New York, New York
There are many reasons to really like Michael White’s new restaurant Ai Fiori. The first is that contrary to what others have said about the space in the swanky Setai Hotel, I think it’s sleek, sexy and really cool. So, sexy in fact that you almost want to book a room upstairs after you’ve had a meal – surrounded as you are by some of the best Italian-inspired cooking in the Northeast coupled with a great wine list, impressive service, and an all around good feeling that nothing can go wrong here.
Almost. Seems like since the restaurant opened and listed the prix fixe dinner option of four courses for $79, it’s been bumped up to $84. I could live with that. There’s a lot to choose from and the portions are generous. The wine list, while manageable, is Italian and French vintage heavy with not as many bottles at the lower end as I would have liked but there are some decent choices to be had.
Three types of bread, herbed butter, and a decent pour on our cocktails coupled with the fact that drinking tap water and not the overpriced bottled stuff wasn’t going to be a problem, all set the stage for the first act.
Our amuse bouche was a small glass of warm asparagus soup which we were instructed to drink like a shot, so we did. Lynn ordered the foie gras to start which seemed pretty straightforward on the menu but had a twist – a sidekick of tangy rhubarb compote that I thought had a tad too much vinegar in the execution but which Lynn liked. I, on the other hand, went with the uovo appetizer — a poached egg on top of tasty sweetbreads, a couple of pieces of lobster meat from the “knuckle” of the lobster so they were incredibly soft, a few mushrooms and lots and lots of foam. I loved the taste of this dish but I would have liked to have actually been able to see what I was eating. I kept slurping up the foam component and once I got through all that fog — the tasty morsels were revealed. I loved this dish but thought the visual needed to be less foamy and more literal.
On to the pasta. Lynn ordered a steamingly hot saffron risotto with generous chunks of lobster and fennel. I tried the gnocchetti (which resembled cavatelli more than gnocchi in my book but so be it), with little pieces of diced tomato, crab, and sea urchin and then the whole thing was tossed with some really crunchy (and yummy) bread crumbs. The gnocchi was a tad firmer than I thought it should be but I’d rather have it that way than mushy which is the way many other chefs serve this dish.
We waited a bit for our entrees and got to look at the room. There is art, photographs (primarily of the changing of the seasons), some flowers, but like at his uptown sibling, Marea, beautifully crafted wood furniture. It’s very relaxing.
Then came the lamb chops. One doesn’t want to use the word “suckable” when describing an entree, especially when it’s consumed in a restaurant this pretty, but that’s exactly what these lamb chops wanted you to do. They were tasty little morsels that had me craving and hunting for every last piece of meat I could find on the bone. Lynn’s pig entree I thought was a tad oversalted but came with a soothing flan accompaniment.
Dinner came and went too quickly and we wanted to sit for a while, pause before desserts, and finish our wine. The dessert menu I thought was a tad slim for a restaurant of this caliber and had variations of the usual suspects — cheese, baba al rhum, gelato, panna cotta, and at least three chocolate concoctions. But then something struck my eye. An olive oil cake, that I myself, have made a version of from time to time, so that’s what I decided to order.
Think pound cake but better — moister and tastier and plated with rhubarb, grated orange and a small scoop of chamomile gelato. Lynn opted for the chocolate mousse with a cake bottom and a scoop of gelato on the side. Mine was better.
Since we had an early dinner reservation, we were also the first to leave the restaurant that night. We did so reluctantly; yes, we had enjoyed it that much, and carefullly made our way down the artfully designed staircase to the street. We walked to catch a train home but kept thinking how very content we were with all that Ai Fiori brought to the table that evening. Thank you Chef White.