Friday, March 23, 2012

Dinner at Ai Fiori

As I mentioned before, last weekend, my sweet B. flew into town to visit.  My sister was in the city (by that I mean NYC) at the same time, visiting with her boyfriend T., and so we all decided to go out to dinner together.  My sister and I spent a long time time trying to figure out a good restaurant for the four of us.  We considered Gilt, Marea, and Thomas Keller's Per Se, but ended up deciding on Ai Fiori.

Ai Fiori is actually Marea's sister restaurant.  In 2012, Zagat rated it NYC's Best New Restaurant and it also recently earned one Michelin star.  I checked OpenTable about a week before that date we wanted, and I was able to make a reservation for four people at 8:30pm.

Located inside the Setai hotel, it is contemporary in style with a business type of air to it.  The menu is organized into four different categories: per cominciarepasta e risotto, pesce, and carne.  You can order à la carte or you can get the four course prix fixe for $89.  We decided that the women would order just one main course each while the men would order the four course prix fixe, which the women would help share.  This ended up working out just perfectly so that everyone was satisfied and full.

After we finished ordering, we were offered a selection of three different breads: an olive bread, a sourdough bread, and a whole grain bread.  On the table we had a lightly salted butter and olive oil.  The bread wasn't warm, but it was light and fragrant.  The whole grain bread was my favorite, but all were good.

We were then served a shot of carrot cumin soup with lime foam (not pictured).  It was a nice combination of hot and cold.  The warm earthy tones of the soup also contrasted the high acid notes of the mousse.  It was pleasant, but not amazing.  Normally, or at least in my opinion, the amuse bouche is when the chef can show off his talent; it's supposed to have a wow factor.  This did not.  We gave it a 6.5 out of 10.  Not bad, but definitely not setting our expectations very high.

We did also order drinks, but I'm not reviewing them here because I don't remember exactly what was ordered; I was too busy taking notes on the food.  My sister and T. both ordered cocktails, and B. and I split a lovely glass of white wine (Châteauneuf-du-Pape).

To start our meal, my boyfriend ordered the Torchon (part of the prix fixe, supplement of $5), which features foie gras au naturel, bosc pear, and almond zabaglione.  It is served with a small tray of toasted brioche.  The dish was light, delicate, and well executed.  The poached pear was filled with toasted almonds, mixed with a reduced balsamic glaze that complemented the foie gras nicely.  It was not a mind-blowing dish, but I would happily order it again and be satisfied.  We gave it an 8 out of 10.

To start their meal, my sister and her boyfriend ordered Animelle, which featured crispy sweetbreads, pomme puree, truffle vinagrette, and pancetta.  As T. said, it tasted like fried chicken, "but in a really good way."  I'm not sure that that's what the kitchen was hoping to hear when they made this dish, but I think what T. was trying to say was that for a dish that is made predominantly of offal, it didn't taste like it.  Creative presentation and satisfying without being mind-blowing, it was a 7.5 out of 10.

Next, both of the men ordered the Agnolotti as the second course in their prix fixe meal.  This was a dish recommended by the NY Times review and it consisted of braised veal parcels, butternut squash, and black truffle sugo.  It came to the table with a simple presentation, served with a fried sage leaf.  The first bite was incredible.  The veal parcels melted in the mouth and the flavors were earthy, deep, and savory.  However, after a while, the dish got to be a bit tiresome and a little bit one dimensional.  I almost wished there was some textural crunch to contrast the chewiness and softness of everything on the plate.  Nevertheless, it was an 8 out of 10.

For his main course, T. ordered the Maiala (part of the prix fixe).  This dish featured red waddle pork loin, boudin noir, gnocchi, apple, and mustard.  The blood sausage (boudin noir, which we were told is made in-house) was delicious.  It was studded with lardo and tasted incredibly smooth.  It was not as grainy as the blood sausages I've had in the past, and the flavor was very mild and savory.  It was game-y in a way that I normally associate with meat.  The pork loin was cooked beautifully and the combination of flavors and textures was very successful.  Texturally the dish was also satisfying.  It was a very solid 8.5 out of 10.

For his main course, B. ordered the Astice (part of the prix fixe), which features butter poached nova scottia lobster, root vegetable fondant, and chataeu chalon sauce.  I was actually sorry that he ordered this dish upon my recommendation because it was the most disappointing dish of the night.  It had been recommended by NY Times, but it lacked a wow factor.  The sauce was good, but honestly I expected better.  It was so safe, so boring.  And worse yet, the tail meat of the lobster was sadly undercooked.  I personally would have said something to the waitstaff and asked for the dish to be corrected, but my sweet B. is too nice to do so.  As such, we gave it a 4 out of 10.

For her main course, my sister ordered the Trofie Nero ($36, ordered as a main course), which features ligurian crustacean ragu, seppia, scallops, and spiced mollica.  The squid ink pasta was served al dente and so it had a great bite to it.  It was filling, satisfying, and perfectly executed.  I wouldn't change a thing about this dish.  It had texture, it had flavor, it wasn't heavy, it was wonderfully balanced.  A 9.5 out of 10.  Highly recommended.

For my main course, I had the Agnello ($40) which features rack of lamb en crepinette, panisse, romanesco, and parmesan.  The lamb was very good, truly melt-in-the-mouth, tender, and moist, and I was incredibly impressed with my first few bites, however it was a lot to eat.  The romanesco was a nice crunchy textural component and the parmesan worked nicely with the lamb.  A 9 out of 10.  I would happily order this again.

For dessert, my sister and her boyfriend had the Tartaletta, which features dark chocolate, red grape, caramelized sherry, walnut gelato.  This was very good.  All of the components played well together and while I didn't quite get the fragrance of walnut when I tasted the gelato, the entire dish was a beautiful symphony of flavors.  8.5 out of 10.

For our dessert, B. and I shared the "Baba al Rhum" which features tropical fruit, passion fruit coulis, and crema di coco.  While this was delicious and I loved the flavors, it was absolutely not a baba au rhum, at least in the sense of the French pastry that I know and love.  First of all, there was no rum flavor, which should be a clear indication that you cannot say your desert is "al Rhum", and secondly it was more like a French Toast; it was even served warm, which is not something I've ever encountered with any French baba au rhum I've ever eaten.  The cold fruit plate was very fragrant.  The combination of warm pastry with the cold ice and fruit was delicious. I would be happy to order it again, but I do think the dessert should perhaps be renamed.  We gave it an 8.5 out of 10.

To close the meal, we were brought two trays of mignardises (one for each couple) which included, clockwise from top left, a chocolate with coconut filling, a delicate sand cookie will raspberry jam filling, a chocolate with banana filling, and lastly an apricot or peach pâtes de fruits.  They were all good, not stellar, but well executed.

Overall we gave the restaurant a 7.5 out of 10.  The service was decent.  There were no frills, no extras, no lingering.  It was friendly, but not above and beyond.  The food was good, but for the price and reputation, I was surprised to see something fail the way that the lobster did.  It is always disappointing to enjoy everything in a meal and then have one dish mar the experience.  I would be happy to come back, but I won't go out of my way for it; there are too many good restaurants in New York that I still have to try.

Ai Fiori
400 5th Avenue
Setai Hotel - 2nd level
New York, NY 10018
Tel. 212.613.8660

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Dinner at Salt and Fat

For the past week I have been in heaven.  My sweet B. -- whom I think I will forever refer to as the one who cooks for me, partially because after all this time, that is still one of my most read post on this blog -- came to visit from Paris.  This past Friday night we went out to happy hour and dinner with his friends in the city.  We had made plans to eat at a place that I have wanted to try for a while called Salt and Fat.  This restaurant serves what they describe as "New American small plates" which are like tapas, but without the Spanish influence in terms of flavor or composition.

We were three couples, and we walked in at around 7pm on a Friday night.  The restaurant doesn't take reservations, so we added our name and number to the list.  We were told it would be about an hour wait, so we went a few doors down to a bar to get drinks.  It wasn't long before the hostess called us and we were able to come back and be seated.

While we considered the menu, we were started off with a bag of bacon fat popcorn.  Each couple got their own bag to share.  This was a wonderful way to get the meal started.  It was salty and savory in a perfectly balanced and ethereal way.  I would happily eat this every day for the rest of my life and sacrifice my arteries and my health.  Delicious.

And then we started the meal.

One of the dishes we started with was the Truffled Beet Salad which featured frisee, red and yellow beets, pepperoni chips, and a dressing of yuzu creme fraiche ($9).  It was a good balance of bitterness (from the greens), acidity (from the creme fraiche), sweetness (from the beets), and saltiness and spiciness (from the pepperoni).  It was also fun to eat because of the differences in texture of all the components.  Despite the fact that the dish was overall a success, we gave it a 7 out of 10 because it wasn't particularly special (thought it was above average) and because it really could have used more beets.  Also I think this the type of dish that you only order once to know what it is like; good, but not stellar.  For six people, we ordered one plate.

The dish which you can see above in two forms -- first, as it came to the table, and second, "mixed" after we had dug in a little -- is the "Shaved" Hudson Valley foie gras which featured cinnamon, Mandarin oranges and bacon brittle ($15).  It was a fantastic combination.  I loved the soft acidity of the mandarin with the warm sweetness of the cinnamon.  They worked well with the delicate flavor of the foie gras, which truly melted in the mouth.  The bacon brittle was a great textural component and its saltiness was a nice addition to the flavors already in play.  We gave it a 9 out of 10.  I would happily order this again.  For six people, we ordered two plates.


This dish is the yellowtail tartare which featured scallions, yuzu gel, cassava chips ($14).  You can see it as it came to table, beautifully plated, and then after we mixed it and were prepared to scoop it up and eat it with the chips.  This was my absolute favorite dish of the night.  It was perfectly balanced.  It was spicy, savory, crispy (from the fantastic cassava chips), and fresh.  The natural flavor of the fish was highlighted beautifully, and each bite I took impressed me.  We gave this a 9.5 out of 10.  I would definitely order this again.  For six people, we ordered one plate.

Not on the menu was a dish called "Crack and Cheese", which features fried potato gnocchi, bacon, and cheese (white béchamel sauce).  This failed to impress me.  It was hot, heavy, and dull.  The same texture was in every bite and the overwhelming fattiness of dish could be tasted in a way that I did not enjoy.  With a name like "crack and cheese" you would think that the dish would be addictive, however I wouldn't order it again.  This was barely a 4 out of 10.  For six people, we ordered one plate.

 These braised pork belly tacos with kimchi salsa, pickled onions, and queso fresco ($9 for three) were another favorite of the night.  The kimchi was mildly spicy, the pickled onions were crunchy and brine-y, the pork belly was sweet and meaty, and the queso fresco added a mellow smoothness that rounded out the other flavors.   There was great textural balance.  I really enjoyed this dish.  Our one complaint was that the kimchi was a little strong and thus overwhelmed the pork belly flavor.  There either should have been more pork belly or less salsa.  We gave this dish an 8.5 out of 10.  Would I order it again?  Yes.

 The pulled pork sliders pictured above were marinated with a sriracha BBQ sauce that was more sweet than spicy (I actually had no idea there was sriracha until I looked at the menu) and served with sweet pickles ($9 for three).  I thought this dish was rather one-dimensional.  There was nothing interesting in terms of texture with each bite; the bread was soft, the pork was tender, and the pickles weren't particularly crunchy.  The flavors were also rather dull.  There was no kick, no oomph, no wow-factor.  We gave it a 5.5 out of 10.  This was by no means a bad dish, but it failed to impress and I wouldn't order it again.

The oxtail terrine, pictured above, was served with caramelized onion puree and roasted mushrooms ($10).  We appreciated the nice presentation, but you have to agree that the terrine was overly burnt, which detracted from our enjoyment of it as it really depended on the piece you bit into whether or not the char of the terrine detracted from the experience.  The onion puree was also a little too acidic.  Overall, while the earth tones of the mushroom, onion, and oxtail played together nicely, the flavors not as sophisticated as I would have expected.  We gave it a 6 out of 10.  I wouldn't order it again, but I could understand giving the kitchen another chance to make this right.  For six people, we ordered one plate.

 Pictured above is the crispy pig trotter torchon which was served with a slow cooked egg, spicy mayo, and scallion"mu chim" ($10).  This dish was interesting because it is not at all how you typically think of pigs feet in texture or taste.  In fact, if I hadn't read the menu and had tasted this blindly, I would have had no idea that it was pigs feet.  I liked the fresh spiciness of the scallion combined with the smooth spiciness of the mayo.  The creaminess of the egg was an interesting addition, thought I don't think it added much flavor-wish to a dish that was already a bit heavy.  We gave this a 7.5 out of 10.  A fun dish, I did enjoy trying it for the first time, however I don't know if it would be something that I would come back and order again.  For six people, we ordered one plate.

 We were also given complimentary fried chicken which came with pickled daikon and an herb ranch dipping sauce (normally $13, on the menu).  I'm still not sure if it was given to the table because we were a large group that ordered multiple dishes which I kept photographing and taking notes or if it was because one person in the group knew the hostess, but either way, it was a nice gesture.  Unfortunately, this dish failed to impress.  The brining of the chicken left it a little too salty.  Being cooked sous vide, the meat (especially in the breast) was tender, but we found our drumstick to be a tad undercooked.  I wasn't crazy about the herb ranch dipping sauce, and honestly thought it actually detracted from the chicken cayenne and paprika flavors of the meat.  Though this was given to our table for free, I think it was not worth the price on the menu.  If you put fried chicken on your menu and charge $13 for four pieces, it should be excellent.  This was overly salty and the skin was soggy, as though the oil it was fried in was not warm enough.  We gave it a 5 out of 10.  I wouldn't order it again.

For dessert, we ordered the lychee panna cotta with yuzu buttermilk sorbet ($6).  While I enjoyed the panna cotta, the problem was that if I closed my eyes and pretended I hadn't read the menu, I would have had no idea that the flavor was supposed to be lychee.  It didn't come across at all.  It didn't have the fragrance or the flavor of the fruit.  And the sorbet was so overpowering in its acidity and depth of flavor that it overwhelmed the delicacy of the panna cotta.  The sorbet was more of a palate cleanser; good, but not what you want to pair with a panna cotta.  The two parts of the dish worked well independently, but not as well together.  We gave it a 7 out of 10.

Our second dessert was the ice cream and sorbet ($6).  The flavors change daily, but on Friday night they served white peach and jalapeño (right, green), thai iced tea (in the middle, orange), apple miso (left, peach colored).  My favorite was the white peach and jalapeño because of the perfect balance that was established between the sweet and spicy.  It captured the natural and delicate essence of the white peach very well and yet managed to counter it with the bite of the jalapeño, which was sweet in its own way.  The thai iced tea was also successful; it really was thai iced tea in a scoop of ice cream, not diluted, not overly sweetened.  The apple miso was not bad, but it was fairly basic as a mixture of salty and sweet and I thought the scent of the apple was a bit lacking.  We speculated, however, that this flavor (apple miso) would have been nice if paired with the lychee panna cotta.  We gave the dessert a 7.5 out of 10.

After we were done eating, the meal was concluded with a probiotic Korean yogurt which the waitress brought out for us.  They were little bottles, like the kind you buy at an Asian supermarket and they tasted like candy.  The waitress had described the flavor as something like orange julius, which I thought was fitting.  It was a clever idea to end the meal with something to aid digestion, but the cloying sweetness of the yogurt wasn't exactly what I wanted after a full meal.

Overall, the experience was a 7.5 out of 10.  The service was friendly, the atmosphere was nice and the food was good.  Though there were some dishes that were subpar, there were also some dishes that really impressed me (popcorn, foie gras, tartare, tacos).  I wouldn't mind coming back to experience the scallops, grits, or Korean BBQ wrap on the menu.  Maybe another time.

Salt and Fat
41 - 16 Queens Blvd.
Sunnyside, NY 11104
Tel. 718.433.3702
open Tues-Sun from 6-11pm