Mon-Wed, 7am-10:15am, 11:45am-2:15pm and 5:30pm-9:45pm; Thu, 7am-10:15am, 11:45am-2:15pm and 5:30pm-10:15pm; Fri, 7am-10:15am, 11:45am-2:15pm and 5pm-10:15pm; Sat, 8am-10:45am and 5pm-10:15pm; Sun, 8am-10:15am, 11am-2:15pm and 5:30pm-9:45pm
B, D, F, M, N, Q, R at 34th St.-Herald Sq.
American Express, Discover, MasterCard, Visa
Ai Fiori (“Among the Flowers”) is the second official solo venture from the great pasta savant Michael White, after his casual downtown taverna Osteria Morini. It’s a more opulent but much more conventional ¬restaurant in the monolithic Setai Fifth Avenue hotel. Like lots of hotel restaurants, this one occupies an awkward, slightly tortured space, which you get to from the lobby, up a flight of twisting marble stairs. The bar is made with imported polished marble, the dining room is colored in gloomy shades of brown and green, and, because the curtains are drawn in the evenings to obscure the trinket shops along Fifth Avenue, there is no view.
“Is this really a Michael White restaurant?” whispered my slightly scandalized wife as we examined the wilted flower arrangement at our table. Our five-top wobbled precipitously when you put your elbows on it, and was adorned with matching nut-colored napkins and plates that looked like they’d been rummaged from the stateroom of a cruise ship anchored off the coast of Monte Carlo (“the food of the Riviera” is Ai Fiori’s stated theme). Our first salvo of carefully articulated appetizers included old hotel standards like lobster (in a delicious velouté with truffles and chestnuts) and foie gras (in torchon style, for $24), along with a series of signature Michael White seafood items (fluke crudo) that tasted generally excellent but looked wan and strangely unappetizing in the room’s flat, featureless light. There are only seven pastas and risottos to choose from at Ai Fiori, and if you’ve dined at White’s restaurants over the years, you’ve seen variations of many of them before. His famous veal-stuffed agnolotti (an old Alto favorite) is reprised here dressed with black truffles and smothered in a slightly cloying butternut-squash purée. The best all-around pasta, my tasters and I agreed, was the thick, chewy trofie nere (squid-ink pasta tossed with shellfish). And if you’re searching for flashes of White’s bravura creativity, order the ricotta-stuffed tortelli, which are laid out on the plate in little candy-size packets over a scrim of gently melting boschetto cheese. Consistency has been an issue at Osteria Morini, and it’s an issue here too. If you’re a devoted meat eater, the lamb chops are things of beauty (they’re encased in ground lamb and foie gras wrapped in caul fat). No one at my table had any complaints about the sweet butter-poached lobster, either, or the branzino, but when I ordered the elaborately sauced “au four” Amish veal chop (with a sweetbread choux), it was tragically overcooked.
Will the bumps at this uneven, strangely featureless restaurant be smoothed out over time? Possibly. Chefs are the culinary superstars of our age, after all, and many of them (Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller) also learn to be great restaurateurs. But the process takes time, and White is clearly feeling his way.
Lobster velouté or trofie nere pasta, rack of lamb or beef cheeks, warm chocolate sformato.