A winding white staircase inside the Setai Hotel leads up to Michael White’s latest Midtown Italian restaurant Ai Fiori. The restaurant is set up to handle both hotel guests looking for a drink in the lounge and those looking to try White’s refined Italian cooking. Ai Fiori (meaning among the flowers) is a surprisingly large restaurant that almost boarder-lines on being commercial. The dark and neutral tones create a more upscale mood but the restaurant itself never matches level the decor set by Ai Fiori’s competition such as Mario Batali’s Del Posto and even Michael White’s more seafood focused restaurant Marea. However, nice touches throughout the meal didn’t go unnoticed. The grand silverware and plates left on the table when you arrive give the feeling that you are in fact dinning at a four star restaurant. It was small touches like these that were able to distract us from the less appealing qualities of the restaurant’s design.
However, where Ai Fiori truly shines is in its cooking. The Chef de Cuisine, PJ Calapa, does an excellent job of executing all of the refined Italian influenced dishes on the menu. Speaking of the menu itself, it is set up to be ordered as a $92 four course prix-fixe. If you wish to order a la carte you must explicitly inform your server of this. The main difference between the prix-fixe and ordering a la carte is the portion size of the appetizer and the pasta. The entrees remain the same size with either menu. There is also a seven course tasting menu available for $130 but we chose to stick to the menu at hand.
And, for the most part, we are quite happy with our decision. The appetizers were all excellent. The Fluke Crudo was fresh, well seasoned with a light lemon sauce and came with a mountain of American Sturgeon Caviar on top. The Torchon was excellent as well and was given a unique twist by including almonds and a thick chutney like sauce. The pastas also exceeded our expectations. The Corzetti with duck ragu was simply one of the best sauces we have tasted in any pasta dish. The sauce was rich and the sweet ricotta cheese was the perfect addition to the pasta. This dish would have been absolute perfection if the chef used a more substantial pasta, perhaps Pappardelle, rather than the thin slices of corzetti pasta. The Tortelli, ricotta and mascarpone ravioli, was an excellent yet rich dish as well. We recommend ordering this only as a half portion as the flavors are almost too rich for one to eat an entire full portion. The Spaghetti with blue crab was a simple yet well executed dish.
The entrees were also on par with the pasta courses. The Venison Chop was cooked perfectly and topped with a rich sauce that also went well with the gnocchi that accompanied the meat. Those are our favorite kind of dishes, the ones where all the components taste just as good separately as they do when eaten together. The Long Island Duck was an excellent option as well. The Poached Lobster is another great dish for those looking to veer away from the heavier meat dishes. The dish mainly shows off the quality of the lobster and pairs the shellfish with a light sauce.
The desserts were the only lack-luster part of the meal. The Panna Cotta was almost a deconstructed version of the traditional Italian dessert but only tasted slightly better than any Panna Cotta we could have found in an Italian bakery. The Crostata di Cioccolato was again a dish that failed to rise above mediocrity and resembled any chocolate tart we could find in a similar restaurant. Basically the only highlight of the dessert menu was the Sorbet and Gelato.
Aside from the desserts, Ai Fiori is an excellent restaurant. The restaurant is opulent, if not a bit unwelcoming, and the food is utterly fantastic. Again, the only downfall of Ai Fiori is the desserts but if they fix that portion, then Michael White may have created New York City’s best Italian restaurant. But remember, you can always replace the dessert course with an extra plate of pasta. We won’t judge.
400 5th Avenue
New York, NY 10018