Elise Maclay, Connecticut Magazine's longtime restaurant critic, passed away on Jan. 5, 2021. After contributing a handful of reviews in the mid-1980s, she became the magazine's regular food writer in March 1988 and was a mainstay for nearly 28 years, until her last column in December 2015. In all, Maclay wrote well over 650 restaurant reviews (usually visiting two or three places per month) for the magazine, as well as numerous feature articles and columns in which she displayed her unparalleled knowledge — and love — of the state's dining scene.
In 1990 Maclay won a first-place Gold in the White Awards, a national competition of city and regional magazines. The award presentation noted that she "whips up tantalizing reviews combining food scholarship, personal charm and keen descriptions including tasty tidbits about history and furnishing.”
As a restaurant critic, anonymity was paramount for Maclay, and not surprisingly, photographs of her are hard to come by and likely never appeared in the pages of Connecticut Magazine. On a personal level, when she wasn't dining out or writing about those experiences, she enjoyed writing poetry.
In this article from the January 1992 issue of Connecticut Magazine, Elise looks back at her already-long career as a food critic and food lover, restaurants here in Connecticut (and beyond) she particularly loved, and the ways her passion was shaped here and around the world. It is being published online on Jan. 7, 2021.
I am a restaurant critic, but I must do more than eat and tell. I must make judgments. Comparisons may be odious, but they are essential to critical assessment. I must compare the food on my plate to a mythical ideal and to real food in the real world. I must ask myself: How does this carpaccio measure up to the best carpaccio I ever tasted?
That was in Venice, the city where Signor Arrigo Cipriani invented the dish for Comessa Amalia Nani Mocenigo, who was forbidden by her doctor to eat cooked meat. I was young and in love—not with a man but with Venice—and everything from St. Mark’s Square to a gondola laden with Coca-Cola bottles struck me as unbelievably wonderful. So it seemed to me that I was eating ambrosia; that the transparent slivers of rosy beef filet melted on my tongue; that the sauce, from a recipe closely guarded by the Cipriani family, was one part virgin olive oil and two parts romance.
So in order to be objective, I must resist that memory and move the clock forward to find other carpaccios to use as my yardstick. What do other restaurants serve when carpaccio is ordered?
The question arises because I have been asked a broader question. With which favorite elements would I build my favorite meal? What would be my favorite-ever appetizer? Most memorable entree? Salad? Dessert?
I am tempted to reply with my least favorite answer, an answer my husband frequently gives me, gives everyone because he is a lawyer: “It depends.” My favorite foods depend on the season (Is it a tender summer evening? A blustery midwinter day when we must stamp the snow off our feet when we come inside?), the reason (Is it a misty-eyed, romantic tête-à-tête or a “hail, hail, the gang’s all here” get-together?) and on a more subjective factor that we might as well call mood (When I’m anxious, l crave rice pudding).
That said, it must also be said that years of attentive eating have given me sound bases for comparison. So when a dish is set before me, when I taste it, a panoply of gradations from good to better to best come instantly to mind based on edible pleasures I have known. From these delicious recollections it’s possible and fun to construct an absolutely glorious meal with wisps of ambience and atmosphere from places I’ve lived, visited and imagined, a meal seasoned with gratitude for the good earth that provides the ingredients and the good cooks who do them justice.
Let us begin at the beginning with appetizers. About that carpaccio. On that sunny day so long ago in Venice, I was too poor to do more than follow Hemingway’s footsteps to Harry’s Bar and order a Bellini. Lunch I took near my pensions at a sidewalk café with a bargain prix-fixe menu posted on an awning pole. As I remember it, the meal consisted of carpaccio, pasta and fruit. The waiter, who was also the owner, assured me that it was the very same carpaccio served at the Hotel Cipriani. Had he not been a waiter there? I was too happy to be in Venice dining beside a canal to question whether a cheap little café would have access to the finest beef, Parmigiano and olive oil, on all of which the excellence of carpaccio depends. I was served a simple carpaccio made, I suspect, with eye of the round, sliced and pounded tissue-thin (effort can make up for a lot) and dressed an hour or so ahead of time so that the olive oil and lemon juice further tenderized the meat, which was adorned only with a sprinkling of capers. I have had more elaborate carpaccios over the years, but that one seemed then, and in retrospect seems now, altogether perfect for the time and place and the glass of dry and velvety Soave that came with the meal.
Because I often have a meat, poultry or fish entrée, I rarely order carpaccio as an appetizer. I prefer to make a little meal of it, especially if I happen to be at Centro in Fairfield, where what must be the most opulent carpaccio in all of Connecticut is among the appetizers on the dinner menu and will be served as a luncheon entrée if you request it. I have a love-hate relationship with Centro. I hate the fact that they won’t take reservations and refuse to seat you until every member of your party has arrived; I love the murals on the walls, the view of the town gazebo, and their version of carpaccio-laved in golden olive oil, topped with gently warmed wild mushrooms and garnished with shavings of imported Parmesan.
I also favor shellfish as an appetizer—light, bright, festive. It must, of course, be sparkling fresh, so the best is often found on-site. I love the tiny shrimp you get at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco and the stone crab the Fort Lauderdale Yacht Club heaps on a 6-foot bed of ice when it’s stone-crab season. Shellfish is delicate, and I usually prefer it unadorned, but there are exceptions, notably crab Belle Haven as it’s served at The Homestead Inn in Greenwich. This is blue claw crab from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, lots and lots of carefully picked sweet meat, sauced with a heavenly Louis-type dressing and served in a crystal goblet. As I remember, it was the costliest appetizer on the menu, but what price glory?
When price is an object, I prefer to skip appetizers altogether and, if necessary, forgo dessert in order to dine in the restaurant of my choice.
When a fine chef is doing the honors, less seems like more and frequently is. A nosegay of baby vegetables, a sea scallop wrapped in Swiss chard, ravioli filled with spiced spinach—these are among the grace notes that have embellished entrées I’ve enjoyed at Robert Henry’s in New Haven. Here, each entrée is a work of art, its garnishes and accompaniments integral and chosen expressly for it. So I have successively fallen in love with the lamb—luscious little noisettes served with a goat-cheese timbale—the venison that is flown in from France, the red snapper with Oriental vegetables, and the duck breast, grilled, sliced and arranged in a rosette with french-fried slivers of celeriac.
Actually, just about everything about Robert Henry’s pleases me. The chairs are comfortable and the room is beautiful, with historic stained-glass windows, a rich color scheme of cream and peach accented with blue-and-white Chinese porcelain, and a raft of fresh flowers. Service is choreographed to perfection; everything arrives when wanted and not a minute before.
But the subject of entrées deserves a P.S. I would not have included pork on my list of favorites, but an entrée served at the West Street Grill in Litchfield changed my mind. There I tasted lean fresh pork tenderloin that had been marinated in thyme and fennel, coriander, rosemary and garlic. Grilled with a crispy herb crust, it was a revelation. It looked pretty, too, the thin slices fanned out like flower petals on a bed of scalloped potatoes.
Looks count for a lot when it comes to dining delight, so in certain moods I’d head for Hop Brook in Simsbury and sit at a table looking at or into the waterfall and eat whatever they served me. The porch at Norwalk’s Silvermine Tavern in summer might lure me, too. At Silvermine, I’d order lobster pie. For plain lobster, I prefer cooking my own on the beach in Chatham, Mass. When it comes to doing fancy things to lobster, I think the prize goes to chef Jean-Louis Gerin of Restaurant Jean-Louis in Greenwich, who does half a dozen variations on a lobster theme. His so-called “lobster soup” is a masterpiece of color, taste and texture. The lobster, poached in herbscented fish stock, is served out of its shell, arranged with avocado slivers and asparagus tips in a beautiful design on a swirl of beurre blanc. Soup? If so, for the gods.
"In certain moods I’d head for Hop Brook in Simsbury and sit at a table looking at or into the waterfall and eat whatever they served me."
My grandfather, a chef and restaurant owner, judged restaurants by their soup. In my experience, bread and salad are good barometers of a restaurant’s commitment. Robert Henry’s installed a special bread-baking oven to get the crisp-crusted rolls I’d go to Paris for. I don’t know where Dolce in Stamford gets its chewy peasant bread, but it may be the best in Connecticut. My favorite Caesar salad is the one I make at home. It takes half a day. I give the recipe to friends, and they complain that it doesn’t taste the same. I suspect they don’t dry each lettuce leaf with a cloth towel, leave the croutons in a 200-degree oven for two hours, and create the garlic-oil infusion the day before. My mouth waters at the thought, but I salivate with equal pleasure over the deceptively simple green salad with sherry-spiked vinaigrette served by Paul L’Abbée in New Canaan. If I knew what makes it so wonderful, I’d make it.
Culinary copy-catting isn’t easy. But at The Hearthstone in Hartford a year or so go, I encountered bananas Foster every bit as good as those served at Brennan’s in New Orleans. With so many dreary imitations around, it was wonderful to meet the real thing in Connecticut. Two waiters assembled the ingredients. The stirring went on forever so that the flavors were truly melded. A bit of Old World service in a New World steak house.
Do the blue flames still dance over bananas at The Hearthstone? I must go see, because although it’s chic and probably prudent to pass up dessert, I never do. After all, what’s a good show without a finale?
My all-time favorite dessert is baked Alaska. To my mind, it has everything. It’s dramatic. Astonishing. A fantasy. Flaming ice cream? The contrasts are dazzling: teeth-chilling cold under hot, sweet, creamy meringue crisped on top and burned black in places so that it reminds me of marshmallows toasted over a campfire, the blandness of not-too-sweet sponge cake, and the heady whiff of Grand Marnier or Cointreau. I’ve had fabulous baked Alaskas in Europe, Great Britain, Morocco. Never in Connecticut. Perhaps that’s as it should be. Perhaps the correct context for a baked Alaska is a slightly decadent grand hotel with deposed monarchs huddling in corners and countesses of dubious pedigree flirting behind potted palms.
Context counts. I love sticky buns in a New England inn; I’d hate them in a Parisian café. Hefty platters of goulash and sauerbraten hit the spot at atmospheric Rudy’s in New Milford; they’d be jarring at Cavey’s. My favorite restaurants have a clear sense of what they are and what they are trying to do. You can feel it the minute you walk in, and it makes you feel comfortable. If the ambience is formal, it is unabashedly so, with the staff calmly competent yet self-assured enough to smile and put you at ease. If the mood is casual, the decor, the table appointments and the foods should ring true with honest goodness and stylish simplicity. So my most memorable meals include those taken in seaside tavernas in Greece. Great bread. Lamb grilled over charcoal. Rice wrapped in vine leaves. Everything served on heavy white plates on a scrubbed wood table. Flowers in a water glass. The sound of the sea.
Wonderful, but no more or less than meals enjoyed at The Ritz Hotel in Madrid, where the service is sublime, tables draped with snowy damask display an armada of silver, and an orchestra plays under crystal chandeliers. In that setting it’s easy to imagine that the time is long ago and far away, and I reign as empress of all the Russias. In the here and now, I earn my bread by eating it—an unlikely, occasionally arduous, frequently delicious, always interesting occupation. Not the least of its rewards is a feast of memories.