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Tocqueville: Thumbs Up


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Tocqueville: Thumbs Up

Caseophile | Apr 3, 2004 11:26 AM

I made my first visit to Tocqueville recently, and I’ve been struggling to find the time to put together a review of my visit. As I was introduced to Tocqueville by the recommendation of another poster on this board, I wanted to repay the system by passing along my own positive recommendation.

Tocqueville was recommended in response to my search for good restaurants that are safe to visit on Friday and Saturday nights. So, I visited late on a Friday night, in order to test the ambience under challenging conditions.

The restaurant is small, and its space is shaped like a truncated triangle. The entrance is near the base of the triangle, and features a very small bar (three stools, I think), and a few tables. There was some nice music playing in this front room. Most of the tables are in the main room, which extends to the apex of the triangle. The décor in the main dining room is very simple, featuring golden-colored, textured walls with very little artwork or other coverings of any kind, though the lighting was very nice. I think Zagat describes the main room as “elegant but sparse,”or something like that. I don’t think I would use the word “elegant” -- it struck me more as classy in an understated and fairly informal way. I’d take a business associate there, or a date, or a group of friends, but the décor might not be the right fit for, say, a wedding anniversary. The tables were fairly close together in the main room, and, when I arrived late on a weekend night, there was a very loud din that seemed to present much the sort of problem that I had been trying to avoid in my search for weekend-proof restaurants (although with a very different crowd from the one that usually seems to be at the root of the din). The front room was much quieter, and I decided to sit there instead of in the main dining room.

The staff was exceptionally warm and friendly, both on the phone and at the restaurant. It was a rare pleasure to be treated so well, and by such nice people. Service was very prompt, considering that this was late on a weekend night.

The wine list is small for a restaurant of this quality, but very well put together, in my opinion. Our captain knew the list well, successfully steering me toward the better choice of the two wines that caught my attention with very informed descriptions. There were plenty of excellent selections in the $50 range.

The amuse was a dollop of goat cheese, placed upon the widened end of an endive leaf. The cheese was flavored (tastefully) with a spice that I can’t exactly remember (I think it was just pepper). Next to these were drizzled a few drops of a very nice dark brown sauce, of which the predominant flavor was raisin. The sauce also prominently featured lemon juice, which lent a pleasing acidity that went very well with the dish’s other components, particularly the goat cheese. An uncomplicated, but very good amuse.

I sampled a salad containing Cato Farm Connecticut aged Dutch farmhouse cheddar, shaved fennel, frisee, roasted pears, and hazelnut balsamic vinaigrette, which was ordered by my dining companion. I don’t usually order items like this at restaurants, but I have to say that it was very nicely done. Again, the flavors of the salad were suitably complex and complimented one another very well. I particularly enjoyed the roasted pears. Often roasted pears in this setting are somehow undercooked and stiff, yet a bit slimy, mushy, and too sweet at the same time. These, however, had a nice, soft yet meaty texture, and a perfectly semi-sweet taste.

My appetizer (more expensive than most) was creamy parmesan grits and eggs, with house-cured veal bacon and shaved black truffles. How could a dish with those ingredients not be good? It was a truly decadent dish, and one that so captured my attention while I was eating it that conversation nearly ceased at my table. The grits had a very nice comfort-food consistency, and formed the predominant mass of the dish. The other ingredients were scattered atop and buried within the grits, forming a heterogeneous slop that was notably antithetical to the popular doctrine of vertical food arrangement. I mashed the various elements around, combining them in different proportions, breaking apart the egg yolk and swirling its oozing liquid into the rest of the dish, feeling quite like a five-year-old gleefully enjoying the final stages of an ice cream sundae. The veal bacon was my favorite component of this dish – very flavorful, and tender, not at all crispy. The grits were perhaps a little disappointing, in that, though their texture was just right, the parmesan flavoring was much too subtle for my cheese-loving tastes, and I wish it could have been turned up higher. The black truffle shavings were very generous, and, indeed, I thought there were too many of them in the dish as I took my first few spoonfuls. So, I incorporated smaller quantities into subsequent bites, with good effect. If I had my druthers, the single egg would have been increased to at least two, and far more of that wonderful bacon would have been included, with perhaps fewer truffle shavings, and much stronger cheese flavor in the grits. Nevertheless, it was a very successful dish.

My companion’s main course was thyme-roasted wild striped bass and Maine lobster with smoked black trumpet mushrooms, lima bean succotash, and lobster sauce. I tasted a generous portion of this dish, and thought it was really excellent – a great success even by, say, Le Bernardin’s standards, though Le B would undoubtedly expend more effort developing a more visually striking presentation. The thyme and some other seasonings were applied directly to the fish itself, which had a lovely, flaky texture. The smoked mushrooms were delicious by themselves, and even more so when combined with the thyme in the fish, which they complimented impressively. The lobster sauce was a thin, slightly foamy liquid, not at all creamy or heavy, served on the side in a little gravy boat that was left on the table. It too was excellent, and wonderfully realized the essence of lobster flavor without tasting excessively fishy, salty, or artificial-tasting. Again, it paired very well with the other flavors in the dish, and I also found it very enjoyable by itself, as I sopped up the last drops with a piece of bread (I just couldn’t help myself). I liked that the sauce was left separately on the table, rather than being drizzled onto the dish by the waiter. This helped me to capitalize on what was becoming a theme of the cuisine: spatial separation of principal flavor elements, permitting the diner to experience them both in isolation and mixed together in different proportions. The only part of this dish that disappointed me was the lobster meat, which I found somewhat firm and rubbery. This didn’t surprise me, as I usually react in this way to lobster dishes. I think that, of New York restaurants, only Le Bernardin and Danube have cooked lobster to a texture that I really like. I’m not enough of a cook to understand why it’s difficult to do so.

My main course was seared Maine diver sea scallop with Hudson Valley foie gras, braised artichokes, forest mushrooms, and fava beans, which is apparently a signature dish. I actually found this to be the least successful dish of the evening, although it was still very good, and my companion actually preferred it to the bass (if only I had realized this soon enough to trade!) The scallops were small, but of very good quality, quite plump and juicy. They were browned and I think something was a little carmelized on the outside. The sauce was like a hearty, thickened meat jus, much richer than I would have expected for an accompaniment to scallops. Consequently, the scallop dish was ironically the only dish that didn’t pair superbly with the trocken Riesling that I ordered – the right wine for this dish would be perhaps an earthy Burgundy or maybe even a Cabernet. I think the sauce went very well with the foie gras, which was prepared very nicely, and with the vegetables. It didn’t make as much sense with the scallops, I thought. The dish was complex and interesting enough, but it didn’t offer the range of flavors that the other dishes did, and didn’t afford quite the same opportunities for isolating and combining different components.

We were a little full by the time the dessert menus arrived, and it was getting very late. Consequently, we decided to share the Granny Smith apple “pizza” with raisin-calvados-mascarpone ice cream. Once again, a very good dish. It was smaller and lighter than one might expect from the name, so I’d encourage ordering it even when one feels less than starving at the end of the meal. The “pizza” is quite flat, and the apples are very nicely cooked, appropriately sweetened, and without the prominent acidity that one might expect from Granny Smith apples. The ice cream was excellent, with the mascarpone creating a delightfully rich texture, and the raisin and calvados combining to create dense, complex flavor without excessive sweetness (in fact, it was almost a bit sour).

A complimentary dish of assorted sorbets was also very good. I never order sorbets. I’ve never been impressed by a sorbet, with the exception of the assortment that I had at the famous Maison Berthillon in Paris, which was fantastic. However, I’d have to say that Tocqueville’s sorbets were remarkable. I’d definitely order them again, if I weren’t so eager to try some other desserts on the menu. The grapefruit was my favorite.

In summary, Tocqueville was a great discovery for me, and I hope to return soon. The food was a fantastic surprise, and I’m looking forward to exploring the menu more. The staff was exceptionally pleasant and competent. I can think of only two complaints. The first is a very small one. As strange as this sounds, I had a little trouble working with the plates they provided. The plates are more like large, shallow bowls, with a substantially raised lip around the edge. I think they were even finished to look a bit like pottery, which enhanced their role in giving the meal a sort of homestyle appearance – sophisticated flavors in gloppy, visually unassuming arrangements. The problem is, the shape of the bowl made it hard to balance an unused knife against its edge! It was raised so much that the knife kept falling into the food, making me feel a bit klutzy. And I like to think of myself as an experienced user of forks, plates, and the like. It’s a very small complaint -- I had to reach for my napkin a bit more than usual. The only other problem was the noise level, which was hard to take in the main dining room, though more tolerable in the front room. This was ironic, as I came to Tocqueville in the first place searching for a restaurant that remains calm, quiet, and food-oriented even late on weekend nights. I felt as though this was probably an anomaly, as a bit of independent research confirmed Tocqueville’s reputation a generally quiet place. One of the senior members of the service staff told me that it was usually much quieter, even on weekends, and attributed the noise to a single very large table in one corner of the back room. I had to agree that this party seemed to be driving up the noise level quite a bit. Though my experience has been limited, I expect that the dining room will be much quieter (though still cheerful and upbeat) during my next visit, and I’m very much looking forward to it.

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