The career of chef Michael White is at an inflection point. He reached heights that few chefs even dream of, with a trio of haute Italian restaurants carrying nine New York Times stars and five Michelin stars between them.
But his partnership with the restaurateur Chris Cannon hit the skids late last year and dissolved in January, with Cannon taking the two restaurants that pre-dated his association with White (Alto and Convivio), while White and his investor Ahmass Fakahany took the others.
White now lacks the solid front-of-house organization that Cannon supplied, while he plans new restaurants at a frenetic pace. We liked Osteria Morini, the final restaurant that White opened with Cannon’s assistance, but some critics have complained of inconsistency there.
In November, just two months after Morini, came Ai Fiori (“Among the Flowers”) in the Setai Fifth Avenue hotel. It’s another in the haute Italian genre shared by all of his restaurants except the casual Morini. The food is impressive, but to maintain it as a three-star establishment may require more attention than he is now capable of.
It’s a lovely, elegant, romantic space, although some critics will complain that it’s a generic hotel dining room that could be anywhere—as they did at the other Setai restaurant in New York, SHO Shaun Hergatt. Don’t listen to them! Ai Fiori is the most beautiful new restaurant built since the Great Recession.
You can order à la carte or, the better bet, four courses for $79. This turns out to be a remarkable deal: individually, the starters range from $14–27, pastas $18–25 (not counting a $55 truffle-studded outlier), mains $32–49, and desserts $13–14. Nearly all are orderable on the prix fixe without supplements.
The cuisine purports to be that of the Italian and French riviera, but you wouldn’t guess that by looking at the menu, or for that matter the room. The connection to the riviera is so tenuous as to be practically non-existent.
The amuse bouche, a warm sunchoke soup (above left), was an excellent start. My friend loved the fluke crudo (above right) with sea urchin, lemon oil, and sturgeon caviar.
Mare e Monte (below left) is one of the more original dishes, an alternating stack of diver scallops, celery root, and black truffles, with bone marrow and thyme, served inside of a hollowed-out bone. It’s an instant classic.
Oddly for a Michael White menu, the pasta and risotto section of the menu lists just six items. Risotto (above right) with escargots, parsley, parmigiano, garlic chips, and cotecchino was good but unmemorable. My friend thought the Trofie Nero (below left), squid-ink pasta tossed with shellfish, was the better choice.
The butter-poached lobster (above right) deserves the praise heaped upon it in just about every Ai Fiori review that I’ve read. Normally $37 if ordered on its own, it’s available on the prix fixe without a supplment: remarkable.
White hired pastry chef Robert Truitt away from Corton. His work here is less impressive. Baba al Rhum (above left) tasted stale not very rummy. However, my friend loved the chocolate sformato cake (above right) with its molten core. The kitchen sent out an extra dessert (below left), the description of which I didn’t note, and the meal ended with a plate of petits fours (below right).
The wine list runs to 43 pages, and you can do some serious wallet damage, but there are also plenty of reasonable choices in the $40s and $50s. We took the sommelier’s recommendation for an $82 Gewurtztreminer and weren’t disappointed.
The bar is one of the more comfortable, civilized places for a drink in midtown, and well worth a visit in its own right. Eben Freeman (formerly of the now-departed Tailor) is responsible for the cocktails, which are expertly made, as you’d expect, but lack the whimsy that he’s capable of.
On a Friday evening, the space appeared to be around 2/3rds full. Reservations at Ai Fiori have generally been available at just about any time: it is not the immediate hit that Marea was. I suspect that’s a product of too many high-end Italian places opening in a short time span, and perhaps some Michael White fatigue. The location, at Fifth Avenue and 36th Street, is something of a dead zone, and the restaurant’s presence is not obvious from the street. (You enter the hotel and then up a spiral staircase to reach it.)
My meal here was probably the best I’ve had at any of White’s restaurants. To produce at this level consistently, White will need competent deputies who can operate it on his behalf.
Ai Fiori (400 Fifth Avenue at 36th Street, in the Setai Hotel, East Midtown)