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

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