So which comes first in the making of a polished, successful restaurant, the restaurateur or the chef? It’s the eternal chicken-and-egg question in fine-dining circles, and the great pasta savant Michael White, who’s been opening upscale trattorias around town lately like so many Subway franchises, is currently putting the query to the test. Like Mario Batali did with his partners the Bastianichs, White rose to prominence under the steadying influence of Chris Cannon, a restaurant man of the old school. With Cannon presiding over the front of the house and White twirling out inventive Italian recipes in the kitchen, they launched Convivio, in Tudor City; the fine Northern Italian restaurant Alto, in midtown; and the grand, recession-proof seafood palace Marea, on Central Park South, to (mostly) glowing reviews. But late last year, the partners went through a messy breakup, and since then, White, with the backing of the financier Ahmass Fakahany, has been frenetically expanding his empire on his own.
White’s first official solo venture was the casual downtown taverna Osteria Morini, which Cannon helped supervise (he built the wine list and consulted on the décor) before dropping out in the late stages. Now comes Ai Fiori (“Among the Flowers”), a more opulent but much more conventional restaurant, which opened shortly after Morini in the monolithic new Setai Fifth Avenue hotel (and residences) near the Empire State Building. 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. As at Marea (which White retained in the divorce), the bar here is made with imported polished stone (onyx at the former, marble at the latter). But unlike at Marea, 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, which one of my guests compared to “something you’d see at a convention or a wake.” 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, diver scallops plated with nickels of bone marrow, excellent poached oysters touched with beurre blanc) that tasted generally excellent but looked wan and strangely unappetizing in the room’s flat, featureless light.
There are only six pastas and risottos to choose from at Ai Fiori (compared with ten at Osteria Morini and fourteen at Marea), 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. Mrs. Platt’s helping of escargot-rich risotto was scattered with soggy garlic chips and overwhelmed with too much parsley, and my skimpy $23 bowl of saffron-flavored semolina gnocchi was dressed with uni and lump crab, much like the famous $29 pasta dish at Marea. 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. One of my finicky fish-obsessed guests noted that his $49 portion of wild Dover sole had more than a few pin bones, and my generous bowl of bouillabaisse was filled with well-cooked seafood (red snapper, calamari, langoustines) but short on saffron broth. 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), as are the wine-braised daube-style beef cheeks, which the kitchen serves with butter-whipped potatoes, a scattering of greens laced with black Sicilian olives, and a hint of orange zest. No one at my table had any complaints about the sweet butter-poached lobster, either, or the branzino (served with chorizo-stuffed piquillo peppers), 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 in the new, post-Cannon era, White is clearly feeling his way. There’s a clichéd “special”-blend White Label burger available at lunch, and if you feel like addling yourself with bottles of $1,200 Barolo (the excellent sommelier Hristo Zisovski was poached from Jean-Georges), you can do that, too. The desserts (by Robert Truitt, formerly of Corton) are technically proficient but also forgettable, in a generic, haute cuisine sort of way. The most satisfying is probably the flourless chocolate sformato cake, with its familiar molten core. The most disappointing is that old Riviera favorite baba al rhum, which is reconstituted here with a sharp passion-fruit coulis and not nearly enough rum.