400 Fifth Avenue (37th Street)
City: New York, NY
Phone: (212) 613-8660
Sat-Sun Breakfast 8am-11am Brunch 11am-4pm Dinner 5pm-12am
Site: Visit the restaurant site
Chef: Michael White
2nd Cuisine: Ligurian
Area: East 30s
Payment: Amex Visa Mastercard
Tucked into the second floor of the gleaming Langham Place Hotel on Fifth Avenue not far from the Empire State Building, a curving flight of stairs leads to Ai Fiori ("Among the Flowers" in Italian) where the door is flung open and a warm welcome offered. Helmed by chef Michael White, nominated for numerous James Beard Best Chef awards, the place is very contemporary, quite expensive and popular--on a recent Saturday, several tables turned over during peak hours. The restaurant is part of the Altamarea Group that is also responsible for Marea and Ristorante Morini. Diners may be hotel guests, out-of-towners or those like me looking for an as- yet untried bravura spot for an overseas guest.
Tables are decently spaced and even with a near-capacity crowd, you can have a conversation. Lights are dim and service highly professional with a dark-suited, helpful sommelier appearing without being summoned. There are stylish soaring bouquets as well an individual propea, (a a currently voguish spiky Australian flower) in a squat vase on each table.
The gold-scrolled service plates are deftly removed as a choice of excellent breads is offered. An amuse-bouche arrives--ours a dollop of delicate cauliflower puree. The wine list, overseen by Beverage Director, Hristo Zisovski, offers over 300 bottles from France, Italy, California, Spain and elsewhere. as well as half-bottles and wines by the glass as well as cocktails, beers and champagnes. Happily, our white was served appropriately chilled but not so cold it killed the taste.
There's a seven course tasting menu ($135) and a four-course one at $97( we passed on both.) My companion enjoyed a pristine salad of lolla rossa and manchego cheese; I was delighted with an adorable heirloom tomato tart with small orange and yellow tomatoes bedded on pesto and a light crust. (We also passed on the Petrossian caviar with gougieres at $110 an ounce.) I'm a sucker for angolotti, these billed as "veal packets" with roast eggplant and balsamic sugo and worth the $36 tag but flirted with the signature Trofie Nero with seafood ragu.
The classic butter poached lobster was beautifully plated (as was every item but none of it trivialized with sauce dabs.) Other appetizers include a fluke crudo with American sturgeon caviar; corn soup with lump crab meat, fois gras or poached shrimp with chilies and picked cauliflower. Want to share a course? No problem. The "Amish" veal chop delivered nearby looked stunning (its eater said it was); other carnivore choices are duckling and a strip steak with a "cacio e pepe" potato terrine.
Wanting a chocolate finale, we split the $15 Crema di Cioccolato with olive oil gelato that brought a cylinder of chocolate wrapped around malted mouse. Other dolci are available as are a well-chosen group of cheeses. A small tray of sweets was brought out before the check. Private dining is available.
Ai Fiore embraces food of the Italian and French Rivieras in a playful, modern way.
Would I revisit? Price notwithstanding, you bet.
Review By: Mari Gold