Alexis de Tocqueville found little to admire in American food. When the author of Democracy in America visited this country in 1831, he was as appalled by the cuisine as any self-respecting Frenchman would be, calling it “the infancy of the art: the vegetables and fish before the meat, the oysters for dessert … In a word, complete barbarism.” And to make matters worse, he was usually offered brandy and water instead of wine with his meals.
He would certainly be astonished by the restaurant bearing his name (or, at least, a more democratic version of it, without the aristocratic “de”) that has recently opened near Union Square. What would he have made, for example, of “Confit Day Boat Maine Cod,” a dish on the menu that sounds like a New York Post headline?
Tocqueville is owned by Marco Moreira and his wife, Jo-Ann Makovitzky, who have run the nearby catering business Marco Polo for the past 10 years. Ms. Makovitzky says they chose the name to reflect the style of their cuisine. “One of the things de Tocqueville did was study why Americans are different. They are always trying to be innovative and progressive but they are still European in background. So our cooking is European in its basis, but American in that it’s progressive.” Which means the emphasis is on fresh seasonal ingredients, used eclectically. (And, being a block from the Union Square Greenmarket, there’s no shortage of choices. Mr. Moreira says he gets tomatoes from a vendor who sells 120 varieties, from some smaller than a dime to others the size of a baseball.)
We had been uptown at a party and walked in a half-hour late for our table, so we waited in the cozy anteroom, which has a small wood bar, a long banquette, wicker baskets, wooden cabinets and small cafe tables. By day, pastries, coffee and sandwiches are served here. At night, the bar serves wine and beer, offering about two dozen wines by the glass, their names scrawled on a blackboard. Two of us sat down on the banquette and the other two on the chairs opposite, which were mismatched and of wildly different heights. I towered over my companion who, although over 6 feet tall when he stood up, looked as though he were auditioning for a role as one of Snow White’s seven dwarfs.
The dining room next door is more formal: triangular, intimate and plush, with high ceilings hung with chandeliers topped with little boudoir lampshades. The place feels a bit like an 18th-century gaming room. One side of the room is lined with large windows with small glass panels at the top that look like the windows on the parlor floors of old houses in Amsterdam. The windows are hung on each side with shimmering gold raw silk curtains, and a white half-curtain stretched across the center (in Holland they’d be left uncurtained to show you that nothing untoward is going on, a custom that makes evening walks around town all the more interesting). It’s a narrow room, with just two rows of well-spaced tables and blue and gold banquettes along a completely unadorned yellow wall (they could use a strip of mirror here so people facing the wall can see what’s going on behind them).
It seemed right to start dinner with a wine from a vineyard that, according to our waiter, was owned by Thomas Jefferson. It was a Viognier from Horton Vineyards in Virginia, and absolutely delicious. Also wonderful was the Dolcetto d’Alba, one of the cheaper reds on the list at $34.
As we looked at the short menu, we were brought a gift from the chef, a miniature tartare of salmon and scallops with a smoky chili oil. I always think there’s something slightly sadistic about these amuse-gueules (or amuse-bouches , either way a hideous piss-elegant word), because if they’re good you want more than just one bite. And I wanted more of this tartare, which fairly popped with flavor. De Toqueville would have liked the oysters here–even if they had been served for dessert. They were glistening, briny Kumamotos served with a mignonette that looked much prettier than the usual murky brown stuff floating with chopped shallots (and that I normally skip). This was a perky combination of blanched shallots with lemon confit, pink peppercorns and chopped chives in clear rice-wine vinegar that was delicate enough to complement the oysters without overwhelming them.
Billi bi, a classic French soup, consisted of pale pink mussels in an ivory-colored froth subtly flavored with saffron, white wine, lime leaves and lemon grass. I don’t think I’ve ever had better. And it was a clever idea to serve meaty fillets of rouget with a sauce made with a traditional beurre noisette that had been mixed with lemon juice and an olive vinaigrette. Oven-dried tomatoes cut the richness of the fish. A risotto made with morels, wild leeks and pea sprouts brought in a touch of spring, although the rice was a little undercooked. I also like the warm crottin de Chavignol on baby greens, with asparagus tips and an intense beet mousseline.
For a main course, the confit of cod was melting and luscious, with a robust vinaigrette made with aged balsamic vinegar, crushed potato and wilted greens. Salmon was done in an Asian style, with a wasabi crust and a cassoulet of vegetables using Japanese beans instead of flageolets, along with roasted scallions, shiitake mushrooms, carrots and leeks in a red wine and soy reduction. The only dish I did not like was the osso buco. It was braised in apple cider and served with a roasted green apple that was rather hard. It simply didn’t work, and it tasted flat.
But the lamb chops were another story, rare and juicy. They came with rillettes made from shoulder of lamb that had been marinated with spices and herbs and braised in olive oil, then shredded and stuffed into savoy cabbage. Mr. Moreira is from Brazil, which is where he got the idea for his Portuguese-inspired pork chop (from Niman Ranch), pan-roasted and surrounded by a stew of clams, cockles and chorizo, fingerlings and fava beans. It was a brilliant dish.
Michael Finehirsh’s desserts are no letdown. The only one I didn’t like was the steamed dry-sherry walnut pudding, which was dry and dull. But the melting chocolate cake oozed deliciously on the plate with a zeppelin of the best mint ice cream I’ve ever tasted. Vanilla crème brûlée, served in a white casserole dish with a lid, was creamy and light. The passion fruit tart with raspberries and mango sauce was also a delight, tart and tangy.
De Tocqueville would have admired the American sense of innovation behind this restaurant. He noted, not without a certain irony, that Americans ate copiously–breakfast, dinner, tea and supper. Certainly at Tocqueville, his namesake, he would eat pretty copiously himself–and a lot better than he did in his time.
15 East 15th Street
Dress: Casual chic
Wine list: International, with many good choices under $35
Noise level: Low
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses, lunch $14 to $24, dinner $24 to $31
Lunch: Monday to Friday 11:45 A.M. to 2:15 P.M.
Dinner: Monday to Saturday 6:00 P.M. to 10:30 P.M.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor