Thursday, September 4, 2014

AI FIORI: Revisit

At some point, I missed the memo that Ai Fiori had morphed into a midtown Marea.  My first visit to Ai Fiori was during winterier months, but if anything you'd think that mid-summer would foster more peak-season produce inspiration.  Instead, it seems to have planted a fishing bug, as well over 50% of the menu now contains some oceanic element, six seafood entrees as opposed to just five variant other protein sources.  Not that
 there's fault in that, but I thought that was more Marea's job.  Ai Fiori, "among the flowers", was supposed to concentrate on the ephemeral seasonality, most of which I associate with seasonal produce from the field.  Wasn't it?

Nothing has changed in terms of affordability, however.  Milking its prestigious address in the Setai Hotel as well as the celebrity attained by its chef, Michael White, puts dining at Ai Fiori in the same ranks as the spendiest eateries in the city.   We chose dining a la carte as opposed to the $94 prix-fixe or the $130 tasting menu, but this was simply a gauged on a style preference, as regardless which mode you select, dinner here will set you back.   I think the most unsettling moment of the evening happened early on, perhaps setting the tone.  I wanted to enjoy a nice glass of white along with my dinner, but unfamiliar with any of their by-the-glass offerings, I enlisted our sommelier, who was very affable and enlightened, so upon his description, I chose the most appealing- which happened to be the least pricey.  He countered with an offer to provide tastes of all, normally a benevolent gesture.  But since I have a pretty low vino-capacity, I approved of the first sample he bequeathed, which, of course, happened to be the priciest.  Which would've made more sense had it been the mildest vintage, but instead if was the most robust.  Which you would normally save 'til the end in a tasting,  but I feel like they wanted to push the most expensive option.  I can't be certain, but when I noticed (quite after the fact), it left a lingering bad taste in my mouth, which is unfortunate, because the Antoine Creek viognier itself certainly did not.

I hope they began every format with the luscious little bite of summer that arrived in the form of a golden corn custard, flecked with fresh tomato and juicy whole kernels.  In retrospect, I wish an enlarged version would've been offered as an appetizer, because of the options that were, my top choice was the Insalata di Pomodori, but I couldn't justify $22 for tomatoes.  Heirloom, to be sure, gussied up with some stracciatella, but at $4/lb at the Greenmarket, some slicing and dressing does not constitute a 450% markup.  Instead, I took my starter from the Contorni menu, a welcome addition to the menu that didn't exist of my first visit.  Cauliflower described as pan-roasted tasted pre-steamed maybe fired in the oven afterwards,  having none of the tell-tale chew and toasted florets of a dry roasted vegetable.  It had a watery quality, and its mild anchovy-tinged salsa verde  tasted most prominently of butter.  Pastas display White's most celebrated fortitude, however, and can be ordered full-size as a main or in half-portions to begin, which was our tact.   Plump,
eggy  agnolotti stuffed with meltingly tender braised veal were topped with shreds of kale and nutty sunflower seeds, sauced in a corny sugo perfumed with fragrant black truffle- a lovely combination of summery elements amped up with the luxury of veal and truffles.   Masterful.

Maybe we should've stuck to pastas as mains, but I took the opportunity to do a direct comparison to my maiden voyage here, ordering again the butter poached lobster that I recalled so rhapsodically- a dish that has apparently attained signature status.  While still visually appealing, the most recent rendition lost some its allure without the memorable sauce Chalon, this time paired with a meager quantity of garden beans (a total of four beans halved, I believe) and breakfast radish.   I also neglected to request a fuller cooking as I did before, and this time accepting its slightly gelatinous texture... but I wish I wouldn't've.  I honestly don't get the whole undercooked fish thing: I go to restaurants to see how well chefs cook... not almost cook.  Leave the translucent fish to sushi fans, and please get my seafood to flake-point.  Its squash-based sauce wasn't as alluring at the Chalon, either, but it could've been due in part to the undercooked crustacean at hand.  The Branzino was given accolades from our waiter, who was extremely personable and helpful, but this fish
 , too, failed to thrill me.  Crisp-skinned filets balanced akimbo over an olivey tomato ragout, upon which balanced a sizeable calamari stuffed with pearly fregola.  It was just that, robustly flavored sauce and well-seared fish, but somewhat more rustic and less special than the gold-rimmed chargers and white tablecloths demand.  The thing I was most looking forward to was another contorno, this time a wild mushroom saute.  But it never made it to our table, somehow being lost in the shuffle of ordering.  One server we addressed about its absence flatly stated "You didn't order that" with a very rough, heavy accent.  Not ideal, and not true, but most importantly, not how you handle the situation even if it were true.  Regardless, it was too late at that point to add it to the mix, so I'll forever lament the missing funghi.

Contrary to the savory dishes, the desserts were actually more attractive in person than their menu descriptions.  I recalled pastry chef Robert Truitt from Paul Liebrandt's beloved Corton- some of the most deliciously memorable and gorgeously plated sweets I've ever enjoyed came from his hand.  We decided upon the Vacherin, playfully crowned with a wavy pane of rhubarb glass balancing atop a scoop of gelato.  A thin plate of white chocolate separated this from plump raspberries and their accompanying sorbet,
sprinkled with a sandy sesame crumb.  We were also treated to another similar concoction layering raspberries, whipped cream and custard over buttery cake, this time topped with a crystalline
 disk of pure, clear sugar- not so much flavorwise, but a curiously gorgeous  bauble to behold. A small quenelle of strawberry sorbet sat off the the left, further differentiating two.  I can't really outrank one over the other: they were both lovely and delicious, if not outrageously dissimilar.

What was dissimilar betwixt my two visits to Ai Fiori was the current version seems to have lost its depth and vim.  There wasn't so much a thing to elicit disappointment so much as a lack a signature Michael White bravado.  He's a big man, to be sure,  but he's also made a big empire.  And maybe even his largesse isn't quite enough to support AltaMarea's sprawl.


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