Ai Fiori, NYC

April 5, 2011

Ai Fiori is owned and operated by Michael White, who has become quite a celebrity Italian chef in New York with his very successful menus at Convivio, Alto and Marea. Ai Fiori’s late November, 2010, opening was too late for it to have Michelin or Zagat ratings yet so we were intrigued when Sam Sifton recently reviewed it in The New York Times with:

“But the dinner menu is a soulful amalgamation of French technique and Italian passion, executed with great skill. It turns an Italian lens on haute French cooking to reveal French food as it might be cooked in Como for a table of aristocrats. This works out well for everyone: Ai Fiori is one of the best restaurants to open in New York in the last 12 months.”

We also noted that normally reliable NYC blogger Marc Shepard said, “Ai Fiori is the most beautiful new restaurant built since the Great Recession. … My meal here was probably the best I’ve had at any of White’s restaurants.” Other bloggers were equally enthusiastic. Only Adam Platt’s review in New York Magazine was negative, prompting an outraged tirade from Josh Ozersky of The Huffington Post, who was wildly enthusiastic about Ai Fiori. And so it was with great anticipation that Linda went to Ai Fiori for dinner on March 16, 2011.

The restaurant is in the new Setai Hotel at Fifth Avenue and 36th Street which says of it: “Celebrating cuisine from the Italian and French Riviera, Ai Fiori’s inspired menu showcases modern interpretations of traditional regional dishes.”

We were fifteen minutes early for our 8:00 reservation and so were seated in the bar area while we waited, looking at photos on the wall of Portofino etc. Without looking at the bar menu, we ordered glasses of prosecco and were surprised to hear that crémat is what is offered. This northern French sparkler was okay, but a bit sweet.

We were seated promptly at 8:00. The amuse-gueule was a little glass of “warm parsnip soup with honey verjus espuma and rosemary.”

The menu formula is four courses for $79, which is quite reasonable. We ordered a bottle of  2004 Vittaroccia Vino Nobile di Montepulciano; it was very good.

Linda’s first course was
roasted breast of squab, foie croquette, madeira, quince

She wrote: “The squab was perfectly cooked. The leg was well braised so the meat fell off. The croquette of foie gras liquid interior was good. It is odd to offer a substantial squab dish as the first of a four-course meal, but it was successful.” 

My first course was
mediterranean sardines, tomato confit, ceci mille foglia, olio nuovo

The small portion of cold sardines had been dressed in a thin, ordinary vinegar. The olive oil was in the little round dabs, which made the needed integration with the sardines difficult. The chickpea wafer was good, but the tomato purée had no relevance except to try to create a southern Italian reference.

Linda’s pasta was
saffron gnocchi, crab, sea urchin

The curse of American cuisine, hot red pepper flakes, had been added, unannounced, unneeded and inappropriate, ruining the dish.

My pasta was
riso acquarello, lobster, bone marrow, saffron, shellfish jus

The natural saltiness of the seafood had unfortunately been enhanced with more salt, which dominated the dish.

Linda’s main course was
amish veal chop “au four”, sweetbread-choux farci, sauce perigueux

She said that the veal chop was good, but that the few pieces of sweetbreads and cabbage inside the chard leaf were fairly tasteless. 

My main course was
rack of lamb en crepinette, swiss chard crochetta, sariette

The quality of the lamb was excellent. The chard underneath was good. The winter savory inside the caul which wrapped the lamb went well. 

Linda was planning to order the Baba au Rhum, but was told that it was “Coconut Rum” and so she joined me in ordering the
Torta di Olio
ligurian olive oil cake, ricotta, pear confit, port, gelato al caffé

This was nice.

As compensation for the pepper-flaked gnocchi, we were offered a
basil cream, walnut, persimmon, meyer lemon sorbetto


There was a little tray of mignardises at the end.

The pace of the meal was fine, but the service, while friendly, seemed somewhat amateurish from an undertrained staff. (The bread server had not learned whose bread plate was on which side.) The noise level was high.

Many years ago Calvin Trillin lampooned the “Maison de la Casa House;” the generic “gourmet” restaurant without any focus that one could find all over America, particularly in hotels. Ai Fiori seemed like an updated, more complicated, version of that. This could have been a hotel restaurant in Atlanta or Dallas etc, as easily as on Fifth Avenue in New York. The cuisine suffered by its air of self-importance and not being faithful to any culinary tradition, only making a few references to Liguria. We could sense that at the start with the crémat and the “warm parsnip soup with honey verjus espuma and rosemary.” Michael White’s talents have been submerged here by the requirements of a hotel restaurant needing to please a wide range of diners, few of who are seeking out a specific cuisine. He should have known better.

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