Consider me yet another writer/journalist jumping on the “taking my talent to somewhere” bandwagon, possibly the most popular phrase tossed around by the media in the latter part of 2010. (Apparently it’s possibly to be somewhere physically without taking your talents with you)
However, I’m not using this phrase without merit. Upon dining at Michael White’s Ai Fiori, my guest and I were joking that Ai Fiori is the culinary equivalent of the Miami Heat.
- Superstar chef splits with former partner.
- Announces new start at a glitzy location: The Setai 5th Ave.
- Recruits famed pastry chef from Corton.
- Recruits famed sommelier from Jean-George’s.
- Brings in FOH staff from Corton.
- A live-streamed “unveiling” of the “White Label Burger”.
- Takes aim at fine dining, ready to mix it up with the upper echelon of the fine dining scene.
Does it work? Yes.
The space is absolutely gorgeous. From the hanging tear-drop glass art at the building’s entry way, to the elegantly designed dining room, this is fine dining decor at its finest. The space and layout reminds me very much of another Setai hosted restaurant SHO Shuan Hergatt.
The Ai Fiori experience, however, is best started at the bar. The cocktails are each one meticulously crafted. The mixologists here are true artisans at their craft. The Camparinete, a combination of gin, vermouth, and campari, was blended and swished around in a large mixing glass, then slowly pour into a glass, finished with a piece of burnt orange peel (burnt in plain sight) lightly brushed against the rim.
Service at Ai Fiori is attentive, and the most ambitious of Michael White’s restaurants. From the friendly maitre d’ to the wait staff that surround you during your meal, you feel that you are properly taken care of.
The menu, contrary to the somewhat confusing layout of Osteria Morini, is brilliantly simple and straight-forward. While items are available a-la-carte, the $79 4-course tasting menu is a tremendous value for a restaurant of this caliber. The wine list was also a pleasure to read, display great range of grape varieties, geographical origin, and prices.
The appetizers started off with a bang. The Mare e Monte, a collection of diver scallops, truffles, celery root sliced into round disks served inside a bone was both stunning to look at and delicious tasting. The Crudo di Passera combined Japanese elements of fluke and sea urchin, with savory western flavors of lemon oil and caviar. Then there’s the Uovo, a slow poached egg with lobster with a heavy serving of foam. Combining a simple ingredient with high cuisine presentation and flavor.
Surprisingly, there was only a few pasta options from a master chef that made his name on pasta excellence. However, you cannot go wrong with any of the choices. The Agnolotti, which was recommended by the server, was cooked perfectly and packed tremendous flavor.
There are many options to choose from for your entree, with ingredients from the land and sea. The lamb was incredibly tender, yet was slightly overpowered by the crepinette, a flat sausage wrapped around individual pieces of lamb. The beef filets was cooked very nicely, however lacked the brilliance of the other options.
The highlight of the meal was the butter poached lobster. Tasting remarkably similar to the lobster tail crafted by Thomas Keller, the Michael White version was executed very well. In terms of texture, I’d say this lobster was poached perfectly. The taste and seasoning is however slightly heavier than the Per Se version. However you really can’t go wrong with either one, and there’s a $200 difference in minimum spend if you ever need to satisfy a poached lobster craving.
The dessert menu had influences from other Michael White restaurants, namely Alto, as well as elements from Corton. The chocolate dish, in fact, looked and tasted very close to Corton’s famous “Gold Bar”. I was not blown away by the dessert, and I believe it’ll take some time for the dessert menu to find a good identity to match the overall cuisine.
Assembling a team of NY culinary stars from both inside the kitchen and in the front of house, it’s obvious Michael White has grand plans for Ai Fiori. I like the food, I enjoy the atmosphere, but at the moment the restaurant lacks a distinct identity, that drama or flair that comes with upper echelon dining. However, give the team some time to develop the chemistry, and I think Ai Fiori will be a force to be reckoned with.
What does this rating mean?
Ai Fiori (Make a Reservation)
400 5th Avenue
New York, NY 10018