While chefs in London, Paris and New York have been turning their temples of haute cuisine into bistros, Tocqueville has done the reverse. A few weeks ago, the restaurant moved from its narrow storefront on 15th Street to swank new premises a few doors down, in a Beaux-Arts building on the corner of Fifth Avenue.
Now, when you arrive, your coat goes into a fur locker and you’re given the key on a silk tassel (your mink is safe as long as you don’t lose the key). You walk through a small, low lounge where cheerful Brazilian music is playing and a youthful group is drinking cocktails at a sharp-looking white-and-rust-colored onyx bar. The dining room, which seats 65, is peach-yellow and has a 16-foot ceiling, gold curtains, French antique mirrors, straw-colored rounded banquettes and a three-tiered chandelier topped with tiny boudoir lamps.
The place feels like the sort of Hollywood restaurant favored by bright, young MGM starlets in the 1940’s. But the average age of the clientele is reassuringly high (and there’s a decent supply of prospective rich, older husbands). Everyone looks good: The lighting is soft, and the tables, covered with white-linen cloths, are set with candles. There’s quiet music in the dining room. Moreover, thanks to the high ceiling and the thick carpet, you can actually hear the person sitting across from you without using an ear trumpet.
The staff is formally dressed in ties and business suits (some of them comically ill-fitting), and they are efficient and charming. “I’d like to highlight the sea bass with bone marrow.” Our waitress, like a uniformed schoolgirl with her neat tie, dark jacket and spectacles, pointed to the menu and spoke gravely, as though imparting sad news with dignity.
There was a similar sweetness in the demeanor of the sommelier as he directed customers through the 300-bottle wine list, extolling selections from boutique vineyards. He urged us to try a Tocai from Friuli that goes by the surreal name of Ronc di Zorz, Livon. “It has an aroma of dogwood blossoms.” It was delicious, and as straw-yellow as the banquette we were sitting on. Later, he appeared with a bottle of wine for the couple at the next table. “You’ve had a summer when everything worked out, haven’t you?” he said cheerfully as he poured them a taste. “Well, that’s how it was the summer of this year in the Loire Valley.”
The restaurant first opened six years ago. It’s owned by chef Marco Moreira, who is originally from Brazil, and his wife, Jo-Ann Makovitzky (they also have a catering business, Marco Polo). Chef de cuisine George Mendes has worked at Bouley, Wallsé and Le Zoo, and did stages with Alain Ducasse at La Bastide de Moustiers and Martin Berasategui in San Sebastian, Spain. Tocqueville, which serves contemporary French-American cuisine, has always had high culinary ambitions. Now the food seems even more eclectic and innovative, beginning with the gift from the kitchen, a shot glass of parsnip soup that gets a spicy kickback from garam masala. House-made cheese rolls with rosemary arrive hot from the oven, served with house-made butter laced with sea salt.
Spanish, Portuguese and Brazilian influences abound. Mojama, dried salted tuna from Spain, perks up the tuna carpaccio, which is paired with a tuna tartar topped with a quail egg in its shell and sevruga caviar. You empty the yolk over the top and mix it in. Chatham cod comes with a salt-cured house-made bacalhau served in an El Bulli–style frothed heap, garnished with a quarter of a hardboiled egg and a dressing made with dried olives.
The pheasant is extraordinary, sliced in tender, juicy pieces and served with crunchy Marcona almonds, wild and Calaspara rice (a short-grain variety normally used for paella) and thin, papery bits of crisp skin—a stunning contrast of textures. Roast suckling pig is a refined version of Brazilian cooking, heaped in delicate slices alternating with slivers of crackling. Puréed collards, manioc fries cut in small batons and toasted farofa complete the plate.
Marinated Portuguese sardines are also as refined as can be, silvery fillets beautifully arranged on a glass plate with thin shavings of fennel and pieces of blood orange. I wasn’t wild about the oyster chowder, which was frothed and had a viscous consistency (like powdered pea soup from an envelope, commented my companion). But I loved the daring combination of escargots heaped on brioche alongside langoustine wrapped in bacon, crispy sweetbreads and a pile of chanterelle mushrooms.
Desserts are by Ryan Butler (formerly of Park Avenue Café), who also baked the rolls. His Valrhona chocolate soufflé is more like a warm chocolate mousse, served in a white china casserole with whiskey vanilla-bean ice cream and a thick sabayon flavored with stout spooned in. There is also a pleasant caramel apple confit on a walnut linzer torte, and a crème brûlée flavored—misguidedly, in my opinion—with mango. The polenta cake, on the other hand, is wonderful, crumbly and moist, with braised pineapple and yogurt sorbet.
When Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in 1831, he dismissed the food he found as barbaric: “ … vegetables and fish before the meat, the oysters for dessert …. ” Worse still, brandy and water were served instead of wine. But he surely would have liked the cooking offered in the glamorous new dining room of his namesake restaurant.