Staircase to a Star

by knockrz

Located on the second floor of the Setai Hotel on Fifth Ave, the Michelin-starred Ai Fiori sits at the top of a polished marble spiral staircase. As you reach the top, there’s a nice bar and lounge area with a modern feel to it. The hardwood-floored dining room is quiet and spacious, with windows stretched across one side overlooking the street. In terms of noise level, it’s nice to actually have a conversation with everyone at your table and not be disturbed by the ramblings of other patrons or waiters walking by, something not too common in New York City.

Speaking of waiters, service was top-notch the entire evening. This has the potential to be the standard to which I start comparing all other restaurants to. Our waitress was very knowledgeable regarding the menu and was able to give recommendations according to our personal preferences. It felt like she genuinely cared and wanted us to have a great time. We did not give the sommelier an easy job either, but he was able to pick out a decent Pinot Noir to pair with our fish and lamb within our given price range. Glasses were never empty throughout the meal, whether it be water or wine. But the real “cherry on top” was when one of our friends had to leave before our meal was actually over. Not only was she able to pay early for her portion of the bill, our waitress even sent her dessert back into the kitchen so they could pack it up to go. If that’s not good service, then I don’t know what is.

Now, onto the crux of it all. We decided to forego the tasting menu and just stick with the prix fixe. To start off, our amuse bouche was a chilled fennel soup served in a shot glass with tiny balls of lemon gelatin. The lemon added a nice citrus note to the soup, which had good fennel flavor to it.

For the first course, I ordered the sweetbreads; and to be honest, I had mixed feelings about the dish. My initial thought after the first bite was of popcorn chicken since the coating was on the hard and slightly thicker side. The proportion of coating to sweetbreads in that first bite was not very flattering. But as I ate on, the sweetbreads had a soft and tender texture that went well with the pancetta and truffle sauce. I think more truffle flavor (and less coating) could have elevated the dish, so even though it wasn’t bad, I’ve had better as far as sweetbreads go.
The crudo looked fantastic when it was set down, portion size was good and all the pieces were topped with sturgeon caviar. The saltiness of the caviar was nice with the fish, but I wished the fish was more melt-in-your-mouth. My favorite of our first courses, however, was the lobster soup. A buttery and creamy soup with hints of black truffle and immense lobster flavor were poured over fresh chunks of lobster. I could drink that all day.

The traditional second course of pasta or risotto followed, but Michael White’s pastas taste like nothing traditional. The Trofie Nero pasta was simply delicious in every way. Perfectly al dente and slightly chewy, each bite of pasta and seafood had an added texture with the breadcrumbs sprinkled on top. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of not ordering a pasta at a Michael White restaurant and decided to mix things up with the risotto. Never again. The risotto was way too salty and slightly overcooked in consistency. A very prominent sage aroma went well with the duck and mushrooms, but the dish just could not be rescued.

When my third course arrived, I had to fight the urge to pick up the two glorious racks of lamb, one in each hand, and devour the meat from the bones with my teeth. They were cooked to a nice medium rare and tender throughout. The dish had good flavor with the fresh peas and goat cheese panisse.
My friend ordered a fish that was cooked well. The meat was firm, but a little flat in flavor so not really that impressive. The duck and foie gras dish was tasty, but sadly inconsistent. Some parts were tender and juicy while others  were tough. The friend who ordered the guinea hen really enjoyed it, so it must have been decent though I didn’t try it myself. Overall, as good as everything tasted, nothing was so spectacular that I’d go for a second serving of.

Desserts were decent all around. The rum cake was tasty, yet not too sweet, with nice textures from all the components on the dish.
Ai Fiori has some great courses here and there, just as long as you pick the right ones. The highs are very high, but the lows, well let’s just agree to stay clear from those. They also have an extensive wine list, focusing obviously more around Italian wines. Overall, with solid food and exceptional service, I would definitely return to try the rest of the menu, especially the pastas that eluded me this time around.