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If you find the current NYC dining scene depressing, here’s a pick-me-up: Tocqueville. It’s at once a reminder that civilized dining is still possible, and a reminder of how much has been lost.

The city’s four-star restaurants remain popular, but at the level immediately below them, what has opened in the last two or three years that wasn’t Italian? It is a very short list, practically an empty one.

To be clear: it’s not that I want a meal this refined — this expensive — every day, or every week. It’s that, when I do want them, most of the options are legacy restaurants that hardly anyone would open today. Chef Marco Moreira and his wife, Jo-Ann Makovitzky, probably wouldn’t do it themselves, if they were starting again now.

To rewind a bit: Tocqueville grew out of a catering firm, then known as Marco Polo. Its original location was an odd, traezoid-shaped dining room that somewhat undermined the upscale cuisine that Moreira wanted to serve. William Grimes gave it two stars in 2000; I gave it two and a half in 2005.

In 2006, Moreira and Makovitzky moved Tocqueville half-a-block west and gave it an upscale makeover, precisely the opposite of what would likely happen today. (See Aureole, Oceana, and SD26, all of which moved in the last couple of years and relinquished a piece their former elegance in the transaction.) The couple still have the old space, which is now the excellent Japanese restaurant 15 East.

Frank Bruni gave the new Tocqueville the same two stars, while seeming to like it less than Grimes did. His complaints were almost entirely service glitches, none of which were apparent when I visited last week. The current reviewing culture doesn’t allow for re-reviews, save in the most exceptional cases, so it falls to people like me to call attention to a restaurant like Tocqueville that is almost entirely below the radar, but shouldn’t be.

The menu wears its greenmarket bona fides on its sleeve, though the chef has been doing this long enough to be excused. Tocqueville is very much in the Gramercy Tavern or Blue Hill (West Village) mold, but you’ll get in easier and enjoy your meal just as much and maybe more.

This comes at a cost: appetizers are $15–26, entrées $24–42 (most above $30), desserts $10–16. Tasting menus are $85 (five-course vegetarian), $110 (five-course) or $125 (seven). There is a separate, somewhat gimmicky greenmarket menu, a three-course prix fixe for $55, but its items are orderable à la carte, which somewhat undermines the point of it.

The amuse bouche was a vibrant lobster salad (above left). The bread service was excellent, with three kinds of bread (olive, brioche, and one other), baked in house.

I almost feel like we cheated, when we ordered the terrific beet salad to share ($16; above right), and the kitchen sent out two separately plated half-portions.

Arctic Char ($28; above left) was pink and moist, with an English pea purée, thumbelina carrots, haricots verts, and yellow beans. Black bass ($34; above right) in “bouillabaisse” broth was also very good. A long, thin slice of baguette was, I suppose, for mopping up the broth, though I could have done without it.

The thirty-page wine list has plenty of French, Italian, and California standards in a wide price range, as well as many unusual items, like a 1992 Savennieres Domaine aux Moines ($65), a deeply aged white wine that the sommelier decants, as it is so intense in both color and taste that it resembles port. How many lists in town would stock that? It is for such wines that you dine at a restaurant like Tocqueville.

The under-stated cuisine here is not fashionable now. It offers no pork chop, no burger, no organ meats, no foams. (There is a recited special, a $125 dry-aged prime côte de bœuf for two, so I suppose the chef is not entirely immune to fashion.) What Tocqueville does offer is extremely enjoyable, in the kind of dining room, and with the kind of service, seldom seen in restaurants opening in NYC today.

For that, Tocqueville should be celebrated.

Tocqueville (1 E. 15th Street at Fifth Avenue, near Union Square)

Food: ***
Service: ***
Ambiance: ***
Overall: ***

Reader Comments (1)

Marc, I often think of going to Tocqueville where I haven't dined in two or three years now. The same thing always happens. I open the menu and read "chilled pea sou," "parmesan grits, egg sunny side up, etc" "sea urchin and angel hair carbonara," and think - yes, I like all that; I know because it's the opening menu, pretty much, and I've tried all those dishes several times.

I do see some new entrees though (the beef two ways has gone at last) so maybe I'll chance a revisit.

August 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWilfrid

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