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THREE TOP TABLES IN NEW YORK
By Martin B. Deutsch
April 28, 2011 -- We are back on the New York food scene, checking out a dining room in another new Manhattan hotel, revisiting a celebrity-chef outpost in a renovated Big Apple hostelry and visiting one of the city's least-well-known Michelin-starred restaurants.

IN A FIELD OF FLOWERS ON FIFTH
Handsomely situated on the second floor of the luxurious new Setai Fifth Avenue hotel, the recently opened Ai Fiori ("among the flowers") drew a glittering and well-deserved three-star review from The New York Times and a potpourri of kind words in the blogosphere.

Considered one of the hot new Italian entries on the New York scene, the menu at Ai Fiori seemed, to this impartial observer, a mix of Italian and French influences. We began with a complimentary glass of asparagus soup with mushroom foam, designed to ignite the palate, and an olive bread that I found the most irresistible of three bread offerings.

The menu starts with an ambitious roster of appetizers ($15-$26 each), half of which are more or less traditional. The other half is comprised of pastas, which can also be converted to entrees. We sampled the succulent lobster soup (with multiple savory lobster chunks, which almost justify the $19 price tag) and an excellent seasonal salad ($15).

Turning to the main courses, the $49 Sogliola, wild Dover sole from Holland, was the least enticing of the dishes we tried. It also echoed our continuing disappointment with Dover sole as offered in U.S. restaurants. Maybe the answer is to eat this fish in London, imported from nearby Dover.

Meanwhile, my 11-year-old daughter ordered the $19 Tortelli, ricotta and mascarpone ravioli finished with boschetto cheese and red wine glaze. I ordered the $29 Merluzzo, a lightly salted, pan-roasted cod with little neck clams and watercress pesto.

My daughter liked her pasta, but thought it too rich. I thought the Merluzzo outstanding. My young lady does not eat fish, but, after tasting the Merluzzo, we swapped plates. She ate the entire portion, her first-ever foray into a fish dish.

On the beverage side, we were disappointed by the 2007 Prunier Meursault Chardonnay ($19 by the glass). We switched to the 2008 Cometa Planeta, made from the Sicilian variety of the fiano grape. It was a much more satisfying $19-a-glass option.

It was all smiles on the dessert front ($13 or $14 each) thanks to the Coulant di Cioccolato, an Italian-style soufflé, and the Vacherin, a French twist on baked Alaska. It was followed by a gratis cookie and praline plate. A nice touch.

Ai Fiori is staffed by a warm and well-versed wait crew. The bill was $248 for three. Reservations are strongly recommended and are currently taken up to a month in advance.

ON THE MARK: VONGERICHTEN REDUX
On a recent Sunday afternoon, we revisited The Mark Restaurant, another high-profile outpost of the Jean-Georges Vongerichten empire. It's located in The Mark Hotel and I wrote about our dinner in a column last month. This time we arrived for brunch and sat in the atrium section of this modern and comfortable dining space. It was a totally different, but equally satisfying, experience.

Our 2 p.m. reservation morphed into a 30-minute wait in the lobby, a reflection of the restaurant's established popularity as an East Side weekend brunch attraction. Concerned by the delay, the staff apologized several times and also sent out a complimentary tray of bracing mimosas. I'm not a mimosa kind of guy, but I thought these were addictive.

When we were finally seated, I ordered the smoked salmon on bagel with capers and sliced tomato. The plate was distinguished by a generous portion of nearly salt-free fish and the surprisingly low price of $16. Others in our crowd ordered the $26 Mark cheeseburger (with black truffle dressing and brie); the goat cheese and spinach omelet ($17); Croque Monsieur and mesclun salad ($18); tagliatelle with mozzarella, tomato and basil ($14 or $21); and the chopped lettuce salad with avocado, apple, pecan, blue cheese and grilled chicken ($23).

Desserts, all priced at $11, included a superb Grand Marnier soufflé served with mandarin sorbet; a spectacular rhubarb lychee trifle; and a wonderful warm chocolate cake with caramel ice cream.

No one at our table of six was disappointed, in either the selections or the prices, which were in line with those of the city's better eateries. Also notable: Unlike many top Manhattan venues, seating is spacious here. That's a perk for those who enjoy conversing with fellow diners or those who simply want to avoid the cacophony of competing conversations at other tables. Reservations are strongly recommended.

A HIDDEN STAR ON THE UPPER WEST SIDE
Manhattan's Upper West Side isn't known for haute cuisine, but it is home to a sleeper. Dovetail, a New American restaurant, is not only guaranteed to wake your taste buds, but also to generate a round of appreciative applause for its seasonal menus.

The Michelin-starred eatery showcases the splendid skills of chef-owner John Fraser, who opened Dovetail in December, 2007. It's across from the Museum of Natural History and just steps away from the wildly popular Shake Shack burger franchise.

Fraser, who did a stint with Thomas Keller at California's famed French Laundry, is, unsurprisingly, considered one of the nation's up-and-coming chefs. Dovetail scored 26 (out of 30) for food in the most recent Zagat Survey, a point higher than the top-rated newcomer, Maialino, and within a few points of New York superstars such as Keller's Per Se and Le Bernardin.

For such a highly rated venue, Dovetail offers great dining value, especially its three-course Friday lunch at $24.07. There's an interesting choice of à la carte items, tasting and prix-fixe menus. The service is helpful and friendly, too

Ordering from the recently ended winter menu, my companion enjoyed an appetizer of salmon tartar, which he described as "exceptional." I had the best butternut squash soup I have ever tasted. It was elegant and perfectly textured, neither too thick nor too thin. The toppings--chestnut confit, cranberry swirl and pumpernickel croutons--added their own unique flavor.

My companion dubbed the main course of seared hake with salsa verde, potatoes, olives, preserved lemons and piquillo peppers "delectable." My braised lamb with persillade was, in a word, delicious. It was served with crispy polenta and spaghetti squash.

We shared two outstanding desserts: hazelnut financier, which consisted of mascarpone cheesecake, green apple and passion fruit, and yogurt panna cotta with tangerine, gingerbread and pistachios.

A few weeks later, Dovetail's new spring menu was distinguished by a perfect appetizer of creamy risotto with duck confit, rosemary and cabbage. The main course: a lasagna of short ribs, ramps, radish and garbanzo beans.

Reservations are suggested.

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ABOUT MARTIN B. DEUTSCH Martin B. Deutsch created Frequent Flyer magazine in 1980 and was editor-in-chief and publisher for 15 years. He also wrote a column called "Up Front" for Frequent Flyer during those years. In a 50-year career, he created, published and edited dozens of other travel publications. Deutsch is based in New York.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Martin B. Deutsch in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Mr. Deutsch. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the permission of Mr. Deutsch.

This column is Copyright © 2011 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.