It was the
night after Valentine’s Day, the midpoint of Fashion Week, and stars
were falling all over Manhattan. We exited the elevator onto level two
of 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 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 of our courses with a
complementary wine. A splendid idea, we thought. And so began our
adventure among the flowers.
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.
“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.
takeoff of fried chicken,” according to Ai Fiori’s Chef de Cuisine JP
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.
one of those pastas that accounts for the universal adoration of Italian
food. Here it came as a chain of square-shaped ravioli 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 brussel sprouts,
chestnuts, butternut squash puree and the welcoming and generously
shaved addition of black truffles.
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.
and over excellent Haitian coffee with amiable chef PJ and Ai Fiori’s
personable general manager John Paulson, PJ -- who oversees a staff of
13 chefs -- told us how he toured southern France and northern Italy
with Michael White 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.
Chef de Cuisine PJ Calapa
General Manager John Paulson
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.
The neighborhood around Ai Fiori is part garment district, part
Korea-town, just north of the Empire State Building, south of Murray
Hill, in the heart of Manhattan yet somehow off the beaten path. It is
also a few blocks uptown from the erstwhile B. Altman and Company, the
department store that took up an entire city block from 34th to 35th
Streets, from Fifth to Madison Avenues. At its start, the clientele was
largely carriage trade.
For decades, the elegant emporium dominated the local scene. We have
memories of shopping there for everything from china to baby layettes.
In its time, Altman’s defined the area. It is now Ai Fiori’s time.
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, 2nd Level
New York, NY 10018
212 613 8660
Photographs by Harvey Frommer
# # #
About the Authors: Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband
team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional
scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories
It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in
America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in
Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.
They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining
as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United
States, Europe, and the Caribbean.
about these authors.
You can contact the Frommers at:
This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights