, and pasta -- lacks both suitable substance & depth of flavor and could use infinitely more pizzazz in the seasoning department.

As you move on to the entrées, be prepared to encounter many of the same solecisms that plagued the appetizers. On the other hand, let me give credit where credit is due: The "Striped Sea Bass Marechiara" ($19.00) is really first-rate. The filet is perfectly cooked, flaky and tender, and swims to table in a delicate and delicious white wine broth brimming with plump clams, garlic, shallots, and just a tinge of tomato sauce. Excellent in every respect.

... And this very fact clearly brings the issues of congruity and credibility to the fore: How is it possible, one may well ask, for a kitchen that turns out such a superb piscatorial presentation to also send forth a saltimbocca ($18.00) that is very nearly beneath contempt? Not only does the dish lack finesse -- three enormous veal scallops assaulting a mountain of spinach -- but anything approximating flavor as well. The most disturbing aspect of this less than edifying scenario, however, is the texture of the veal itself. It is neither tough nor tender, but rather, sports a bizarre constitution that is faintly reminiscent of... well, yes... of wet cardboard. Not particularly appetizing, to say the least.

And the Pollo alla Scarpara ($16.00) -- boneless pieces of chicken sautéed with Italian sausage and fresh artichoke hearts -- isn't much of an improvement. The chicken is on the fatty side, the overall presentation as dark and brooding as a poorly acted Shakespearean drama, and the accompanying snow peas and carrots still slicked with oil add significantly to the somewhat queasy feeling that soon invades the innards.

Other than the aforementioned striped bass, pastas seem to be a fairly safe bet. Try the Penne alla Rossini ($14.00), penne pasta tossed with shallots, oregano, thyme, white pepper, garlic, and bits of onion & bacon in a plum tomato sauce tinctured with brandy. The sauce is on the rich side but most satisfying.

The dessert cart is a prominent fixture in the dining room; however, just be advised that not all the offerings are made in-house. Stick with the homemade tiramisù ($8.00) or the cheesecake ($8.00) and you can't go wrong. Espresso ($2.50) is also quite good.

The cuisine doesn't seem to be the only problem at Café Emilia... the service is something of an anomaly as well... Or maybe not that strange after all. Since this is a family affair -- with Chef Syla's relatives managing the front of the house and serving as wait captain, respectively -- if things are out of focus in the kitchen, why should the dining room be any different...?

On our first sojourn, we arrived a few minutes early for a 6:00 p.m. reservation, hoping to enjoy a quiet preprandial libation at the cozy, diminutive bar. But this proved to be an impossibility, as members of the staff were slouching conspicuously before a blaring TV screen, and newspapers and other paraphernalia were scattered carelessly about. Even though the restaurant had supposedly been open for business since 5:00 p.m., we had, euphemistically speaking, apparently caught the establishment with its collective pants down.

Once we were settled in at table, the captain made four appearances in rapid succession, apparently champing at the very bit to take our order. After three visitations, we finally assuaged his restless spirit by ordering a bottle of wine. Once a few more patrons materialized, he eased up on the hard sell a bit, and we were permitted to enjoy a few relaxing sips of an excellent 1998 Travaglini Gattinara ($48.00) while choosing our appetizers and entrées.

On another occasion, our starters appeared to be missing in action. A couple seated fifteen to twenty minutes after us had already polished off their preludes and were munching away on salads. Of course, I know precisely what had transpired... Our order had been taken by the manager, who had subsequently spent so much time shooting the breeze with friends and cronies that he had neglected to carry this vital information back to the kitchen.

But there was not even an attempt at an apology, just a rather dismissive over-the-shoulder "Your appetizers will be right out." Sometime later, this same manager made the rounds of various tables offering free after-dinner drinks... but we were studiously ignored. I doubt that we would have accepted, since we had a rather long drive ahead of us and we had already polished off a bottle of wine... but the gesture, a way of making amends, would have been greatly appreciated.

In point of fact, the service is yet another example of that utterly infuriating perfunctory professionalism that is neither personal nor personable. Waiters don't talk to you, they talk at you... unless, of course, you happen to be a regular, in which case you are treated quite differently than newcomers. And once a comment was made with regard to the tardiness of the appetizers, the slightly chilly atmosphere turned downright icy. I don't mean to imply that anyone was rude; but the attitude seemed to be that since we voiced words of complaint, we probably wouldn't return anyway, so why bother.

During one of our visits, the manager was patiently explaining to a couple nearby (obviously regular patrons) that the purpose of the restaurant's New Year's Eve dinner/celebration had not been merely to make money, but also to attract future repeat customers. Based upon our experiences, I can only say that if Café Emilia is attempting to woo repeat customers, it has a rather peculiar way of doing so.

Cuisine: Northern Italian
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Tues - Fri, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.; Sun, 4:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License
Price: Moderate/Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Web site: www.cafeemilia.com

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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