Tuesday, January 25, 2011


"A bit of fragrance always clings to the hand that gives you flowers." This ancient Chinese proverb is probably my favorite saying ever, and it's Michael White's newest restaurant, Ai Fiori, that is the incarnation of that bouquet. Located in a no-man's-land stretch of 5th Avenue just below Lord & Taylor, there is little else going on down the block. An unbroken stream of tchotchke tourist shops, fast food restaurants and chain drug stores taper off and is overcome by a glowing light of the Setai hotel, spilling out onto the sidewalk as you approach, and suddenly the ambiance of the mundane neighborhood transmutes into an entirely different experience. A uniformed doorman opens the door before you even realize he's seen you, and up you go to the staircase on your left into this most recent manifestation of White's culinary artistry.

The room is warmly lit, and bright spotlights mimic the way
sunlight filters through lofty tree branches in hours of gloaming. Flower and branch arrangements spring up throughout the dining room, and the motif continues with floral and nature-themed photographs. The sparsely populated dining room gave greater opportunity to admire the decor; at the early hour we arrived, only two other tables were seated. As the evening progressed, few more filled up. Part of this might be attributed to the temperature, topping out at about 16 degrees earlier in the day, and also that it was the first night ofRestaurant Week, in which Ai Fiori was not particpating, which I'm sure caused a dent in their reservation numbers. It's such a serene and inviting atmosphere, though, that the restaurant's emptiness was easily overlooked. That, in addition to the gracious staff, welcome and attentive (which well they should have been, given the workload for the evening). We perused the vast tome of a wine list, choosing a Dolcetta for the red and a spry little Muscat for white upon the recommendation of our dashing sommelier.

Briskly, a complimentary amuse-bouche was presented, a tall shot glass full of a frothy white soup our waiter described as... something unintelligible. I asked him to repeat it (twice) but any comprehension was lost in his thick Latin accent (Sencha? Like tea soup? . At any rate, it smelled heavenly, so instead of pestering him further we decided to figure it out ourselves. Bright, acidic notes of tart apple arrived first (good job, Luca) and I mused on the rest... turnip? No, artichoke! Oh, jerusalem artichoke... SUNCHOKE, not Sencha. It all made sense now. It might've been nice not to have to go through the guessing game, but in the end, it was rewarding to have independently nailed it with such precision. Then the empty glasses were whisked away, along with the impressive gilt chargers (you know those things are ex-pen-sive) and onto the main event.

I opted for the four course prix-fixe menu (really, a much better deal at $79 than a la carte), so I started light with a salad so lightly dressed I thought it
might levitate right off the plate. Any oiliness was indetectable, with just a perfect hint of sherry and salt, and surprisingly flavorful autumn greens. Striking leaves of Trevisano mingled with ruffly lettuces and thinly sliced wedges of pickled delicata squash and slips of sharp manchego so thin you could see through them. The kitchen shows mad dexterity with the mandolin, with many dishes augmented by ingredients sliced so impossibly thin you'd be afraid to break them- if it mattered. My companion chose sardines with ceci mille folie and a tomato confit so vivid in color it looked like ripe salmon roe.

Next up was Michael's strong suit: le paste. From the five on offer, the trofie nero stood out. And I'm glad it did, because when the inky twists arrived in their small, deep bowl, it was immediately obvious why he receives such accolades. The noodles were actually a little scary looking... in a slinky, seductive, even dangerous way. Or else like a slithering bowl of
glistening black worms, but either way it feels slightly scandalous to eat it... although a crime worth committing. Canoodling with the twisted squid-ink pasta were pearl-sized morsels of pristine scallops and curling tentacles of seppia, topped with a crunchy spritz of buttery spiced mollica (basically fried bread crumbs). Portions are the perfect mid-course size, supplying enough to fully appreciate all the layers of flavor but not enough to render your appetite defunct for the delicacies to come.

We both went for fish entrees, although in retrospect this is the perfect place for an occasional meat-eater to indulge in carne. Portion sizes are diminutive enough to avoid overstuffing, and he is really a master with the with heavier proteins. That said, he knows his way around the piscine, as well, having enough practice at the stellar Marea a mile north.
Branzino Nero a la plancha showcases three triangular medallions flanked by chorizo-stuffed piquilla peppers and slices of roasted fennel bulb. The skinned pepper comprised a flavor that wasn't my favorite, a bit mineral-heavy that reminded me of canned, and the stuffing was somewhat mushy, but the fish was expertly cooked, crisp of skin and tender of flesh, and the fennel was buttery and melting and sweet. Laid out on the plate, however, it was a bit of a study in geometry, and less gorgeous than all the other dishes we order or saw. A better option... nay, according to the NY Post, it is no less than The Greatest Dish in The World. Yes, people... the world. I wouldn't say that (I'm still partial to Psilakis), but this little plate was definitely the winner of the night. A butter poached lobster, hovering on that delicate edge of raw versus done, fork-tender and as white as the snow falling outside the big picture windows over 5th
Avenue. I actually sent it back to enjoy a little more time under the heat, as I still harbor a little sushi-anxiety and like my proteins cooked probably more than they should be. After asking whether it was adequately cooked, our server checked with the kitchen and answered in the affirmative, but said they would be more than happy to give it a little more fire if I preferred. Which I did, so they did, and it was all the better for it. (Service here is grand that way.) Regardless of your predilection of doneness, this dish is exceptional. Buttery Chateau Chalon sauce with a just a gentle lemony tang and tinge of white wine coddles chunks of lobster meat and a precious array of the tiniest root vegetables. Were plate-licking acceptable, it would have been justified, but instead any of the four varieties of dainty little rolls (I liked the seven grain) lessen the shame in mopping up that sauce.

Our waiter offered to replenish our wines for the third or fourth time, making it feel as if, especially on such a slow night, they were a bit desperate to fleece our tab by pushing the vino a little too enthusiastically. But soon they brought what we really wanted: the dessert menu. While there is a selection of a carefully curated cheeses, I prefer to investigate the talents on the sweet side. Deciding between a bright vacherin with persimmon and Meyer lemon, and a somewhat enigmatically titled Mandorle-Cremeux, we decided on the latter, richer option, befitting of the wintery clime.
Plus, what couldn't be wonderful about something basically called "almond creaminess"? What appeared before long was a small puck of thick white chocolate almond custard, with a cheesecake-like richness, bedecked with chewy morsels of candied citrus, tiny balls of juicy apple flesh and a drizzle of rosemary olive oil. A quenelle-shaped dollop of deep purple cassis sorbet is anchored atop by ribbons of apple, razor-thin and coaxed into curls. Even my white chocolate-averse dining companion swooned.

So Chef White appears to be continuing with his string of successes, even after having severed ties from his original pair which he left to his prior partner, Chris Cannon. How this taxed economy can support such lofty establishments still confuses me, but if anybody is able to pull it off, it is White. It's funny to imagine such a big guy, his sturdy fingers finessing such delicate creations, coming up with this precious food. But I'd guess some of his potency stems from the adage: his food feels like a gift (albeit one your pay significantly for), and the perfume that remains with him the sweet smell of success.

Ai Fiori
400 5th Ave, New York

Phone: (212) 613-8660

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