"Tried and True" December 2000 by Elise Maclay for Connecticut Magazine
December is like a box of antique Christmas tree ornaments. Open it and there, wrapped in the tissue of time, are the dear, familiar memories. If the sky-blue spun glass bird has lost some of its shimmer, haven't we all? It's just so good to see it again. And the tiny red sled. And the bunch of grapes with silvery stuff that's supposed to be frost. No picture perfect new ornament can compare. Old restaurants are like that. We think of them in December when we call up the past. Are they still there? Alas, most have melted away. But some remain. What are they like now? What if we resisted the Lorelei's call of newness and revisited restaurants that have been around for more than 20 years. On impulse, we open the nostalgia box.
If our recent visit to the Fife'n Drum were a play, the cast of characters would read as follows: A restaurant critic and her omnivorous companion; a young couple who, after years of living abroad, have returned to restore an old house and barn in the bucolic environs of New Milford; their son, a boy of 8, who has been added to the party at the last minute because a babysitter was unavailable; a hostess who exudes the competence and confidence of a good mother; a waiter from Croatia; and a piano player, who (unbeknownst to us) has owned the Fife 'n Drum for 27 years. The curtain rises. We are in a vestibule between two dining rooms, each of which can be glimpsed through a doorway (left), and a second doorway (right). Background sounds: Dining babble and piano music.
The first thing that catches my eye is a Connecticut Magazine restaurant review dated 1973. Stars weren't awarded in those days but I quickly ascertain that the reviewer liked the "fabulous food and piano music, too." Hostess enters through doorway (left) and gestures for us to follow her through doorway (right). But I have glimpsed a pianist in a black bow tie tickling the ivories in the dining room to the left. I tell my group to stay put and go after the hostess.
When I catch up to her, I say, "We were hoping for a table in the room with the piano." "What do you call that?" she asks, pointing to a grand piano in front of us. She delivers the line with the benevolent smile of a fairy godmother in the top echelon of the wish-fulfillment business. And even as we speak, the pianist arrives, sits down and begins to play.
And so things go from this moment on. We are ushered to a table set for four. Oh dear, we'd made a reservation for four and now we are five. And it's Saturday night. Not an empty table in sight. Again our godmother smiles. Another chair, another place setting materializes. The table is crowded but the staff makes do, unfailingly obliging although our fixation on labor intensive dishes, tableside preparations and sharing must seem obsessive if not persecutive. But our big, bold waiter (who tells us he is from Croatia, where the sea water is clear as glass) Flambees Duck, Flambees Lamb, Flambees Filet Mignon au Poivre with enthusiasm that borders on glee. No timid two-inch flicker of flame for him. To the delight of our 8-year-old guest, big bold blazes of yellow flame leap up with a satisfying whoosh, and die down instantly at their master's command.
But long before this, we begin to feel coddled. The menu is long and there are lots of Specials, so in order to allay starvation while we deliberate, we ask for some calamari right away. Presto, Fried Calamari breaded with pesto and parmesan arrives. Don't tell me kids eat only burgers and pizza. This kid consumes the lion's share of a small mountain of feathery light rings and squiggles of fried squid breaded with pesto. "I like pesto," he says. I do, too, and am amazed how it perks up calamari.
The wine list proffers another pleasant surprise. On a trip to New Zealand, our friends encountered a sauvignon blanc called, Cloudy Bay. They are delighted to find it at the Fife 'n Drum by the bottle ($46) and by the glass ($12). The Fife 'n Drum offers lovely wines for less but we have to have Cloudy Bay, which lives up to its reputation if not its name. It is as gloriously crisp and bright as a cloudless day. I am reminded that you don't have to go to the most expensive restaurant in the world to find a good cellar. The Fife 'n Drum's wine collection includes some 500 selections and the restaurant has received an Award of Excellence from The Wine Spectator every year since 1992.
As for the Fife 'n Drum, a restaurant doesn't become a legend without maintaining a perfect balance between the old and the new. Without fanfare or drumroll, and apparently with the greatest of ease, this jolly place has been doing so for 27 years.