Michael White was raised in Wisconsin but is known as a pasta chef, training in Chicago at Spiaggia and then for several years in Italy, prior to opening New York restaurants Al Fiori, Marea, Osteria Morini and Nicoletta. Al Fiori is on the second floor of the Setai hotel in central Manhattan, and opened in late 2010, with Chris Jaeckle as head chef. Chris spent seven years training with Danny Meyer, including a stint at Eleven Madison Park, before becoming sous chef at Morimoto prior to moving to Al Fiori.
The dining room is large and smartly decorated, with well spaced tables and views on one side over Fifth Avenue. The menu is Italian, with a relatively limited selection of dishes. The 50 page wine list has extensive coverage of Italy and also plenty of French and US wines. Examples were Erste Kellerei Weisser Burgunder Alto Adige Trentino 2010 at $50 for a wine that retails at $16, Isole e Olena Cepparello 2008 at $154 for a wine that costs $67 to buy in a shop, right up to prestige wines such as Baron De Rothschild Lafite 1986 at $4,800 for a wine that you can buy in a shop for $1,889. At dinner a four course menu costs $89 or a seven course tasting menu $125. A three course lunch costs $54.
Bread is bought in rather than baked on the premises, and was decent but no more (3/10). A starter of torchon of foie gras was served with toasted brioche and had smooth texture, though the foie gras was of ordinary quality (barely 4/10). Sardines with artichokes were pleasant, a little better (good 4/10), but the portion size was tiny, even for a starter. I understand that portion control is important to restaurants, but how much does a sardine cost?
The two pasta dishes tried moved things up a notch. Spaghetti with crab and chilli had good texture, though not a great deal of crab, and the chilli was surprisingly strong (4/10). Better was agnolotti, veal parcels that had good pasta and their filling having plenty of flavour (5/10). Both pasta dishes were on the compact side, in terms of portion size, which again seemed odd to me given that pasta is hardly a costly thing for the kitchen.
For dessert, citrus tart was prettily presented, though its pastry was a little hard, and the filling needed a bit more acidic bite, though it was certainly pleasant (4/10). A plate of cheese was of acceptable quality, and was at least served at room temperature rather than fridge-cold.
Service was fine, and the bill came to $83 per head (£53) with a glass of wine. This seemed to me quite a lot at lunch for what was really just pleasant, competent cooking. Sometimes in New York I find the portion size large by London standards, but here the opposite was the case; I do not usually comment on portion size, but this place would not be a place for a remotely hungry person, based on the dishes tried today at lunch. Again, this was rather irritating given the hardly bargain basement pricing. One more sardine would not have cut too badly into the restaurant’s livelihood.