Emil's, a small, out of the way place on Twiggs Street in Old Town, began life a decade ago as Villa Rosalie. Basically a mom 'n' pop establishment with certain pretensions to formality, it did have charm as well as an agreeable Continental menu cooked by Emil Wachter, who bought and renamed the restaurant after his first year or two on the job. Wachter's cooking was consistently reliable, but his was one of those restaurants whose existence easily slips from memory.
A few months ago, Wachter sold Emil's to newlyweds Marc and Gabriele Philippe, a French-German couple with a combined 40 years in the restaurant business. They have retained the name, the style and the general approach of the cuisine. The cooking, however, is in the hands of Christian Chopineau, who does justice to the combined Continental-French menu.
Although far from grand and not the least nouvelle or trendy, Emil's should appeal to diners in search of both competent, old-fashioned cooking and a quiet, extremely low-key atmosphere. The charm here probably is strictly in the eyes of the beholder, and may be nonexistent for some; the restaurant was once a very modest house, and it retains that character, despite the oils in gilded frames that bring a certain life to the somewhat funky dining rooms.
The half-paneled walls, strung with colored lights, are in places papered with imitation brick, and a window air-conditioner, a relative rarity hereabouts, is the focus of one room. But the service, generally a weak point at San Diego restaurants, benefits from the experience of the Philippes, who bring a European-style confidence and personality to the table.
The menu opens on a strong note with the disarmingly named squid a la maison , which actually is one of the few nice recipes for squid "steak" to come along (this often-tough seafood frequently stands in for abalone, whose briny shoes it of course cannot fill). Cut in fingers and sauteed in much butter with julienned red and green bell peppers, the flavor quickly suggests curry--there is cumin, as well--an inspired spicing that gives the squid an interesting character.
This appetizer is followed by listings for escargot bourguignon , the eternal favorite of Continental restaurants, and for shrimp in garlic sauce, the eternal favorite of San Diego restaurants. For all that, the shrimp, again swimming in butter, have the brisk, pungent flavor of garlic that has been crushed to release its essence and heated only long enough to maximize that rich aroma. (It is amazing how many cooks do not understand garlic, which turns bitter, acrid and disagreeable the moment is is allowed to brown.)
Meals include the choice of a rather nice green salad tossed with a creamy dill dressing or the soup of the day, recently a cream of tomato that almost certainly was a puree of other days' soups masked with tomato. (Because tomato efficiently mutes other flavors, soups labeled under its name frequently started out as something altogether different.)
A la carte offerings in this department include a baked onion soup and a handsome Caesar salad, heavier on the anchovy filets than seems necessary but nonetheless well-composed and dressed.
The entree list has a Middle European air that suggests an intention to follow somewhat in Wachter's footsteps; this is Frenchified to a degree by Chopineau's offerings of sauced steaks and rack of lamb seasoned with herbs and garlic in the style of Provence. The lamb rack, like the chateaubriand bouquetiere (a roasted beef tenderloin garnished with sauce bearnaise and an assortment of vegetables) is prepared for two diners only.
At its most Middle European, the list offers Hungarian goulash, another former staple that has all but disappeared from contemporary menus. Its obscurity would be more readily understood were all versions similar to Chopineau's, which, although served generously, featured tough meat and a grainy sauce that relied upon paprika alone for its savor. The menu specified noodles, but the goulash actually was spooned over spaghetti matted with melted, white cheese, a truly surprising presentation that made for difficult eating.