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Top of the Hill

Blue Hill dispensed with all the flash that dominates the current scene, and still got my attention; the equally subdued Tocqueville is a labor of love.

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With new dining spots opening faster than H&M can sell $17 bikinis, restaurateurs have come up with many novel ways to make their addresses notable. (Note that none of them involve the dispensing of four-star food.)

First, there is the Balcony Scene. At Village, Guastavino's, and Ruby Foo's, Romeos can finally join their Juliets up, up, but not nearly far enough away, where closer-to-the-gods seating affords them panoramic views of bald spots and ceiling treatments, and the opportunity to work on their enunciation, as they pledge their troths against the rising and ricocheting tumult from below.

Or one can go Chancing in the Dark. The shadow play and mysteries never end at Commune, Icon, and Hell's Kitchen. Imagine eating on the beach under a new moon. What's the menu say? Where is the waiter? What am I eating? Who am I sitting with? With only one votive candle per table, you haven't a prayer.

But can any evening ever be as memorable as one spent seated either with or near the Knights of the Long Table? What hath Asia de Cuba wrought? The freestanding lunch counters now traversing the middle of too many dining rooms (even Pastis has a coy variation of it) are a striking exercise in forced bonhomie, an invitation to bad manners and bad come-ons.

See anything you like?

At the risk of sounding like someone who chooses Diana Krall over Jennifer Lopez, would you prefer a manageably sized, convivial, genteel but well-lit room, eating lovely, unfiery food, free of confusion, not shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers, a bit closer to sea level?

Actually, Blue Hill is a bit below the shoreline, since it is in the basement of a Greenwich Village townhouse. But there is something easeful and secure about this uncluttered room with its warm umber banquettes. Part of that is due to a subtle but audacious dropping of an already low ceiling in order to create the intimate recessed lighting, causing the room to glow from an unspecified source. In fact, the spare space is startling for anyone who remembers its prior incarnation as 75 Washington Place, which sadly incorporated behind-door-No.-2-style early-American furniture under framed prints of schooners and scenes of seventeenth-century New Amsterdam. It was like eating in a DAR card room.

If Blue Hill is reminiscent of anything in recent memory, it is Veritas, the wonderfully unassuming and tranquil hideaway that stunned everyone two years ago with a confident, trend-bucking display of ethereally elegant food in a setting that could sport the sampler isn't it nice to be grown-up? Blue Hill is more informal, more innocently youthful, but mature enough not to push its concept of a refined neighborhood restaurant beyond its limits. Its servers are smart, informed ambassadors, and are even more impressive for how they manage, in a small, square room, to stay out of the way unless needed. Both the wine list and its menu are short, well-chosen, and affordable.

Chefs Dan Barber and Alex Eurena's only overt nod to modishness is a sweetly soft asparagus soup under a cloud of Parmesan foam. Otherwise a penchant for citrus and astringency permeates their appetizers. A multi-ingredient salad called "spring" initially offers a fresh-mowed taste until the lemony vinaigrette kicks in. The muskiness of smoked trout is rendered more forceful and appealing by a lime-scented gazpacho. Seviche of bass is in a bright, balanced wash of grapefruit and mustard oil one night, but the juice overpowers it on a second try. Eel and apples with foie gras? It provoked winces on the menu. But it provoked a second order when the first got scarfed in a flurry. And skate in a sauce of brash green garlic doesn't even need the sweet shrimp ravioli around it.

Entrées exhibit a more diverse range of flavors. A sauce pistou offers appropriately piquant accompaniment to a salmon slow-cooked until all trace of its trademark pungency was gone, replaced by a sweet, almost floral aroma. The malleable taste of braised cod is wisely exploited by its three side dishes -- a mushroom tart, pencil-asparagus salad, and velvety herring roe. Halibut in a hen-o'-the-wood-mushroom stew is not a love match, but it almost works. The poached duck is delectable, however. Delicate and sweet, served with artichoke purée, tender as a last wave. Hanger steak is as close as this kitchen gets to in-your-face: sinewy, a bit briny, and succulent, surrounded by barely sweet turnips. And "Not Another Roast Chicken" is slow-cooked until it almost has the lightness of poached white meat -- an unorthodox way to present a staple, but it does fulfill its promise.

Reading the menu, not one dessert tempted me. But there isn't one dessert at Blue Hill I wouldn't hesitate to order again. Well, maybe it wouldn't be a mad dash for the vanilla-bean rice pudding, though the passion-fruit foam has some kick. But the luscious crème Catalina in a blood-orange stew, a chocolate bread pudding dense as ganache, and a supremely cheeky rhubarb-and-mint soup are thoroughly appealing, thoroughly consistent ways to end a meal here.

What a pleasure to get up satiated but not stuffed, not deaf, and not needing to negotiate a grand staircase or wishing you could fit a flashlight in your Fendi bag. There may be more spectacular mountains offering unforeseen horizons at their summits, but Blue Hill is an effortless peak to climb. The view is peaceful and quiet. And that's just dandy.

Blue Hill, 75 Washington Place (212-539-1776). Dinner only, Monday through Saturday 6 to 11 p.m. Appetizers, $8 to $14; entrées $18 to $23. All major credit cards.

In Variety a few weeks ago, editor Peter Bart wrote how any film production described as "a labor of love" is destined to stink like Battlefield Earth (Travolta's affair of the heart). In Bart's kingdom, the phrase is a euphemism for the runt of the litter, the thing no one else wants. Thankfully, it is just the opposite in restaurants, probably because there are no other intermediaries between those toiling with passion and conviction and the customers they hope to serve.

Tocqueville is an odd near-triangle of a space that appears to have been rassled into comfortable submission with generous seating. There are traces of various aborted design concepts interrupting the walls and ceiling. And its colors are more harmonious in the evening, when the room has a Chanterellian glow. During the day, the apricot-and-blue walls appear to have been cribbed from faded drawings of a Tuscan carnevale. But what really shines brightest at the heart of this gentle destination is Tocqueville's two owners, chef Marco Moreira and his wife, Jo-Ann Makovitzky, who have operated their catering business Marco Polo (now located next door) for ten years.

In their case, love conquers . . . if not all, then certainly odd lighting sockets and skewed pigments. Anyone would be delighted to savor Moreira's saffron-flecked and lemon-tinged Billi Bi soup with fat-and-happy mussels bobbing about. Ever see the silly look of blissful delirium kids get when they see Mickey at Disney World for the first time? The initial taste of a risotto of sweet pea, spring morels, and wild leek is almost that good. Quarter-size slivers of summer truffle can't ever overshadow the refreshing kick of green-and-white asparagus in a truffled vinaigrette. A salad with a sugar-beet mousseline fades against its contemporaries, and a beautifully roasted quail is almost hijacked by too many highfalutin buddies (it's stuffed with dumplings, foie gras, and truffles).

But rack of Colorado lamb is a rare treat, not just because the lamb is braced by heady braised artichokes and red wine but because superb rillettes of herb-marinated lamb shoulders are a rapturous bonus. The wasabi crust on the salmon is something. Unfortunately, that something adds nothing to the salmon. And diver scallops and foie gras are one of those shotgun weddings that tantalize half a table and cause dismay on the other end. The pan-roasted chicken breast with porcini mushrooms and root vegetables is almost too nourishing to waste on summer, however. And the minute steak is a minute you will remember. (Note that one side is served raw, as it should be.)

Desserts have a gleaming, lissome polish to them. Lemon gratin is just dreamy. Blackberry tart with almond crust leaps off the fork. Warm chocolate cake soothes as its mint ice cream braces. Banana upside-down cake is a warm bath plus a big fluffy bathrobe. And then there is the passion-fruit tart, such a swift unerring kick right in the coccyx, you may believe you can fly.

Can you imagine if you were sitting at a long table when you first tasted any of Tocqueville's goodies? All those people watching, wanting, yearning, raising their forks in anticipation of your generosity and sense of community. Is that the real you? If not, stick to places like Blue Hill and Tocqueville, so no one ever discovers what a selfish hedonist you really are.

Tocqueville, 15 East 15th Street (212-647-1515). Lunch, Monday through Friday 11:45 a.m. to 2 :15 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Saturday 6 to 10:30 p.m. Appetizers $8 to $16; entrées $22 to $33. A.E., M.C., V.


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