A couple months ago, my Aunt B got a new client for her work as a freelance graphic designer. As a result, she has had to spend some time out in California for about a week at a time. Since I have watched her dog Scout before for a night or two, she asked if I would mind watching her while she was away. I never grew up with dogs, but have been thinking about getting one, so this was a great opportunity for a “trial run.” Luckily, Scout is very well behaved for a one year old. Although, she is a bit of a diva, especially when she poses for the camera.
Aunt B offered to compensate CT and myself for taking care of her “child,” but we suggested going out to a nice dinner instead. We all like to eat good food and taking money from family when doing a favor is a little tacky. Since we ended up watching Scout for about 3 weeks in weekly intervals, Aunt B suggested I pick out a “special occasion” restaurant. Usually this means going out of the neighborhood, but I decided it would be a great opportunity to try Michael White’s new restaurant Ai Fiori. CT and I had a great dinner at Marea back in January and have become big fans of his work. Our friend Hungry from Tasty Eating had a great lunch at Ai Fiori too.
Ai Fiori opened last Winter in the brand new Setai Fifth Avenue hotel/condo on the corner of 36th street and 5th Avenue. Right in the heart of tourist country with the Empire State building two blocks away, it is a strange location to say the least. It always take one place to be the first to change a neighborhood, so maybe the Setai is it for this part of Manhattan? Only time will tell.
As with most of Chef White’s restaurants, the four course prix fixe is the suggested option. At Ai Fiori the prix fixe was $84 compared to Marea’s $89 when we went in January and which has been raised now to $91. Considering the less than stellar location and current lack of Michelin stars, it makes sense that Ai Fiori is “cheaper” than Marea. Of course, we all opted for the prix fixe.
We started with bread service. I chose the olive baguette and the sourdough roll. I believe there was also a multigrain roll.
The bread was served with a nice round of room temperature butter topped with some kind of fancy salt. Any restaurant that serves butter at room temp so it is actually spreadable always gets bonus points.
Right as we were digging into our bread, we were served an amuse of almond milk soup with paprika oil. The soup was incredibly light with just a hint of almond flavor. The paprika oil with its deep orange color contrasted nicely against the pure white of the soup and also added a bit of spice.
Shortly thereafter our first courses were presented to us. I have to say that the service at the restaurant was perfect from start to finish. The waiter was friendly and attentive the entire meal and even joked around with us. We didn’t have to worry about getting anyone in trouble by refilling our own wine glasses either like at Jean Georges. This was definitely the best service we received compared to the other fine dining establishments we have dined at in the past.
Aunt B and I both started with the Granchio (blue crab, avocado, grapefruit, tarragon, crispy farinata). This was an amazing appetizer. From the sweetness of the crab to the creaminess of the avocado to the tanginess of the grapefruit and the heat from the chili salt. Where is the grapefruit you ask? The two pink orbs were grapefruit foam. I was really impressed with how perfectly round they were and still tasting of a perfectly ripe red grapefruit. I didn’t know what “farinata” was, but after a quick Google search, I learned it is a chickpea cracker. The few slivers gave a good contrasting crunch to the dish.
CT started with the Uovo (slow poached egg, lobster knuckles, crispy veal sweetbreads, nuage layon). CT asked our friendly waiter what nuage layon is and I believe he said it was whipped egg whites, but I’ll let her tell you more about it. I had a bite of the sweetbreads. It was still crispy with a faint hint of mineralness expected from organ meat.
CT says: I remember the waiter describing the dish as “cloud-like” so how could I not order it? I wanted to eat a cloud! Well, since I wasn’t quite listening I didn’t realize that the whole dish would be covered in an egg-white foam. It was a delicious foam, but just a little bit too much for my taste. However the plethora of lobster knuckles and sweet breads soaking in the perfectly poached runny egg flavor… it was all just heavenly. I felt like I was floating on the cloud I was consuming. I was also surprised that the sweetbreads retained their crispiness (except perhaps the last one).
Next up was the pasta course. Unfortunately the menu changed recently, so CT wasn’t able to order the Gnochetti with Saffron Gnocchi, Crab and Sea Urchin. Chef White has had some variety of a crab and uni dish at all of his restaurants, but I guess the change in season required this to be taken off the menu.
Aunt B decided to splurge and spend an extra $5 to get the Risotto (riso acquarello, lobster, bone marrow, saffron, shellfish jus). She was glad she did. I think she said it was one of the best risottos she has ever had. The rice was 100% perfectly al dente. I had a small taste and it was as flavorful as the brightness of the colors. Since the three of us were deep in conversation pretty much throughout the meal and Aunt B is a notoriously slow eater, I may have had thoughts of stealing the plate from her and finishing it myself.
In lieu of the gnochetti, CT had the Spaghetti (blue crab, lemon, bottarga, chilies). This was also pretty amazing. The Chef was not light with the chilies, so there was a fair amount of heat. She was pretty pleased with this substitute, but I’ll let her tell you more.
CT says: I really enjoyed this dish! It was a nicer flavor after my heavier first course. The chili-ness was the perfect amount for me – just a little heat to start with a lingering kick in the throat. The spaghetti was just perfectly made and cooked – a little chewy and loaded with crab! Michael White really gives the word pasta a whole new meaning.
I heard about there was a squid ink pasta on the menu, so I decided this would be a great place to have my first taste with the Trofie Nero (ligurian crustacean ragoût, seppia, scallops, spiced mollica). This was really good too. While the squid ink didn’t give it any sort of inky flavor, it gave the pasta a rich dark color. I particularly enjoyed the texture of the twisty pasta. I am a big fan of eating any kind of cephalopod such as squid and octopus for their chewy texture and was not disappointed here. While the seafood was finely chopped throughout, I think it worked to allow the pasta to shine through.
We were actually talking about how ubiquitous pasta can be. I usually make some out of the box when I don’t feel like cooking, but Chef White shows how truly great it can be with the proper technique and ingredients.
Although the pasta dishes were on the small side, we were already getting quite full before our mains came out. When they did we were a bit scared because the servings were quite large. We would have been ok if they were half the size, but C’est la vie, the food was too good to go to waste(leftovers wer not an option with this high caliber food).
Aunt B had the Branzino (Mediterranean sea bass, in zimino, fregola, calamari ripieni). She loves branzino and was quite happy with this presentation. The calamari ripieni in the upper left corner was interesting; stuffed with a variety of ingredients.
CT chose the Agnello (rack of lamb en crepinette, swiss chard crochetta, sariette). She was a little taken aback by the “en crepinette” since she never had caul fat wrapped meat before. The lamb was super flavorful and perfectly cooked. It was quite a unique dish, but way too much food for her.
CT says: I have never had caul-fat-wrapped anything before, so I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. Like the first course, it was my fault for not truly understanding what I was ordering. I tasted a bit of the lamb with fat and found the fat a little too chewy, with bits of hard cartilage. It was just a bit too overwhelming for my taste. However, once I unwrapped the fat, the lamb chops were amazing. So moist and tender, cooked to a perfect medium-rare, and super flavorful. I was stuffed but I gobble it up.
I went with the Maiale (brined pork loin, cannellini beans, preserved lemon, broccoli rabe pistou). When the dish was presented to me, aside from noticed the five large slices, the pork appeared to be dry. Boy was I wrong, it was juicy and packed with flavor which was elevated when dipped in the cannellini bean puree and broccoli rabe sauce. The brown little pillow at the top of the picture were filled with what I believe to be a pork rillette then deep fried. Full stomach be damned! I finished this wonderful dish.
Since all of us were well beyond full, we decided to get the three most interesting desserts and share them.
Torta di Olio (ligurian olive oil cake, ricotta, rhubarb, chamomile gelato). This was one of the prettiest desserts I have ever seen. The cake was light and moist with just a hint of olive oil flavor. I particularly liked the little pool of olive oil in the ricotta. It was a cute reminder of what the foundation of the dish was.
Sformato di Cioccolato (chocolate mousse, devil’s food, “maraschino” cherry, stracciatella gelato). This could satisfy any and all chocolate fiends. The chocolate tower actually had cake and preserved cherries on the inside. The dark cherry on the left side had a stem made of chocolate.
CT says: This dish was full of delicious surprises at every bite. Any chocolate-lover should definitely order this. It’s not heavy but it’s is chocolatey and wonderful.
Panna Cotta (honey yogurt crema, heirloom melons, almond milk, lemon sorbetto). It took me a little while to figure out where the panna cotta since it wasn’t in its traditional shape, but the bocconcini(small white balls) was it. The server actually finished the dish tableside by pouring a honeydew “broth” around the dish. The various fruits were super flavorful. I enjoyed this one a lot.
After dessert was cleared, we were given some mignardises. Unfortunately we had to figure out what they were for ourselves. The chocolate on the left had a airy chocolate ganache. The chocolate on the right was a salty caramel that was extremely light and gooey. The cake was good, but I had no idea what it was. I think the red dot was a rhubarb sauce? I had no idea what the fruit jelly was either, but I am not a fan of that anyway.
CT says: I’m not a huge caramel fiend, I’ll over pick a ganache over a caramel, but this was some of the best tasting caramel I’ve ever had. Very impressive.
All in all, it was one of the best meals from start to finish. Not only was all of the food delicious, the service was top notch throughout. We went on the Friday night of July 4th weekend, so the restaurant was relatively quiet. I doubt if they turned tables over more than once. I hope it isn’t always like that because the restaurant deserves to be successful. Yes, the tourists sitting in the roof of the double decker buses can almost see you sitting in the restaurant, but hopefully the food and conversation is distracting you from looking outside. We were only a little disappointed we didn’t get a parting gift like at Marea, Jean Georges, or Per Se but our experience more than made up for that. Thanks again to Aunt B for treating us. We will gladly watch Scout again especially if it means another fantastic meal in the future.