Monday, March 28, 2011

Ai Fiori, New York NY

Michael White has made quite a name for himself since I first ate his cuisine at Alto – a visit that was an unplanned walk-in when Anthos proved to be incapable of even the most basic aspects of running a restaurant. With little knowledge of White’s cuisine or style at that time the choice to visit Alto was largely based on location, convenience, and word of mouth(s) yet I was welcomed like an old friend and served some of the best Italian food I’d tasted to date; it was then that I vowed to frequent the White establishments and subsequent visits led me to Convivio, Marea, and Osteria Morini in short order. With mixed experiences at the various establishments but the food generally falling somewhere between good and great it was with excitement that I heard about his new venture entitled Ai Fiori – a return to the “fine dining” stylings of Alto featuring cuisine described as “Frenchified Italian” – and on discussion with New York friends both old and new a table for four was my reward for a day full of presentations at the conference for which I was in town.

Located in the recently renovated Setai Hotel in the heart of Manhattan the setting for Ai Fiori could not have been more convenient and my arrival for our 8:30 reservation was timed perfectly. Welcomed by a friendly doorman and pointed to the spiral staircase ascending to the restaurant I was struck by the modern décor and unique design of the building first and then by that of the restaurant’s bar and lobby – a long space with dark woods, brilliant whites, soft lighting, low seating, and fascinating art throughout. Checked in to the hostess stand I was informed that I was the first in my party to arrive and was welcomed to either wait at the table or in the bar area and after opting for the later I picked up a copy of Chef White’s magazine to peruse while awaiting others. With the intriguing cocktail list and bar menu in hand I declined alcohol instead opting for water and within fifteen minutes our party was whole and we were led to our table.

With introductions made as two of us had never met it would be mere moments before our server arrived – a familiar face to two of my co-diners who would help guide us through the menu-structure and assist in pairing wines for the connoisseur of the table. With mixed feelings about the service at most of White’s restaurants I will note here that Ai Fiori was quite adequate overall but certainly not without its faults as water often sat unfilled, wines occasionally arrived subsequent to their plates, and timing was a bit off during a number of courses. That said, taking into consideration the size of the dining room and the sheer number of covers on that particular evening (including EMP General Manager Will Guidara who happened to be seated right next to us) we should also bear our part of the blame for the timing issues as we eschewed the “standard” menu format instead opting to add at least one (and in some cases two) courses each to the prix fixe structure in order to sample as much of the menu as possible.

With orders placed and conversation flowing as I browsed the pleasant yet bland room bolstered by bright flowers and dynamic views Fifth Avenue it would be mere moments before our first bites of the evening would arrive – in this case three types of bread including Olive, Whole Grain Oatmeal, and Semolina Baguette along with grassy salted cow’s milk butter. With the breads baked in house and served warm all were good while the Olive was truly exemplary and with the bread man truly on his game I will note that there was rarely a time when anyone’s bread plate was empty.

After the bread our second taste of the evening was the nightly amuse – in this case a seasonal shot described as Warm Parsnip Purée with honey foam. Served in a double shot glass but in fact less than a mouthful this flavorful sip was earthy yet sweet and light – a nice opener, but nothing terribly memorable.

Having already mentioned our manner of ordering – all opting for the prix fixe plus a dish or two with some duplicates – I feel the cuisine is best served by describing the dishes themselves as opposed to who ordered what and in what order they arrived, particularly as everyone was opened to sharing and there was not a dish on the table anyone to sample. Beginning first with the simple – a dish titled “Insalata” featured Italian Winter Greens, Pickled Delicata Squash, Manchego, Aged Sherry – everything was fresh, everything vegetal was crisp, and the balance of bitter, sweet, and savory was nicely done. It was a good salad, the result of good ingredients largely unaltered.

Moving on to more interesting antipasti, “Torchon” was one of the favored dishes by many tables that evening, and for good reason. Described as Foie Gras au Naturel, Seckel Pear, Ormeasco Mostarda, Pistachios, with Brioche Toast this creamy round of largely unadorned duck liver was creamy and unctuous though it’s cold service temperature required a bit of time to warm enough to spread on the brioche. With crunchy pistachios and fleur de sel atop and a salad of spinach, pear, and more pistachio alongside the dish found a pleasant balance, but considering the price tag the portion size was rather anemic compared to other highly regarded Manhattan restaurants.

Another antipasti ordered by two at our table would be “Uovo,” a foamy deep bowl containing a slow poached farm egg, lobster knuckle, crispy sweetbreads, and “nuage layon.” Perhaps the most intriguing of the night’s dishes and invariably my favorite this delicate potage was complex, rich, and balanced with the crispy offal, snappy lobster, and creamy egg all blending marvelously and ample notes of butter and notes of dry wine and sweetness permeating the palate. Amazed that something so rich could be so delicate it should also be noted that unlike many restaurant soups this dish was served piping hot – a great decision as the egg seemed almost to have been added raw prior to service allowing it to cook as minimally as possible by the time it arrived tableside.

The final antipasti of the evening was “Piccione” – an impressive half Squab with crispy lacquered skin overlying the tender breast and leg. With the squab itself tasty and nicely prepared the plate-mates were equally impressive with a creamy parsnip puree juxtaposing the crispy skin and sweet Madeira sauce with mushrooms highlighting the nutty tones of the bird. Finally, to finish the dish there were two small nuggets described as “Liquid Foie Gras Croquettes” that added a whimsical (and delicious) note to the otherwise classic plate; all in all a fantastic composition.

Moving on towards the pastas we selected a total of four and each expectedly showed off White’s keen eye for matching tastes and textures plus chef de cuisine Chris Jaeckle’s admirable skills in executing White’s vision (as a side note we overheard a conversation between Chris and EMP GM Will Guidara that although the pastas are still entirely White’s creation, many of the Secondi were Chris’ originals.) Beginning first with the Agnolotti I will note that my taste was quite small given my overall distaste for veal, but what I did taste of these stuffed Braised Veal Parcels paired with Butternut Squash and Winter Black Truffle Sugo displayed a lovely springy texture while the sweet squash and aromatic truffles rendered the veal a mere note on the tongue more-so than the predominant flavor.

For our second pasta Trofie Nero proved to be my favorite of the group not because it reinvented the wheel but simply because it was a flawless preparation of outstanding ingredients with perfectly al dente trofie pasta and a briny sweet sea creatures (Ligurian Crustascean Ragout, Seppia, Scallops, Spiced Mollica) existing in harmony with crunchy buttered bread crumbs adding texture.

With “Gnocchetti” we would see a revisit to a dish previously served at Convivio and once again it was excellent, this time perhaps even better than the first. With dainty yet toothsome Semolina Gnocchi tinted with saffron at its base and an admixture of chopped crab, uni, tomatoes, and butter making up the sauce each bite was an exposure to different nuances of the dish – sometimes sweet and sometimes acidic, sometimes vegetal and sometimes unmistakably “urchin-y.” Again with herbs and buttered bread crumbs adding nuance and texture there is a reason White carried this over from Tudor City.

For our last pasta – really, it had no chance to fail. Titled “Risotto” and featuring Acquarello rice simmered to a nearly rice-pudding texture this dish was subsequently studded with chunks of butter poached lobster, pools of melting bone marrow, notes of saffron and salinity from what was described as “shellfish jus.” Intensely rich and the incredibly decadent this dish reminded me much of a similar option at Chicago’s Spiaggia with the lobster replacing Octopus and the price-tag at about 2/3 what Montuano charged for a smaller portion – in other words, this risotto was not only delicious, but a sizeable portion at a bargain price.

Moving on to the main courses a total of three were ordered and while each was substantial in size none were more so than “Agnello - Rack of Lamb en Crepinette, Swiss Chard Crochetta, Sariette.” Featuring at least twelve ounces of medium rare lamb still on the bone resting atop a bed of melting bitter Swiss Chard and topped with a sauce of game jus, vinegar, and peppery savory this dish was an overhead smash of flavors and a portion enough for two. With additional meat from the rack confited and housed in the Crepinette I will say that although I found the texture to be a bit too tough in parts another member of my party was so happy with this dish that he chewed the bones clean.

Next amongst the mains was the oft raved “Astice” of Butter Poached Nova Scotia Lobster, Root Vegetable Fondant, and Chateau Chalon Sauce…but to be perfectly honest I was not all that impressed. Sure the lobster tail was snappy, sweet, and loaded with butter and of course the “fondant” exhibited tender carrots, parsnips, and potatoes while the vin jaune perfumed everything with it’s warm notes but the way people had talked about this dish I guess I’d expected something “transcendent” when in fact it was simply a classic sauce over quality ingredients – there was nothing wrong with it, just a case of too much hype leading to unrealistic expectations.

Our final secondi was again a classic preparation slightly updated, but in this case featuring something not seen nearly as frequently as the ubiquitous “lobster” dish. Titled “Sogliola” and featuring wild caught Holland Dover Sole with crispy salsify, beurre noisette, lemon, and parsley this whole fish preparation carried a supplemental fee that was entirely worth it and then some. Another enormous preparation with each filet eclipsing a foot in length the protein itself expertly cleaned and prepared to be flaky and moist while the salsify added a textural juxtaposition and the mild nutty tones of the sauce brought out the sweetness of the fish in full effect.

Quite satisfied with the meal thus far desserts were requisite and after description of the daily gelato flavors we opted for four desserts plus a sampling of three gelati – Vanilla, Stracchiatella, and Rum. Reportedly hand made in house and served with a polenta cookie each were good but most impressive by far was the rum, a full bodied buttery interpretation that I personally think would have been even more exemplary as in the coffee I ordered to go with dessert.

Never one to fancy fruity flavors for dessert I have to say that the first of the composed desserts that we sampled. “Vacherin” with Basil Cream, Walnut, and Meyer Lemon Sorbetto was actually quite tasty. More vegetal or “savory” than a true sweet the flavors and textures of this dish were on-point with the basil cream served studded with crumbled almond meringue and candied walnuts beneath the more-sweet-than-sour lemon sorbet. Attractive and light I’d say this would have made an excellent palate cleanser or for someone with more affinity for citrus and a smaller appetite than mine (as the case were,) a clean finish to a heavy meal.

Continuing with the fruity flavors but moving more into my range by including a buttery cake and a shot of rum, “Baba al Rhum” with Tropical Fruit, Passion Fruit Coulis, and Crema di Coco was actually served as two separate plates, one with the baba and the other with the ornately composed fruits. With the cake itself buttery and dense topped with a shot of rum plus a quenelle of rum gelato this portion of the dish was simple, tasty, and exemplary – an excellent baba. Regarding the second plate – well, it was pretty and I like banana and pineapple a lot but overall I could have done without the kiwi and passion fruit.

Dessert three would be our first venture into chocolate and although I’d personally passed on this choice due to the citrus I ended up glad someone else selected it as it turned out to be perhaps the best of the quartet. Titled “Sformata di Cioccolato” and delivered as a tall cylinder of airy chocolate Mousse coated in cocoa powder and topped with candied pine nuts this dessert was shockingly light and creamy yet at the same time rich and complex. With a small smear of lightly lemon tinged honey serving largely as decoration and a ball of Stracciatella gelato atop more of the pine nut crumble this was “cake and ice cream” done well.

Our final dessert, my selection, was the “Chocolate Budino" with Pedro Ximénez, Amarena Cherry, Yogurt, and Vanilla Gelato and although it was about as far from a traditional pudding “budino” as possible, it was absolutely delightful. Served as a large chocolate wafer dusted with cherry powder atop thickened Greek yogurt, chocolate sponge cake, and crunchy chocolate cookies soaked in sherry the best way to describe this dish would be a more grown up, more nuanced, and more elaborate black forest cake. Again served with ice cream, this time vanilla gelato, it turned out that in the end we probably didn’t need the trio to begin with as each was featured with one of our desserts but then again, who is going to complain about extra gelato?

With all of us quite full and food going home with some our final tastes of the evening would be four house made mignardises – first served one tray to two persons but later served one tray to each on request as we all wanted to sample each option. Featuring a Meyer Lemon Pate a Fruit, Olive Oil Dark Chocolate, Brown Butter Dark Chocolate, and a Pistachio Almond Cake with Salty Caramel each bite was tasty and the Brown Butter Chocolate especially one of the best restaurant chocolates I’ve ever tasted either stateside or in Paris.

With the bill split and paid with minimal difficulty despite the complexity of our order we spent some time lingering and chatting before heading out and with the restaurant now mostly empty I noted that even when it was full it was a surprisingly serene space and even now I don’t recall a bit of noise coming from the other tables. Bidding each other farewell as we made our way out to 5th Avenue I have to say that aside from a couple small service issues that were quickly remedied I really enjoyed the evening and despite the rather dull room the food itself was at worst common and at best exemplary – an feeling best surmised when a member of our party stated “there wasn’t a single weak dish” and given the number of things we tasted I think that says a lot.

No comments: