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.
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.
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.
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.