Just when I thought I have tried all of Chef Michael White's restaurants (Convivio, Alto, Marea, Osteria Morini) and wonder if the chef could ever outdo his sea urchin malloreddus dish at Convivio, he surprised me with his sea urchin gnocchetti at his newest restaurant Ai Fiori. Located on the second floor of ultra luxury The Setai Hotel on Fifth avenue at Murray Hill, Ai Fiori is probably the most upscale restaurant the chef owns. When we went there, Ai Fiori customers seems to be the fur coat, fancy hat and expensive suit wearing kind of crowd. Albeit the crowd, ambience at Ai Fiori is not at all stuffy, which may be partly due to its friendly waitstaffs and maitre d'. The executive chef of Ai Fiori, Chris Jaeckle (who used to cook in Morimoto and Eleven Madison Park) even came out and chatted with us. Apparently, he has a friend who shares the exact same first and last name as me. Note to self: try convincing Chris Jaeckle that it'd be cool to have 2 friends with the same name. Always nice perk to know chefs or people in the food business, if only for their colorful personality. :-)
Since the big boys aka New York Times, New York Magazine, Eaters and Serious Eats have not yet officially published a review on Ai Fiori, we figured that explained why the restaurant was not fully booked when we went there on a Friday night. I'm glad that we had a chance to eat before it gets too popular, the food is really that good. With Michael White no longer affiliated to partner Chris Cannon and the Convivio and Alto restaurants, Ai Fiori will be the new best place for Michael White lux pasta and Osteria Morini will be the place to go for laid back comfort Italian food, and especially its pasta. Can you imagine MW was out of job just a few years ago? He sure is taking New York City by storm!
Ostriche - poached wellfleet oysters, cucumber, sturgeon caviar, beurre blanc
Uovo with Fried Sweetbread
Just like in all of Michael White restaurants, the menu in Ai Fiori is simple and utilitarian (I think I've used the same description for Marea's menu), with adequate selections of wonderfully prepared Antipasto, Pasta, and Pesce/Carne main dishes to choose from. The menu here are French Riviera and Italian Riviera inspired, and they served a ligurian pasta called Trofie which is unique to places like Cinque Terre. I didn't order that but I had oysters for appetizer, sea urchin gnocchetti for pasta and poached lobster for pesce entree. Gan had the uovo (poached egg with sweetbreads), sea urchin gnochetti for pasta and rack of lamb for carne. I just have to say --- Ai Fiori's sea urchin gnochetti is absolutely heavenly, even better than Convivo's sea urchin malloreddus! Portion was larger and there were more crab meat to go with the rich creamy sea urchin sauce and the perfectly al dente gnocchetti. The poached oysters with sturgeon caviar dish delivered great satisfaction, and poached lobster dish for my third course was just butter-succulent. Gan's uovo was also pretty darn good - light foam with runny egg yolk complimented the fried sweetbreads nicely. Unfortunately he wasn't as impressed by the rack of lamb dish he ordered. For dessert, we ordered ligurian olive cake with ricotta and gelato al caffe, which was a nice finish to our perfect dinner at the restaurant. If you've been to MW's restaurants as much as we have, you should have noticed a few similar dishes reincarnated in slightly different versions such as the sea urchin pasta, uovo, and affogato. Say what you want, but MW knows what works and is adept in reinventing his food to keep it interesting and most of all, delicious.
Service was excellent throughout the night. We remember seeing some familiar faces in the front of house, and later on found out that Ai Fiori had in fact hired quite a few people from Corton, including Corton's director/maitre d' Susan Lee. Dessert chef Robert Truitt made the same trek uptown from Corton to Ai Fiori. I guess besides ex partner Chris Cannon (who gave the chef his big break when he hired him at Convivio), Michael White will probably not be in friendly terms with Corton's Drew Nieporent any time soon? In the mean time, the restaurant war does not concern us diners, as long as we can still have good italian food and good pasta. Nobody does it better than MW!
Torchon - foie gras au naturel, spiced figs, ormeasco mostarda, pistachios, brioche toaste
Granchio - blue crab, avocado, grapefruit, tarragon, crispy farinata
Gnocchetti with sea urchin and crab meat
Astice - butter poached nova scotia lobster, root vegetable fondant, chateau chalon sauceTorta di Olio - ligurian olive oil cake, ricotta, pear confit, port, gelato al caffé