So my wife and I had our big NYC weekend, 3 meals; Esca, Ai Fiore, and The Bar Room @ The Modern. Here is a rambling review of what we thought, in descending order of preference...
3. Esca (lunch). Nice little place, bright and airy, made us forget about the brutal cold outside. Great cocktails - my wife had a blood orange belini, I the "Milano", a spin on a manhattan. Unfortunately, that is the best part of the review, as Esca became our first letdown at a Mario Batali restaurant. My wife did the crudo tasting which was serviceable enough - a 2 minute razor clam ceviche with lime, chili, and mint. Spanish mackerel, and Fluke rounded out the options. It was all tasty, just nothing special to us. I am a sucker for fried fish, so got the Fritti. There was a nice crisp crust on the monkfish cheeks and clams, but they were woefully under seasoned for my taste. What saved the dish was the house made tartar with lots of capers and tarragon, delicious stuff. We split the Spaghetti Neri as a 2nd course. A few problems here; I admittedly like my pasta on the firm side, but this squid ink pasta was flat out overcooked, almost toothless. It was then very overdressed in a spicy tomato sauce. There was no way the pasta or cuttlefish flavors were going to get through all that chili. 3rd course was a piece of seared tuna, but the real star on the plate was the roasted brussel sprouts with pancetta, which does not speak well for the tuna...but those were some delicious brussel sprouts! The service was excellent, but for an expensive lunch, it was pretty disappointing food-wise.
2. Ai Fiore. Just fabulous. The entrance into The Setai Hotel is striking, up a set of stairs looking down on 5th ave to a classy bar and nicely appointed dining room. For me, it walked that fine line between being high end but not stuffy. We had some friends with us who don't typically do fine dining, Ai Fiore did not disappoint. They have a great cocktail list, so plan on trying one; my wife had the spiced pear sgroppino (similar to a belini), I had the Bohemio, a tequila based cocktail, that was just delicious and got us started off in the right direction. We were then seated in the far corner of the dining room giving us a great view of the room. The staff here is wonderful, and there is a lot of them...at one point we commented that there were more staff than diners, and the place was full! The pacing of the meal was great, we did the 4 course prix fixe with wine pairings (which I'd highly recommend, and was a good deal at $45 each, more on that later), we were there for just over 3 hours including cocktails. Sounds like a long time, but we were enjoying the whole experience so much that it really flew by.
1st course for my wife was called Granchio - blue crab, avacado, and grapefruit. Bright and delicious, sweet crab, buttery avacado and the citrus of the grapefruit played perfectly together. I had the Mare e Monte; a beautiful presentation of scallops, black truffles, and bone marrow served in a bone. The earthy truffles and rich bone marrow carry the dish, the scallops were there texturally, but there delicate flavor had a hard time getting through. That said, it was a fun dish that I enjoyed. Course 2 was the Veal Agnolotti, quite possible the single best pasta dish I've ever had. It was perfect. The pasta was just right, providing enough substance to the braised veal inside. The veal was tender, delicious and everything braised meats should be. All lightly coated in a brown butter sauce and a piece of fried sage. They paired this with a nice Barbaresco. A large bowl of those agnolotti and I could have stopped right there and been content. My wife had the Trofie Nero, which was also excellent. You can see that Michael White shines when it comes to pasta. For our third course, we both had the Astice, you know, the dish the NY Post called the best dish in the world. That is a tough label to live up to, but this was a pretty incredible dish. I could not find fault anywhere in this dish, not sure it could have been made any better. For dessert, the waiter recommended, and I happily had the Baba al Rhum. After all the rich food of the night, this was a nice tropical fruit salad, alongside a rum soaked brioche type bread, very nice dessert.
If there is any complaint at Ai Fiori, and this is nitpicking, but the wine pours were very small...and they came to talk about each wine pairing and pour a solid 5-10 minutes before each course...leaving you staring at a nice glass of wine that you can't start drinking or it would be gone by the time food arrived. Make the pairing $60 and pour a little more, it would still be a good deal.
1. The Modern - Bar Room. We initially had a reservation in The Dining Room, but at the suggestion of my boss, we switched to The Bar Room....and so glad we did. This turned out to be one of the best dining experiences we have ever had. The room is very contemporary, but has a great, lively vibe. With Jazz playing lightly on the sound system in the background, this was fine dining in a relaxed, fun atmosphere. We arrived a bit early and started at the bar with a Modern Martini...almost a cross between a martini, mojito, and margarita. A nice drink. My wife had a nice glass of champagne. Once seated, we asked for the sommelier to provide a per course pairing, which he was happy to do. The staff at every stop, from welcoming us in, to the bar, to the waitstaff...was excellent. I started with Jamon Mangalica; a luscious cured ham that was just delicious....fatty, nutty goodness. My wife had the upside down tuna tarte, that she devoured and called the best she has ever had; a wonderful combination of tastes and textures. 2nd course my wife had the grilled scallops with roasted beets, and we were both wowed by this one as well; perfectly grilled scallops and this amazing beet sauce, hazelnuts...it was amazing. If you like scallpos, you've got to try this dish. I had the Maine Lobster Pappardelle, beautifully done fresh sheets of pasta, sweet maine lobster, with a rich buttery sauce that I could not help but sop up with my bread. This was paired with an out of this world Pinot Noir called Copain Goutte d'Art 2009...try it...i found it amazing. My wife finished with the roasted duck breast, perfectly cooked with crisp skin, nice layer of fat, and perfect medium rare duck underneath it all. The truffle pastachio sauce was a great dipping sauce. I had the beef tenderloin which was cooked a perfect medium rare, and sprinkled with sea salt. Served alongside this killer rich oxtail bread pudding, and these pan blistered little green peppers....not sure of the name, but they added a great earthy spice to the dish. Along with the Sinsket Cabernet Franc, it was a fantastic combination and left nothing to be desired. We finished with a sinful dark chocolate torte, that left you completely satisfied and feeling like you'd just finished up a truly special night out. Not a single complaint about our experience here, can't wait to go back.
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