If you recall my post on Gourmet Attitude’s Périgord truffles, I proposed that I would take these heavenly scented black fungus to a restaurant to cook something creative with them for my mother’s birthday.
Eventually, Ai Fiori was willing to accept my proposition. Even though this is my first time eating at Ai Fiori, I entrusted the kitchen with these expensive beauties and know they’ll let my family, especially my mother, have a good time here. (It also helps a bit that they’ve earned a 1* Michelin.)
What I’ve been told prior to my arrival for dinner was the fact that my entire family will be having a 7-course tasting menu dinner – one half would have a truffle-centered menu and the other half would have the regular chef’s tasting menu but two courses would have my truffles in them, as Ai Fiori does have some truffle-related dishes on their regular menu. As a collective that meant we’re trying 14-courses – not including the amuses, pre-dessert and petit fours. This was going to be an epic meal.
When you get up the stairs (seen on the very first left photo of this post) from the sleek, modern Setai hotel lobby, you’ll be greeted by a friendly hostess or two. The long marble bar was gorgeous – cushy leather chairs lined along the bar with flattering lighting. I can imagine having a drink here with a date or friend. The luxurious dining room has about three sections – the main dining room is divided into two parts, there is a dining space where it’s surrounded with walls of wine racks and a comfy nook that’s comfortable for a party of six in between the main dining room and the wine room.
The chef was very kind to let me have a few minutes to photograph the kitchen. One of the wait staff escorted me to the back and it was already buzzing with activity, as it was around 6 PM. Line cooks are getting ready to cook for the evening’s service. A pastry chef was cutting tempered chocolate discs for desserts. The kitchen was bright and spotless yet it was on small side for a serving such a large restaurant. I’ve taken my hint to leave when I saw my amuses getting plated, as my family was the only four-top of the evening so far and was escorted back.
The first plate of amuses came out (which I photographed when I was in the kitchen), consisted of bites of tuna confit on a square of toasted brioche, hard boiled quail egg with sardine, and chickpea farinata with goat cheese. The tuna confit was a symphony of flavors of lush minerally tuna, lemon, and fruity olive oil. The buttery brioche bread emphasized the tuna’s rich flavor. The chickpea farinata was essentially a savory, miniature version of a napoleon. The cracker (farinata) was very crisp and was great with the lemon-y tart goat cheese. The quail egg was good but was the tamest of the three, though I did like the use of salty sardine.
As the kitchen is going to whet our truffle appetites, the chef sent out a second plate of amuses: mushroom velouté (made Périgord truffle espuma) and homemade burrata topped with finely chopped Périgord truffle. The thumb-sized hemisphere of burrata was sublime. Slightly warm, silky, creamy buratta cheese delicately dotted with my fragrant truffles. The mushroom velouté was like sipping fine red wine. It was luxurious, velvety and it had so much depth of flavors because of the mixture of mushrooms and truffles. My entire table was swooning over this soup and we joked that if we had a gallon of this, we’d be happy to have it for the entire night.
Right before the actual first courses came out, we requested my bottle of Bollinger to be opened. I brought it in just to toast my mother’s birthday and it pairs well to robust flavored foods we had this evening.
Mare e Monte and Sardine were the first courses of the evening. The Mare e Monte (meaning “sea and mountain” and not on the current menu) with alternated slices of diver scallops, celery root discs, Périgord black truffles, topped with luscious marrow and lined the bone’s cavity was tasted amazing. Neither was too overbearing but it was sublime. The sardine was lighter compared the the Mare but it was a very good cold dish. The cold sardine filets was lightened by lemon and olive oils and the chickpea wafer gave it a nice crisp texture.
Progressing onto soups, the Vellutata was wonderfully velvety lobster soup that has a thin slice of rare lobster meat at the bottom of the bowl, gently poached by the liquid’s heat. The Cavolfiore was creamy and had a playful interaction between sweet from the dried currants, parsnip and roasted slice of cauliflower with the salinity of the creamy soup.
Moving on to substantial courses (even though, I felt quite full already), Astice and an off-menu dish, Halibut with lentils and oyster mushrooms. The Astice was a butter poached nova scotia lobster, root vegetable fondant, château chalon sauce, topped with some Périgord truffle shavings. This particular dish was delicate, complex and the truffles gave it an interesting musky character to the amazing wine sauce.
The “meaty” halibut was a lot more robust, as the sauce was enriched with foie gras. The lentils enhanced its heartiness. The oyster mushrooms mimicked the idea of the meaty, substantial characters of the entire dish with the assistance of a lot of truffles – infused in the foie gras sauce as well as shreds of truffles generously sprinkled throughout the bed of mushrooms.
Progressing to the (famous) pastas, the agnolotti, little parcels of braised veal, pignoli, sylvetta, black truffle sugo were very satisfying and the truffle sauce kicked up the meaty flavor of the ravioli.
The tortelli looked like simple rectangular-shaped pastas filled with three different cheeses (mascarpone, ricotta, and Bordello). But sweet jeebus, these were creamy, truffle-y cheese bombs. The pasta was thick enough to stand up to the cheese filling and the cheese filling was bursting with truffle flavor. I think my eyes rolled up in ecstasy because of the sensations hitting my palate. This dish was my mother’s favorite, as well.
As we’re almost hitting the home stretch of this dinner, we’re served meat: Vitello, an Amish veal chop “au four,” saltimbocca, fork-mashed new potatoes topped with shredded truffles, dialed down the truffles enough to let the beautiful flavors of veal speak. The Agnello was a wonderfully rich riblet of lamb cooked in caul fat, served with a refreshingly salty-bitter accompaniemnt of Romanesco and parmesan cheese. My father usually doesn’t eat lamb but this preparation he would make an exception.
Just in case the kitchen thought we didn’t have enough food, they served us a side dish (off the menu) of braised brussels sprouts with bacon and generous amounts of truffles. Needless to say, this dish won a lot of hearts. You simply can’t go wrong with brussels sprouts and bacon. But when you add Périgord truffle, it made this dish a hundred times better. It’s sweet, salty, slightly bitter, smoky, with lots of umami kicking in because of the truffles. My dad cannot stop talking about this dish all night. Frankly, I think I have to recreate this for Thanksgiving to make him happy.
As we slowly coming in towards dessert, we’re served a pre-dessert of Panna Cotta. Even without our head waiter reciting what’s in this dessert, I know my mother and I would love it because of the black mission fig. The fig’s sweetness was enhanced with the densely rich balsamic crema but the green apple-celery sorbetto tied this entire dessert making it light and interesting.
The official desserts for the table are the Tartletta (one of them is my mother’s with the “Happy Birthday” inscription on the chocolate disc) and Budino di Caffé.
The tartletta is a dark chocolate tart with pretty dots of grapefruit, anise, hazelnut gelato, and concord grape. This is a very good but safe chocolate dessert. The tart was expertly made and the crunchy sea salt mixed in the chocolate ganache keeps it from being monotonous and I do find it ingenious to get little “pops” when I have a few bites with the concord grape without muddling the chocolate flavors. To me, it’s still a chocolate tart.
The Budino di Caffé was pretty awesome. Little dots of chocolate crema, sweet and crunchy macadamia clusters, orange confit, velvety caramel gelato worked with this “budino.” It’s not really a pudding (that what budino means in Italian) but more like a coffee infused cake round set in a mold of creamy vanilla pudding. Beyond that technical issue, this knocked my socks off even though I’m stuffed to the gills.
As any fine dining establishment would serve after (or during) dessert, there were petit fours. Each of us received a small stand filled with a cube of fresh green apple marshmallow, salted buttercream bonbon, passion fruit pâtes de fruit, and peppermint bonbon (preferably eaten with that progression). The marshmallow was fluffy and tart. The salted buttercream was divine (I adore salted caramel and this was well done as it was harmoniously salty, sweet and bitter). The passion fruit pâtes de fruit was vibrantly tart with a touch of sweet and chewy. It was my parents’ favorite. The peppermint bonbon was a refreshing note to end this marathon of a meal.
As we asked for the check, the waiter asked us if we need anything else? I joked that if there’s any more food, we need to book a room upstairs (at the Setai) to take nap.
Everything that evening surpassed my expectations. The food ranged from very good to blissfully excellent. Service was friendly yet professional and attentive. The waiters are well versed as to what is served. I have not been happier to eat at a restaurant like this in months and my parents were equally elated. The Périgord truffles from Gourmet Attitude does make the food taste a lot better because of its superb quality.
at Setai Hotel
400 5th Avenue, 2nd Floor
New York, NY 10018
Périgord truffle source:
Gourmet Attitude: http://www.gourmetattitude.com/