Wednesday, April 12, 2006

American Night New York City Entry #86 Tocqueville

With the abundance of fine chefs in the neighborhood, Union Square qualifies as Toque-ville. However, there is only one Tocqueville, a newly expanded and ostensibly more ambitious eatery off the square, co-owned by the wife-and-husband team of Jo-Ann Makovitzky and Brazilian-born chef Marco Moreira.

I cannot emulate America's finest social critic Alexis de Tocqueville, the author of Democracy in America, a work of genius that underscored our paradoxical striving for status and equality, for community and for selfhood, while not ignoring our sometimes problematic cuisine. Such themes still resonate as the work edges toward its bicentennial in 2035.

If I cannot match this astute Frenchman, at least I can ask the question of what message is being sent when the restaurant was christened. Surely restaurants need not mean in order to be, but for a social scientist, this moniker is a tease. Moreira describes his philosophy by suggesting "purchasing the world's best seasonal ingredients and enhancing their natural flavors will produce fresh, innovative dishes." Soothing, but a such a philosophy would be embraced most of New York's ambitious chefs. It's my motto, too. One wonders why a restaurant named Tocqueville does not embrace the majesty of the American west (or Midwest) of which the Frenchman was so impressed. (While wondering, why name a gin martini the Volstead, after Minnesota Congressman Andrew Volstead, the sponsor of the act that enforced prohibition; perhaps the martini had more punch than the wit).

No matter, call the place Chungking Charlie's as long as the experience is ecstatic. Makovitzky and Moreira announce that they designed the restaurant themselves. On entering one is reminded of the old adage, "the lawyer who represents himself has a fool as a client," although perhaps we might alter this to "the lawyer who operates on himself has a fool for a patient." Doctor or lawyer, restaurant designers can sleep soundly. For an elegant restaurant, the Tocqueville space is one of the least impressive around. The fabrics of browns, tans, and creams seem tired and numb before even a few months have passed. The room felt sleepy. And judging by the john, Tocqueville has a way to go.

When I opened the door to Tocqueville I was startled. The lobby was deserted. I waited. Finally I walked back to the bar and found the hostess. Odd hospitality for a restaurant that hopes to break into New York's top echelon. The service needed improvement as well. The staff was uncertain about what could be served with their five-course tasting menu. The dishes were on the a la carte menu, but the decision was the chef's. If so, announce his preferences. We chose to choose.

It would be nice to report that despite limitations, the food was inspiring. Or it might be dramatic to discover that the food was god-awful. In truth, neither claim would do justice to the evening. Our choices were pleasing without transcending; they blurred with much competently prepared modern cuisine. One had the touch of genius. One resonated on my bleech-o-meter.

Our amuse set the tone: a nicely plump mussel over microgreens with a bit of saffron vinaigrette. The bite was agreeable, not sharply redolent of saffron, but a smooth taste. Perhaps a stronger mark of saffron would have created gustatory engagement, not a passing gulp.

The enchanting presentation was a Slowly-Poached Araucana Farm Egg, served with Parmesan-infused poultry bouillon, paysanne (thinly sliced) root vegetables, and black truffles. Stock can be theology, edging toward the divine. In this case the liquor was powerfully evocative of earth and root. Although the egg was prettily poached, it played a secondary role in a dish that pointed to a liquid dawn. It was superb.

California Sea Urchin and Angel Hair Carbonara with soy, lime, and sea lettuce needs tweaking. The sea urchin and pasta made a nice match, even if the accompaniments were less strongly evident than I had expected and the noodles were not prepared al dente. While the dish in its current state is not a classic, through a weakness of texture and a timidity of taste, it served well as a starter.

The better of the two entrees was Seared Diver Sea Scallops and Foie Gras with forest mushrooms, artichokes and apple cider balsamic vinegar, another in the sea and farm school of entrees. To describe the dish as nothing special seems to damn a dish that's only offense was in lacking electricity. Same old, same old can be a compliment, as it is here. The flavors of the accompaniments were not so intense to direct attention from what was, in truth, properly prepared foie gras and scallops in a rich balsamic jus. Put differently, this is not a dish of genius, but of talent.

The same cannot be said of the Roast Suckling Pig with Collard Green Mousseline, Crispy Mandioc, and Farofa da Bebe, a misguided entree. Given that this is the only dish of the evening that pays explicit tribute to the chef's Brazilian heritage, a grand and complex cuisine, its failure was particularly disappointing. The plate was anchored by chunks of ham, shoulder, and belly. I admired the crispy pigskin - what a football that must be - however, the belly was too fatty, and had it not been for a shred or two of pork, it would have been elemental lard: to eat this dish is to pig out. The pig was the most appetizing element of this perplexing adventure. The idea of collard green mousseline has a certain appeal, but not when it tastes like weary spinach puree. Mandioc is a cassava plant, a source of tapioca. Here it added little but a slight textural interest, designed to play off the farofa. Unfortunately one wished less attention to the mound of farofa, toasted mandioc flour, an Amazonian stable. The grain was dried out and wan. Although culinary soil is a molecular texture at WD-50 (loved not always wisely but too well), this dirt had faced drought; some pork drippings would have been welcome. That Chef Moreira might someday create a Brazilian-inflected cuisine is intriguing, but this dish is not a model.

Both desserts were sweetly prosaic. I enjoyed the Caramel Apple Confit, a deconstructed apple tart with walnut linzer and a mild caramelized green apple ice cream. The smear of apple butter nodded to Dufrasne or Collichio, but none of the flavors proved exciting or intense. Surely critics require a richer vocabulary to denote pleasant. How about good?

The second dessert Mango Creme Brulee with Cardamon, Kaffir Lime and Lemongrass suggests that more is less. At the heart was a brulee that didn't crackle or pop, but only soothed. Without an ideal centerpiece, the assorted exotic tastes were frou-frou. Too much happening in a dish that must perfect the simple things.

Given my diverse reactions, I imagine that if one chooses well, an extremely fine meal is to be had at Tocqueville. Perhaps Chef Moreira will not demonstrate the complexity of our native spirit, but his efforts reveal a Brazilian-born chef working to good effect. Tonight genius was found in an egg, the symbolic heart of the universe.

As we finished, the staff watched us sauntering to the entrance. Again we stood alone. Now I opened the cloakroom door, grabbed my hat, and strolled into a perfect American night.

Tocqueville
One East 15th Street (at Fifth Avenue)
Manhattan (Union Square)
212-647-1515

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