I’ll be the first to admit it; I am a very lucky girl and nowhere is that more evident than the list of fantastic restaurants I have been to in
the last six months. Most everyone knows that I firmly believe that good food doesn’t have to break the bank, especially in a city as culturally diverse as New York. But for every cheap joint I find myself discovering and enjoying I still long for the handful of restaurants that really set the bar for fine dining in the city (i.e. Daniel, Le Bernardin, Marea, Per Se, Jean Georges, Adour, Eleven Madison Park, etc).
Ai Fiori now joins the list of decadent dining as Michael White and his Chef de Cuisine Chris Jaeckle bring French-inspired Italian to the city. White, no stranger to praise and acclaim, has hit it out of the park yet again. After dining at Marea for my birthday this past year I thought surely White could not come close to giving me the same culinary jitters, but boy was I wrong, so very wrong.
Set on the 2nd floor of the Setai Hotel on 5th Avenue, Ai Fiori is a cool, modern and chic restaurant with a laid back lounge
feel. Sure there are three people waiting on you (bread, drinks and food respectively), most of the people at the tables are wearing suits (it’s a serious power restaurant, you can almost feel the deals being brokered), and the place settings look too delicate to touch,
but it still feels very warm and comfortable.
Having dined at Marea I was familiar with the attention paid to each diner and Ai Fiori was no exception. The service was absolute perfection; they managed to anticipate my every move and being a first time diner helped me navigate the menu easily and swiftly (I was hungry!). Once I was able to sit back and relax with a glass of wine I took a look at my surroundings. The dining room is absolutely gorgeous; opulent floral arrangements surround you with rich dark woods and plush banquettes. Your first introduction to the space comes from the spiral staircase just steps from the lobby of the Setai Hotel…. my advice would be to skip the elevator and take the stairs for a bountiful view of bustling 5th Avenue.
One look at the menu and you fall into a trance, every item you read makes your mouth water. The menu, Italian with refined French accents, is best experienced in their four course tasting menu for $84. My dining companion and I carefully perused the menu and came up with eight items to savor and share.
Once we made our selections we conferred with our waiter and he was pleased with our selections, although we may have gone overboard on the lobster ordering three dishes filled with the buttery crustacean but I didn’t care….I enjoyed every dish.
*A Slow Poached Egg with Lobster Knuckles, Crispy Veal Sweetbreads and a Nuage Lyon*
The dish arrived in a veil of creamy secrecy with the nuage lyon covering the tender knuckles, sweetbreads and egg. The best part was hands down the sweetbreads, lightly fried and tender they paired perfectly with the creamy egg yolk. We may have gone overboard with the lobster but this dish just seemed too good to pass up when we ordered it and I am glad I went with my gut feeling.
*A Lobster Veloute with Perigord Black Truffles and Chervil*
Throw out the fancy words and this is basically the best damn lobster bisque you will ever try. It tastes so light and airy that you try to convince yourself that you are eating a calorie free soup but in actuality you are downing what must be 1000 calories worth of creamy deliciousness. It is sooo worth every single calorie and I ran three miles the next morning just to justify my near licking of the bowl.
*A Ligurian Crustacean Ragout with Seppia, Scallops and Spiced Mollica*
Michael White creates magic in his pastas and this dish stands side by side with the Sea Urchin Pasta I had at Marea as the best I have ever had. It is no wonder that this dish has a cult like following, it’s brings out flavors I have never tasted before together. Plump squid ink pasta, crunchy breadcrumbs, juicy bite size scallops, thin and flavorful sauce… it was divine.
*Braised Veal Parcels with Fava Beans and a Black Truffle Sugo*
This was my friends choice, he actually insisted we order it. And I really enjoyed it, but not nearly enough as the Trofie Nero (in fact I was hesitant to let him get a taste of mine), the parcels melted in your mouth with a burst of delightfully indulgent minced veal. The accompanying whole fava beans and fava bean puree carefully placed and splashed around the plate danced in my mouth.
*Ricotta and Mascarpone Ravioli with Boschetto Cheese and a Red Wine Glaze*
I know Chris, the Chef de Cuisine, and was pleasantly surprised when he sent out this complimentary dish. The mixture of ricotta and mascarpone cheeses nearly took me to the edge with its richness but I couldn’t help myself and immediately devoured it. The dining room was quite packed so I know Chris had his hands full but when I caught sight of him walking in the distance I couldn’t help but
flash a big toothsome grin. Maybe one of well-known thank you notes will find a spot in the kitchen just like they do in so many other New York kitchens :).
*Butter Poached Lobster with a Spring Vegetable Fondant and Chateau Chalon Sauce*
When I inquired as to what dish was a must try, our waiter immediately mentioned the Astice. We all know that Chef Thomas Keller created this stellar dish but Chris Jaeckle has perfected it. In fact we were told that many consider Chris to have
created a better version of Keller’s, so this was an easy choice. Everything about it is heavenly; an almost too generous portion of buttery luscious and plump lobster placed atop an aromatic sauce laced with nuggets of seasonal spring vegetables made me giddy with glee. Again, I took this dish and tried my darndest to keep it to myself. I’m sure I resembled Gollum from the Lord of the Rings as I huddled over my “precious” astice trying to keep it from my dining companion. He probably got only two bites, but he didn’t care as I let him go all out with the Agnello dish.
*Rack of Lamb en Crepinette with Swiss Chard and Saviette*
While I whispered sweet nothings to the Astice dish, my friend kept himself in good company with the Agnello. Savory minced lamb was formed around the bone and wrapped in caul fat; I mean how freaking amazing is that!? They took the meat off the bone, ground it and placed it back as if nothing had ever happened! To add to its grandeur the dish was gigantic; for a tasting menu I felt as if I was robbing them blind with how much food was on the plate. The robust swiss chard was anything but an afterthought on this plate; both balanced each other so well. This dish and the Astice were the only dishes we barely shared with each other we loved them so much!
After six indulgent courses I was scared that I wouldn’t have room for dessert but somehow I managed to fit a few bites in. Before our final course came out we asked for a glass of milk. After the waiter stared at us with a look of puzzlement, he brought us two cold glasses and said it was the first time they had ever been asked that! Well it’s confirmed; I put my stamp on the restaurant!
Maybe it was because I nearly ate myself to death but I couldn’t eat more than a few bites of the desserts! Putting my fork down in defeat was a sad sad sight, but I was just too full to go on. After roughly two bites each of both I let my friend finish them off. The tartaletta was almost a more decadent version of a peanut butter cup with rich dark chocolate and nutty hazelnut. The torta di olio was dense but delicious; I could have eaten a bowl of its confited rhubarb and been good to go. As you can see from the photos, they are
of art. The Pastry Chef crafted two stunningly gorgeous plates that I couldn’t help but stare at, a true culinary architect that could stand alone with one of the greatest…Le Bernardin’s Michael Laisknonis.
*Dark Chocolate, Grapefruit, Anise and Hazelnut Gelato*
Torta di Olio
*Ligurian Olive Oil Cake with Ricotta, Pear Confit, Port and Gelato al Caffe*
Ai Fiori is in one word, spectacular. It has been one week since my meal and already I find myself extolling the virtues and beauty of this
restaurant to nearly everyone I know. The tasting menu ranks as one of the best in my mind, for $84 you get four decadent dishes that blow your tastebuds and stomach away. Apparently the lunch menu is spectacular as well and it seems as if I already have a reason to come back with their “White Label” burger firmly planted on the menu. I mean this is the burger that made the whole town lose their minds over when it debuted, I gotta taste what this is all about.
It is a meal not to be missed, do whatever you can and book a reservation at Ai Fiori. Michael White can simply do no wrong in my eyes, he has given me two absolutely unforgettable dining experiences this year and has seriously upped the ante for fine dining in NYC.
400 5th Avenue (at 36th Street) *inside the Setai Hotel