Entries in Tocqueville (3)



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: ***


15 East

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15 East is the Japanese restaurant that blossomed out of the old Tocqueville space, when co-owners Marco Moreira and Jo-Ann Makovitzky moved that Union Square standout two years ago to larger digs down the block. The odd-shaped room always seemed too small for Tocqueville—the owners obviously thought so too—but in its new guise it seems just about right.

15east_logo.pngThe front room, which formerly housed Tocqueville’s bar, now has a sushi bar. The layout isn’t ideal, since guests waiting to be seated hang out in the same room, but the bar seating appeared to be comfortable. As there were four of us, we were seated in the main dining room, which has been attractively re-decorated. We had the restaurant to ourselves when we arrived at 6:00 p.m. on a Tuesday evening, but the space was mostly full a couple of hours later.

15east01.jpgThe menu offers a wide range of appetizers ($6–22) and a smaller selection of entrées ($24–45). Sushi ranges from $4–12 per piece, rolls $5–18. Omakases and tasting menus range from $55–120.

The composed appetizers and main courses may even be more compelling here than the sushi. The amuse-bouche was a terrific spring pea tofu (right). We followed it up with the slow-poached octopus ($12; below left) that was the highlight in Frank Bruni’s two-star review.

Servers told Bruni that the octopus was “massaged 500 times.” We didn’t know that, but perhaps it explains the terrific fatty taste that reminded me of pork belly.

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Tuna tartare ($22; above right) is the most expensive appetizer, but the kitchen throws a party in its honor, spraying the plate with a spice confetti.

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The entry-level omakase offers ten pieces of sushi or sashimi for $55 (above left). For a party of four businessmen, the chef sends out safe choices. The rice was warm and each piece was individually seasoned, but you’ll probably have a more interesting meal if you order pieces individually, or order one of the more expensive tasting menus. One of our party did not want raw fish, so he ordered the Wild Salmon Five Ways ($26, above right), which he seemed pleased with.

The service here is more accomplished and elegant than at most mid-level Japanese restaurants. There was a hint of upselling, but the captain’s ordering advice was sound, and he picked a fine sake to go along with our meal.

15 East (15 East 15th Street between Fifth Avenue and Union Square)

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



Note: This is a review of Tocqueville in its former location. The restaurant moved to 1 East 15th Street at Fifth Avenue, the opposite end of the block from its original space. The latter has become a Japanese restaurant, 15 East, by the same owners.


Tocqueville offers a quiet, civilized dining experience. The design, muted and refined, has a calming influence, and unlike so many modern restaurants, doesn’t call attention to itself. The dining room is small and the tables reasonably close together—yet, you hear your companion’s voice without shouting, and you don’t hear anybody else’s conversation. Even if you knew no more, all of these attributes would recommend Tocqueville to the discerning diner looking for an evening’s escape without busting the budget.

I chose Tocqueville mainly to please my mother, who was visiting from out of town. She ordered six oysters on the half-shell, followed by the seared Maine diver scallops with Hudson Valley foie gras. She pronounced both superb—and she is not easily impressed.

My choices, alas, didn’t turn out quite so well. I started with a salad listed on the menu as: “Cato Farm Connecticut Aged Dutch Farm House Cheddar” with “shaved fennel, frisee, roasted pears, hazelnut balsamic vinaigrette.” That’s quite a mouthful, and it looked wonderful, but was far too salty to my taste. I noticed that a diner at the table next to me left hers unfinished, so perhaps she had the same reaction.

For the entrée, I ordered the Niman Ranch Pork Chop, which is served with “manila clams, fingerling potatoes and bitter greens with chorizo white wine and garlic.” (All quotes from the restaurant’s website.) The clams are an odd pairing with the pork chop. Once again, this dish was too salty, including the chop (which was thick and tender).

Given my mom’s endorsement of Tocqueville’s cuisine, perhaps I just made the wrong choices. The restaurant was full on a Sunday evening, and I suspect many of the patrons were regulars. Service was efficient and friendly, although I grew mildly irritated at an over-eager server who punctuated each dish ordered with “excellent! … wonderful! … great!” On the other hand, over-eager is better than under-attentive.

Appetizers are $12-28, mains are $27-36. Tasting menus are available for $75 (five courses) or $95 (seven courses). The wine list is pricey, with scarcely a bottle below $50. We lucked into a wonderful bordeaux at $48, which is about the cheapest you can do, but the pickings were slim at that price range. I don’t think it would kill Tocqueville to offer a reasonable wine selection in the $35-45 range.

Tocqueville (15 E. 15th Street, ½ block west of Union Square)

Food: **½
Service: **½
Ambiance: ***
Overall: **½