Tocqueville Tops Itself
Laura Stanley - June 2006
A New Age mom and pop grows up with an unwavering sense of elegance and style. Laura Stanley reports on the painstaking transformation.
For anyone who hasn't visited Manhattan's Union Square recently, a news bulletin: Tocqueville has vacated its prime location, fronting a sun-splashed sidewalk on West 15th Street, and moved into an even more prime spot on the same block. Now, though, it's easy to miss. After seven years behind a welcoming, very public expanse of paned picture windows, the restaurant has retreated behind a single glass door, just steps away from its former space and quietly adorned with the Tocqueville name in handsome, cream-colored script.
Where did they put the restaurant? Everyone asks that. Go through that door, and you will find out. A manicured little lobby, done in subdued vanilla and gray, opens onto a short corridor of sleek black wood lockers, for storing furs. The dining room lies beyond—far beyond, one feels, though the actual distance is not so great. The bustle of the outdoors falls away as you pass through the narrow, cavelike brown bar, with its luminous counter of rust-and-white onyx, into a hushed inner sanctum where the ceilings soar 17 feet. The dining room, which seats 65 with ample space between tables, is pale gold, flanked by tall smoked-glass mirrors and two large abstract canvases, and crowned by a sinuous, 24-arm polished nickel chandelier (best viewed from the high mezzanine, which seats another 26 for private dining). On the back wall, floor-to-ceiling silk draperies, in silver flecked with blue stars, conceal the coffee service area and absorb sound. The impression you have, upon entering, is that you've burrowed deep to reach a lush and exclusive hideaway.
Six years after its inception, Tocqueville has at last come of age. The owners, the husband and wife team of chef Marco Moreira and Jo-Ann Makovitzky, say they had to make the move to this dramatic new space with a vastly improved kitchen; their customers, who are spending an average of $120 per person and expect a higher level of satisfaction with every visit, would have eventually moved on if the two hadn't forced their business to grow up. "For them," says Marco, "every dining experience has to be better than the last. If it's the same, that's not good enough, at least not in New York."
That may well be true. But the real reason for the change, one suspects, is that Moreira and Makovitzky felt personally compelled to make it because they're artists and restless perfectionists in need of a bigger, grander stage. It took a herculean effort to get there, since the space, a former medical office, had to be entirely gutted and rebuilt. There were contractors and designers along the way, but very few, and those were mostly let go. Constructing the new Tocqueville, these restaurateurs say, was a do-it-yourself operation, and every last detail, right down to the wiring, was managed by either husband or wife. "We knew exactly what would work," says Makovitzky. "And we knew exactly what we wanted."
In the high-stakes world of Manhattan fine dining, Tocqueville is unusual—a true family business, made from scratch. After starting out in some of Manhattan's best restaurant kitchens (Moreira at Bouley, The Quilted Giraffe, and the Mark; Makovitzky at La Caravelle), the couple started on their own as caterers, opening Tocqueville soon afterward. It marked a modest beginning, in the odd, trapezoidal 40 seat dining room and the impossibly cramped basement kitchen that were to be the restaurant's home until February of this year. Investors (there are 11) weren't invited in until the time came to move, after the restaurant's identity and reputation were already well established. Most are longtime regulars, friends who opened their checkbooks out of deep affection for the restaurant and its two chef-owners.
For fans, what has always made Tocqueville special is its self-assured devotion to a composed, soigné ideal—a menu, a look, and a feel that are upscale and up-to-date without a whiff of ostentation or trendiness. From the outset, critics praised the restaurant for its serenity, for the warmth of its restrained, modern design, and—most of all—for the cooking, which celebrated the seasons and the nearby farmers' market with a mature, classic touch. The first reviews heaped high praise on straightforward-sounding spring offerings such as risotto of chanterelles and sweet peas and seared scallops and foie gras over baby artichokes, wild mushroom, and fava beans. Billi bi soup, especially, was wildly popular. Moreira put his signature on that traditional saffron-laced mussel chowder by simmering kaffir lime and lemongrass in the broth and finishing the dish with crème fraîche and a garnish of spinach-wrapped mussels over thin garlic crostini. An innovative angel hair carbonara came dressed with sea urchin, sea lettuce, lime, and soy. Like the restaurant's cool bossa nova sound track (a favorite of Moreira's, who is Brazilian), it was all soothingly cozy yet jazzy, well suited to the tastes of a conservative but decidedly downtown clientele.
Virtually everyone, it must be said, also enjoyed the small scale of the place. The tables, remarkably, were not shoehorned in, and clients and critics alike were blissfully unaware of the limitations of an underground kitchen smaller than a Manhattan studio apartment. So, the challenge in moving was clear: how to make the transition to an extravagant new space and upgrade to a more ambitious menu without losing the personal touch that was, for so many, central to the Tocqueville experience?
The answer can be found, at least in part, in the state-of-the-art new kitchen. It's still in the basement, but it is four times bigger than the old one and infinitely better appointed. "Welcome to our playpen," says chef de cuisine George Mendes, at the start of a recent tour. Mendes, 33, has been working with Makovitzky and Moreira for three years, following a stint at Martín Berasategui in San Sebastián, Spain. At Tocqueville, he oversees a crew of 15, most of them staff from the old restaurant. They work around two 12.5-foot peninsulas—a hot station and a cold one—with Mendes (and Moreira, in the evenings) supervising down the length of each. The pastry team, headed by Ryan Butler, works at a third counter, equipped with freezer drawers for ice cream (six flavors every night, including recherché Australian wattle seed).
Moreira laid out the room, hand-selecting everything in it. The first feature he points out is the epoxy floor, the installation of which entailed a last-minute decision he doesn't regret, because the material provides a complete seal against vermin, offers excellent traction, and is easily hosed down every night. But the real star of the kitchen, and the queen of his heart (aside from his wife and 4 year old daughter), is the 3,000-pound, titanium-top Bonnet suite, which he designed in collaboration with Sarah Wally, who represents Bonnet through New Jersey–based Maverick Cuisine. "I have this picture of him with it, in the street the day it arrived," says Wally. "He's kissing it."
The suite has two sides, one for fish and one for meat, with open shelving in between so that cooks can see one another and coordinate on the timing of each table's orders. "This is very important," says Moreira. "Everything here is done by the clock." Even the fire-extinguishing system was designed with this sight line in mind; pipes for the low-proximity nozzles run along the bottom of the shelves instead of dangling from above. At the far end, by the wall, are the open burners and grills, one on each side, followed by electric planchas capable of reaching 700 degrees at the center. The planchas have been especially transformative, says Moreira, who uses the ultrahot middle to get a "true sear" before moving food to the edge, where the temperature is lower by half, for a slow finish. The flat cooktops, gas fired from beneath, can accommodate 20 or more pots at once; and here, too, cooks can effortlessly slide them from the surface's hottest point to the sides, where the heat is gentler. Cast-iron ovens underneath are used for roasting and finishing. There's a salamander and a glass-top radiant heat burner at the aisle end, and a deep titanium counter, very warm from the heat of the flat top, used for plating.
Such a powerful stove requires a powerful hood; in this case it's a Halton, equipped with capture jets that push hot air back underneath, maintaining a comfortable temperature for the cooks working at the flat tops and planchas and reducing the need for expensive makeup air. The atmosphere in the kitchen is, in fact, delicious—fresh and relatively cool even at the peak of dinner service. Tempting fragrances—of freshly baked rosemary focaccia, smoky bacon, warm chocolate ganache—dissipate as quickly as they emerge, never lingering long enough to distract. Ventilation represented the restaurant's biggest challenge and accounted for its greatest expense. Makovitzky and Moreira installed 36 tons of air-conditioning (as opposed to five tons, in the old Tocqueville), and "ducts galore," says Makovitzky. "The kitchen ceiling would be much higher if it weren't for all the ductwork."
The suite's impact on the restaurant's food has been substantial. Consider, says Moreira, what has become of his salt-crusted 60-second sirloin, a brasserie-style offering so beloved that he didn't dare take it off the menu, not for years. But it is absent from dinner now, replaced by a luxurious entrée of beef done two ways—60-second steak again, plus wine braised cheeks finished with bitter chocolate. These share the plate with puréed smoked potatoes and three kinds of root vegetables: carrots in a cumin glaze, turnips in a vanilla glaze, and fennel dusted with fresh anise. It's a seven-pot dish, if you don't count the immersion circulator, where the cheeks cook in a water bath for 24 hours the day before. The old steak dish required nothing more than a smoking cast-iron pan and a little canola oil. You can order it still, but only at lunch—a nod to the past that is, apparently, enough to keep regulars happy.
The suite and the plating area are strategically located by the exit to the dining room, where servers carry plates up the stairs and through a break in the silver draperies. At the other end of the kitchen, near the freight elevator, are some more of Moreira's new toys: a walk-in fitted with a glass door (offering an excellent view, every day, of one or two whole suckling pigs), a Blodgett combi-oven, a 13-quart Varimixer, and a four-door freezer designed to accommodate sheet pans. The hand-washing sink is activated by an electric eye, so kitchen staffers don't pick up microbes while turning it on and off. Two ice makers churn out more than 2,000 pounds of cubes every day, using carbon-filtered water. Upstairs, behind the curtains, a fully automatic Swiss coffee machine makes perfect espresso in 18 seconds and cappuccino in 30, at the touch of a button—no loading required. All told, it's a long way from the chef's earliest days in the kitchen, in São Paolo, where he began learning his craft at his grandmother's side. "She was a great cook," he says. "But I don't know what she'd think of all this."
A dazzling kitchen alone is hardly enough to make guests feel special, however, no matter how spectacular the food that emerges from it. Upstairs, the couple were, it seems, even more focused on the particulars, from the waiters' brown pinstripe suits, which Moreira had copied after his favorite English design, to the fine-grained African wenge used for the maître d's station and the bar tables. ("Oak," sniffs the chef, "has been so overdone.") The upholstered chairs in the dining room were custom-made, by Manhattan-based Beckenstein Fabric and Interiors; it took three attempts at a frame before Makovitzky and Moreira were satisfied.
"It was OK with them," says Makovitzky. "They already knew we were crazy because they'd helped us with the other restaurant." Half the chairs have gray mohair seats and a Pollack patterned silk blend on the back; the arrangement is reversed on the other half in a subtle textural touch that few will notice but that everyone, Makovitzky believes, will somehow feel.
The chandelier and matching sconces take inspiration from the Art Deco creations of Jean Royere. But, like everything else in the restaurant, they're much more modern in feel. These were also designed by the restaurateurs, who lost patience with the professionals early in the process. "The first estimates were completely delusional—40 and 60 grand," says Makovitzky. "One prototype came in looking like mangled bicycle handlebars. So we ended the designer thing and struck out on our own." The result cost just $20,000.
"We feel like this is our home," says Makovitzky. "If we let other people do these things for us, it would look like someone else's home."
Makovitzky is clearly used to being in complete control, having grown accustomed, in the old place, to serving as general manager, maître d', and sommelier. Now, with an expanded front-of-house staff to handle such tasks (including director of operations and beverage Rick Pitcher, formerly of Bobby Flay/Laurence Kretchmer restaurants), she's still in control—or so her husband says. "She multitasks on three levels—kitchen, dining room, and mezzanine—at once. Somehow she knows what's going on everywhere, at all times."
Makovitzky continues to manage the wine list and the restaurant's 5,300-bottle inventory—300 labels that reflect the traditional tastes of the Tocqueville clientele. There's a deep selection of Burgundy and Bordeaux, including a number of rare bottlings (she has 16 Château Haut Brion Graves 1982 in stock, offered at $975 each). Top-shelf California Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon have always sold well; for younger, newer visitors to the new restaurant, Makovitzky has added a trophy 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon from Dalla Valle Vineyards, in the Napa Valley, for $305. Her choices of whites tend to be similarly conservative, with plenty from Burgundy, along with a fine collection of European Rieslings and American Chardonnays. She is building the list to 500 but is not inclined to deviate from the formula that has worked so well for Tocqueville: "Our customers want the certain things that they like. Why fix something that's not broken?"
That awareness, it seems, is still the core of the Tocqueville approach. The place is fancier now, and that may rattle some old-timers, but when they find rustic yuca flour farofa still on their plates, in homage to Moreira's heritage, they'll recognize that the chef hasn't sold his soul in order to cook in this beautiful new place. It's quite the opposite, he says. "My grandmother used to say that if you invite someone over to your house, you have to put out a banquet. That's how we feel about what we do. At the end of the day, it's all about love. We're in the hospitality business, after all, so we need to be hospitable."
Cooking suite Bonnet
Induction range Vollrath
Electric fryer Sodir
Ice cream maker Coldelite
Ice maker Manitowoc
Mixers Varimixer, Robot Coupe
Ventilation hood Halton
Fire suppression system Ansul
Immersion circulators PolyScience
Water filtration system Everpure
Espresso machine Franke
Electric slicer Berkel
Heat lamps Hatco
Vacuum packaging machine Berkel
Digital scale Detecto