Monday, March 28, 2011

Ai Fiori: Dream Team

The 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona ushered the term "dream team" into the American lexicon. Buoyed by the likes of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, they easily went on to win the gold medal, crushing their opponents by an average of 44 points per game, and in so doing, set the bar of what an all-star team should achieve.

If the dream team has any culinary equivalent, one need not look any further than the all-star team Chef Michael White assembled at his newest restaurant, Ai Fiori which included the likes of: Executive Chef Chris Jeackle (Morimoto, Eleven Madison Park), Pastry Chef Robert Truitt (Corton), master mixologist Eben Freeman (wd~50, Tailor), beverage director Hristo Zisovski (Jean-Georges) and front of the house veteran John Paulus (Jean-Georges). Obviously impressed, many quickly tabbed Ai Fiori for instant success. But championships aren't won on paper, and after disappointing reviews for White's Osteria Morini, one couldn't help but question whether the chef had jumped the shark and spread himself too thin. Making matters worse was the fact that history wasn't on White's side. After all, Sifton had previously given SHO Shaun Hergatt, another Setai collaboration, a meager two star review. But being a fan of White's food it was only a matter of when, not if, MW and I would eventually visit.

Located on the second floor of the Setai, Ai Fiori serves as the hotel's signature restaurant. Boasting a gorgeous white marble bar, the interior was predictably similar to that of SHO Shaun Hergatt: sleek, modern and dominated by earthy dark tones. But despite Sifton having taken issue with the restaurant's design, neither of us felt like it detracted from the meal.

Greeted promptly by our captain, we declined wine in favor of Eben Freeman's unique libations. MW began with the Aperitivo - Cardamaro, Celery Infused Plymouth Gin, Aranciata, Sparkling Orange - and seemed pleased. The flavor of the celery infused gin came through and was an ingenious twist to the drink. Not much of a rum fan, I surprised myself by ordering the Crumble - Brown Butter Rum, Falernum Syrup, Dulché de Longueville Cidre - and was very pleased. The flavor of the brown butter was prominent and gave the drink a wonderful complexity I often don't associate with this particular spirit.

With a menu heavily influenced by the French Riviera, featuring the likes of veloutés, limited pasta options and traditional French sauces, Ai Fiori seemed like a stark departure from the Italian cuisine usually associated with White. Fortunately for us, it was equally delicious. To begin, the kitchen sent an amuse bouche of Parsnip Soup with a Lavender and Rosemary Espuma. Served piping hot, the sweetness of the parsnips were balanced by the herbaceous espuma.

Next, the bread man made his way to our table offering a choice between: French, Multigrain and a Picholine Olive Baguette. Served with a Salted Herb Butter, each selection contained a nice crusty exterior and warm chewy innards.

For her first course, MW ordered the Mare e Monte. Pairing elements of both "sea and land," the dish contained Diver Scallops, Celery Root, Black Truffles, Bone Marrow and Thyme and was beautifully presented in a hollowed out marrow bone. Slices of sweet scallop were interlaced between discs of celery root and heady slivers of black truffle, then topped with bone marrow.

My Crudo di Passera consisted of thinly sliced Line Caught Fluke, topped with Sea Urchin, Ligurian Lemon Oil and Sturgeon Caviar. A heavily nuanced dish, each element on the plate served an integral role as the subtle sweetness of the fish was wonderfully accented by the creamy sea urchin, lemon oil and salty caviar to form something absolutely stunning.

With too many tempting options, we chose to supplement the Uovo as an additional appetizer. Described as a Slow Poached Egg with Lobster, Sweetbread and a Nuage Layon, the dish was well worth the additional charge. The sweet lobster meat and crispy fried sweetbreads were nice accessories to the perfectly poached egg and sharp nuage layon.

Moving on to our second course, MW chose the Gnochetti with Saffron Gnocchi, Crab and Sea Urchin-- strikingly similar to the Malloreddus we had at Convivio. While not exactly reinventing the wheel, the dish was extremely solid, containing even more crab meat than we had remembered. Our only complaint was that, like with so many pasta dishes containing this luxurious ingredient, the flavor of the sea urchin was a bit too subtle.

I opted for the Agnolotti, Brasied Veal Parcels with Butternut Squash and a Black Truffle Sugo, which contained bolder flavors, and, in my opinion, was the better of the two pastas. The sweetness from the butternut squash helped cut the richness of the al dente agnolotti and earthy truffle sugo, preventing it from becoming overwhelming.

For our next round of cocktails, MW ordered the Royal Blush - Absolut Vodka, Mint, Lime, Morello Cherry, Sparkling Wine - which was finished table side. My Mela Brûlée - Santa Teresa Rum, Hot Rosemary Cider - was served warm and was extraordinary.

For our entrees, MW chose the Vitello, or Amish Veal Chop "Au Four," with a Sweetbread-Choux Farci and Sauce Perigeux. The massive bone-in veal chop had been seared hard, yet remained moist and paired beautifully with the pungent perigeux sauce. The sweetbread-choux farci was a pleasant surprise. Essentially, cabbage wrapped sweetbreads, the vegetable acted as a stunning foil for the delicate sweetbreads, absorbing a massive amount of flavor in the process.

After being called "the greatest dish in the world" by New York Post critic, Steve Cuzzo, it was obvious that I'd be ordering the Astice, or Butter Poached Nova Scotia Lobster with Root Vegetable Fondant and a Chateau Chalon Sauce. Initially, I was taken by the flawless execution of the lobster. Not the least bit stringy or chewy, each component seemed to highlight the natural sweetness of the lobster. While I won't go as far as Cuzzo, there is no doubt that this is one of the best lobster preparations I've ever had and is every bit deserving of all the lofty praise it has garnered.

Aside from drawing the ire of Drew Nieporent, many considered it quite a coup when White was able to land Pastry Chef Robert Truitt. Known for his innovative presentations and modern technique, we eagerly awaited our desserts. MW's Crème Glacée with Green Apple, Cassis, Pistachio and Rosemary-Yogurt Gelato was anything but a disappointment. The herb-flavored gelato was indicative of Truitt's flair for the creative, and was anything but a case of style over substance. Instead, the dish came together with the various flavors, textures and temperatures.

More conventional was my Coulant di Cioccolato with Warm Chocolate Sformato, Lemon-Honey and Stracciatella Gelato, which was Surprisingly similar to the ubiquitous "molten chocolate cake." While no individual element was technically bad, I couldn't help but feel that Truitt was playing it safe with this dessert.

MW ordered an Organic Mint Tea while we nibbled on our petits fours which included: a Salted Caramel, a Lemon Pâte de Fruit with Licorice Sugar, a Pistachio Financier and a Dark Chocolate Truffle. Each were good, but nothing was particularly memorable.

Already having captured a glowing three star review by New York Times critic, Sam Sifton, Ai Fiori and company have successfully cleared their first major hurdle. With Michelin fast approaching, this crack team can't afford to rest on its laurels and must continue to push forward, improving in several areas. While only time will tell whether the restaurant's "dream team" has more in common with the triumphant 1992 or massively disappointing 2004 version, I'm a firm believer that at the end of the day, talent always rises to the top. I'm confident that Ai Fiori will emerge victorious.

Ai Fiori
400 5h Avenue
New York, NY 10018
(212) 613-8660

To see all the pictures from this meal click HERE.

Ai Fiori on Urbanspoon

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