New Jersey Restaurant Review
705 Route 202 North
Bridgewater, Somerset County, New Jersey
The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online
"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
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
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Web site: www.cafeemilia.com
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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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