It was the night after Valentine’s Day, the mid-point of Fashion Week, and stars were falling all over Manhattan. We exited the elevator onto level two of the Setai Hotel, where a bevy of long-legged beauties and their entourage were waiting to be seated. Soon after, we were escorted to one of the tables before the long velvet banquette in the main dining room of Ai Fiori (Italian for “Among the Flowers”), Michael White’s elegant eatery soon to celebrate its first anniversary. A sleek and sophisticated space that takes up the entire second floor, it’s decorated in quiet earth tones, with gleaming black oak floors, silvery rectangular pillars, a bar made of marble, and a wall of windows overlooking Fifth Avenue.
No sooner did we settle in, when Hristo Zisovski was at our table with glasses of Prosecco setting the celebratory mood. Tall and amiable, the beverage director has been with Ai Fiori since it opened, overseeing a collection of some 900 labels. He suggested he pair each course we selected from a menu focused on the foods of the French and Italian Riviera with a complementary wine. A splendid idea, we thought. And so began our adventure among the flowers.
We started with Crudo di Spigola: thin, delicate slices of raw striped bass, dressed in olive oil and lemon, and topped with sturgeon caviar, and Cannolichi, plump razor clams with sausage and fennel. With these came a pair of young and aromatic whites: Pigato Cycnus from a vineyard on the hillside of Liguria, and Kerner: a blend of Trollinger and Riesling grapes from a monastery in Alto Adige high in the Italian Alps.
For Vellutata, a sublimely rich and creamy velouté of poached lobster accented by a swirl of brandy, bits of fragrant chervil and black truffles, Hristo presented Fianco Antece, an earthy white from Campania. Made of grapes fermented with their skins on (like reds) and with a heritage to match its classical environs, this wine from the south of Italy proved a perfect match.
To find Animelle (sweetbreads) on an American menu came as a surprise, albeit a delightful one. These were little packets fried to a crisp, served with apple puree, truffle vinaigrette and pancetta.
“A little takeoff of fried chicken,” according to Ai Fiori’s ebullient Chef de Cuisine, PJ Calapa. “Sensational!” according to the sweetbread lover among us, especially when paired with a Chateauneuf–du-Pape, which presented another surprise – it was Blanc! We had thought all Chateauneuf–du-Papes were red. “They are – except for the five percent that are white,” Hristo said with a smile, as he poured the dry and full-bodied yet delicate wine from the Domaine Chante Cigale in the Rhone valley.
Tortelli is one of those pastas that accounts for the universal adoration of Italian food. Here, the freshly made square-shaped ravioli were linked one to another, in chain-like format and stuffed with ricotta and mascarpone, topped with truffles and creamy Sottocenere cheese and glazed with red wine. Matched with the full-flavored red Bandol, a varietal with at least 50% mourvèdre grapes from eternally beautiful Provence, this was a pasta to relish and remember.
It was back to Italy for the next wine, one of our all-time favorites: Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany. Garnet-red, deep and full-bodied, it accompanied the Fraona, roasted guinea hen, which was crisp on the outside, flavorful and tender within and served with brussels sprouts, chestnuts, butternut squash puree and the welcoming and generously shaved addition of black truffles.
For dessert, there was Tartaletta, a circle of rich, dark and delicious chocolate cream in a pastry shell surrounded by bits of walnuts with caramelized sherry and a spoonful of walnut gelato, and a rum- soaked Baba al Rhum with a passion fruit coulis, served with a pair of fortified wines.
After dinner, we met with PJ and Ai Fiori’s personable general manager, John Paulus, for excellent Haitian coffee, and PJ — who oversees a staff of 13 chefs — told us how Michael White studied in and toured France and Italy for seven years, and how that experience led to the concept behind Ai Fiori. “We focus very much on seasonal menus,” he said. “Right now, we have beautiful shellfish, black truffles. With spring, we go greener. Lobster, lamb are constants; accessories change; we lighten things up with foods like asparagus. But our overall inspiration comes from the foods and wines of the Riviera.”
Absorbing the environs that stretch from the Cote D’Azur to the border of Tuscany has resulted in dining experiences that evoke the enchantment of such places. For us, it was a meal not easily forgotten. The variety of dishes, their complexity and appeal, the depth of the wine collection have combined into a realization of the Ai Fiori theme.
Another key element of the Ai Fiori dynamic is the smoothness of the operation. No rushing, no idle waiting. Instead, a kind of continuous flow across the floor, as if choreographed like a ballet, with each member of the corps moving to position at just the right beat, always present to refill a glass, serve a dish, clear a plate. At the same time, there is a vibe and energy, the excitement of something creative and new.
For decades, the elegant emporium dominated the local scene — before it became part of the New York Public Library System. In its time, Altman’s defined the area.
It is now Ai Fiori’s time.
“We inherited this cool and sophisticated place from Setai with the high ceilings and wall of windows overlooking Fifth Avenue. But we’ve made it our own,” John told us. “There’s a lot of coming and going in restaurants. But we have a long-term arc. The reach in the New York restaurant scene is very high. But we aspire to be up there, number one.”
We bet they will be.
400 Fifth Avenue
The Setai Fifth Avenue, Level Two
New York, NY 10018
212 613 8660
Photographs by Ted Axelrod