Ai Fiori in Midtown Manhattan is the only Michael White restaurant where I’ve never actually seen Michael White. And that’s okay.
One of the best measures of an eatery is how well it runs when the globetrotting cook is AWOL, which is why I planned most of my Ai Fiori visits to coincide with White’s trip to Asia, where he was preparing to open his first international venture in Hong Kong this spring.
White and his ex-Merrill Lynch business partner, Ahmass Fakahany, also own Marea on Central Park South, Morini in Soho and a few joints in Jersey.
Good thing they know how to recruit an all-star team of deputies. It was Chris Jaeckle, a veteran of Morimoto, who prepared my veal agnolotti, chubby little sachets of beefy bliss counteracted by a smear of butternut squash.
Pair them with brown butter-infused rum, courtesy of Eben Freeman, the avant-garde bartender late of the now-closed Tailor.
Sommelier Emilie Perrier matched a silky-as-foie gras lobster tail with a Muscat Sec, an insanely perfumed white that comes from a list constructed by Hristo Zisovski, who himself left Jean Georges for Ai Fiori.
Baba au rhum? The cake can often sting of cheap liquor.
Not here. Only the deep, complex caramel notes of the strong spirit remained -- compliments of pastry chef Robert Truitt, last seen at Corton.
White and Fakahany are operating their growing empire like a cash heavy technology company, snapping up talent from every corner of town. And as a sign of faith in the economic recovery (at least at the high end) they’ve opened their somewhat corporate Ai Fiori at the Setai, a hotel where rooms start around $495 a night and where condos have commanded over $4,000 per square foot.
Curtains soften the glow of Fifth Avenue taillights, a profoundly relaxing view. Ai Fiori is roomier, quieter and fancier than White’s other New York spots, with 4-course, $79 meals that might include amuses (sunchoke soup), intermezzos (salted honey cream with apple and celery gelee) and pate de fruits (the snooty response to Chuckles).
This is all a luxurious, Monte Carlo-esque hybrid of Italian and French Riviera cuisines. Expect duck liver -- in a smooth terrine, sturgeon caviar -- on cucumbery buerre-blanc poached oysters.
The Southern French flavors of pungent black olives and sweet tomato confit make for a killer crispy, simple roasted hen. Sometimes the Provencal preparations border on prissy, such as with beef cheek formed into two little cupcakes.
Pastas, are excellent, with the exception of trofie nero, which is outstanding -- a mind-bending preparation where the squid ink noodles, not the sweet shellfish, carry a punch of brine.
Conservative eaters, who sometimes recoil from White’s offal, lard-heavy approach to life, will appreciate Ai Fiori as a more restrained effort.
After all, the Setai is a hotel, which explains why this upscale restaurant deigns to serve brunch, the bane of the fine-dining world. Adventurous types, however, will find solace in the following, $27 array of textures: black truffles (firm), celery root (softer), scallop (still more delicate) and bone marrow (jiggly).
The Setai factor also appears in very hotel-like dishes, including a stellar, truffled lobster bisque and a typically boring filet mignon, though the tenderloin is jazzed up with a serious bordelaise sauce and a tasty little block of short rib.
The $19 burger, served at lunch, turns into fashionable, $8 sliders at dinner with slab bacon and American cheese. They’re fine; better are White’s substitute for French fries, crispy pommes dauphinoise that are more or less the world’s greatest tater tots.
After The Divorce
Ai Fiori is White’s first venue since splitting with partner Chris Cannon, who will keep Alto and Convivio. An everyman who drove himself home to New Jersey at night, Cannon was the personable, public face of a growing empire. As White continues propagating his belt-loosening approach to cuisine, his most difficult task may be finding a replacement for Cannon’s idiosyncratic warmth and knowledge.
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: $79 for four courses, $110 for tasting menu.
Sound Level: Moderate, 70 decibels or lower.
Date Place: Yes, get a room upstairs for later.
Special Feature: Perfect, caper-studded Dover sole.
Will I be back: Yes.
Ai Fiori is at 400 Fifth Avenue at the Setai. Information: +1-212-613-8660 or http://www.aifiorinyc.com/.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):
51 to 55: Church on a weekday. 56 to 60: The vegetable aisle at the Food Emporium. 61 to 65: Keyboards clacking at the office. 66 to 70: My alarm clock when it goes off inches from my ear. 71 to 75: Corner deli at lunchtime. 76 to 80: Back of a taxi with advertisements at full volume. 81 to 85: Loud, crowded subway with announcements.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)