Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Ai Fiori Review

Ai Fiori is the latest effort from Michael White, chef of Marea and Osteria Morini, which opened last fall. The restaurant is an elegant, expensive place, appropriate for it's location in the Setai hotel on Fifth Avenue and 37th Street. The good news is that White continues to produce wonderful food here.

We arrived for our reservation — early on a Saturday night — because at the time we made it, that was all that was available. But when we sat down, we were confused. The restaurant was large and mostly unfilled. As we dined, we realized that a majority of the restaurant was not yet being used. Perhaps they are still testing things out.

We began with a really nice amuse bouche of cauliflower soup with lemon foam & sea salt. The presentation was pretty, but it was served in a shot glass, which I think is fast becoming a cliched manner of serving this one-bite entry into a meal. But, nevertheless, the soup was delicious — the creaminess hit my tongue. was quickly followed by a sharp tartness as the citrus overrode it and finished with a salty bite. I don't like cauliflower, so bonus points for defying my expectations.

I'm a sucker for any sashimi-like appetizer. The Crudo di Passera was right up my alley — line caught fluke crudo, sea urchin, Ligurian lemon oil and sturgeon caviar. With this, the kitchen continued to show off an ability to combine flavors into a complex, yet delectable dish. The citrus was on the heavy side, but the brininess of the sea urchin offset it.

The agnolotti with braised veal and butternut squash was my least favorite of the night, but I'm also not a big fan of veal. 

There are so many different types of pasta, but for the most part, pasta is differentiated not by taste but rather by texture and shape. Trofie was new to me, but I liked its twisty, playful quality. Combined with a mix of seafood and topped with breadcrumbs, it made for a winning appetizer.

The Granchio — blue crab, avocado, grapefruit, tarragon, crispy farinata. This was not quite the usual crab salad. A great helping of sweet crab was accompanied by grapefruit foam and a scoop of avocado in the center. It was all very light.

Seared fillet of beef with crisp pomme dauphine, saffron onion and bordelaise. A nice hearty steak.

The Branzino Nero — black bass alla plancha, mussels, chorizo, piquillo peppers, saffron. Following a round of terrific appetizers, the main courses can seem dull and unexciting. But the bass was just as delightful as everything else. It was well cooked, so that it wasn't dried out. I was impressed by the piquillo peppers, which were stuffed with chopped chorizo, and exploded with flavor. The mussels seemed somewhat randomly placed, but were sweet — I won't complain too much about good seafood.

Sogliola — wild holland Dover sole, salsify, beurre noisette (hazelnut butter), lemon and parsley. Though the whole fish wasn't presented table side for diner review as Dover sole often is, this was a beautiful piece of fish. And despite the fact that there's quite a lot going on on the plate, the fish still manages to stand out.

It was hard to know what to expect with the desserts. They all seemed to have many elements to them based on the menu descriptions. The final course was consistent with the rest of the meal; interestingly composed plates uniting several flavors. But on a whole, perhaps slightly less successful.

Tartaleta — dark chocolate, grapefruit, anise, hazelnut gelato. The dark chocolate was overly sweet and nothing it came with helped to temper that.

Torta di Olio — Ligurian olive oil cake, ricotta, pear confit, port, gelato al caffe. The olive oil cake here was too dry. Maialino's version is much better. The coffee gelato had an almost burnt coffee flavor to it that I didn't like. But the cream and olive oil were rich and tasty.

Vacherin — basil cream, walnut, dried persimmon, Meyer lemon sorbet, walnut meringue, deconstructed fig. There was a little too much going on here. It was hard to know where to start (or end, for that matter) and this was the one spot where the many elements didn't feel connected in any way. But I appreciated being able to try so many nontraditional things at once. The basil cream and walnut meringue were the best parts.

Chocolate "Savarin" — sherry, apricot, yogurt, vanilla gelato. This is your requisite chocolate lava cake dessert. It was pretty standard, but good.

The petits four — lemon licorice jelly, olive oil truffle, kumquat & coco financier, and a butterscotch truffle. I generally don't like the jellies served at the end, but this one was particularly flavorful. And most of the time, these aren't good enough to make you want more than a nibble of when you're already incredibly full. Not so with the butterscotch chocolate; it was excellent. The other two I could have done without.

Ai Fiori is worth adding to the list of places to try for a special occasion. But you wouldn't be missing out terribly if you skipped out on dessert and went elsewhere for an old-fashioned ice cream cone.

1 comment:

  1. I'm going to visit Ai Fiori for RW this week. I hope the food is still just as good now. :)