Review: The Setai Fifth Avenue, New York


A five star skyscraper, next to the Empire State Building, with a touch of Zen and a lot of vanilla

Ai Fiori at the Setai Fifth Avenue

Shortly after my stay at the Setai Fifth Avenue it was announced that, as of mid-January 2013, it’s to be rebranded as a Langham Place. Going on my experience to date of that particular sub-brand in Asia, that will mean a few splurges of pink here and there, a new typeface but the same corporate slickness that’s already in place now. Given that the Setai Fifth Avenue is still a box-fresh, state of the art product, it would be unusual if they did much else to it. Time will tell.

If you visit before then, expect something pared down and so Zen-adjacent as to resemble a slowly defrosting x-ray of a five-star business hotel. And you know what? Sometimes that’s precisely what you want. I travel to New York frequently, and the main reason is for work. Ever tried working in a room at the Plaza? Good luck finding somewhere in your room to balance your laptop.  Actually, good luck with the Plaza full stop. The two Andaz properties get it right, as do a few others. The shiny, skyscraping new Setai, with its strange and inelegant corrugated windows, right next to the Empire State, is in the same vein. You could move in here for a month and nothing would offend. There’d be no “it’s the wallpaper or me” moment.

I stayed in a twin room on the 10th floor, with a partial view of the Chrysler and Emery Roth’s MetLife Building. These are my two favourite structures in midtown as well as two of the most destroyed icons in sci-fi history. An east side Avenue window gives you a glimpse of both. Now, if one wanted to be unkind, you could call my room bland. There was a hell of a lot of taupe. And someone must have looked really hard to find art so… invisible. But the space was big, well lit, with perfect bedding and a very well thought out design. A desk runs along one wall and sits in a T-shape, allowing two people to work at the same time. Far more than a choice of pillow fabrication or gratis amenities on arrival (of which there were none), I find this crucial. Oddly, there’s only one mid-placed bedside reading light, so if you’re sharing, the last one up turns off the light. But during the day, all is well.

The angular, outwardly leaning construction of some of the windows gives a nice feeling of extra space, even if it looks awkward from the street. My bathroom was at the bigger end of the spectrum for New York, with marble fittings, a grey/white palette and a tub big enough for two. Bathroom products have a tropical fruit and coconut fragrance and are branded Lorenzo Villoresi Firenzi. I’d never encountered the range before and found it quite lovely. But one imagines that Langham Place will have other ideas – it’s a cheap and easy rebranding tactic.

I only saw one other guest during two visits to the windowless gym downstairs (unusual, given that the property was sold out), but there are enough cardio machines for an unexpected rush and they are all of the super modern plug-in-your-iPod variety. Two niggles: there were no towels on one visit, and the scales weren’t working.

One floor up, there’s an immense spa. I had a truly excellent, no-nonsense, hourlong deep tissue massage, but didn’t have time to lounge around using the steam rooms, plunge pools and other areas. Given the chance and a clear morning to recover from jetlag or as a weekend treat, I’d certainly like to. It’s expansive and clinical without being glacial – the perfect urban spa perhaps. As is often the way, I hobbled around in slippers that were designed for a petite young lady rather than someone six foot, heavyset and substantial of foot.

Where it really shines is on the plate: Michael White’s kitchen turns out muscular, expert dishes that take Italian cuisine on holiday to the Côte d’Azur.

There’s a very big and very boring cocktail bar at ground level, which manages to keep the lobby free for the business of being a lobby. I’d be more than happy to take a half hour meeting there, or have a nightcap, but given the choice I’d much rather head to Ai Fiori upstairs. The Setai Fifth Avenue’s restaurant has quickly become one of the most reliable, if vanilla, business lunch spots in midtown. The room clearly cost a fortune, but there’s nothing really worth telling you about it – it’s decorous, comfortable, slick and nicely lit. There are expensive flowers and proper table clothes. The staff are all on the ball and the bar is nicer than the one downstairs.

Where it really shines is on the plate: Michael White’s kitchen turns out muscular, expert dishes that take Italian cuisine on holiday to the Côte d’Azur. The pastas are swank if miniscule. I loved the agnolotti, which is stuffed with veal, with a corn purée, charred corn, veal jus and basil, but my delight in the flavour was balanced by a frustrated desire to eat ten more plates of it. A chicken dish with piquillo peppers and fregola was moist and splendid. A side of zucchini with fried squash blossom, mozzarella and anchovy was light and salty. New York critics have been hurling accolades at White for this restaurant, and while his room doesn’t have the presence of, say, The Four Seasons, I can think of no better place in the area for this kind of lunch or dinner. I also have to thank Ai Fiori for introducing me to Hudson Flower, my cheese discovery of the year. It’s a soft, gooey sheep’s cheese with a herbed rind of lemon thyme, rosemary and juniper. It’s a delicate and lovely thing. Like that agnolotti, I imagine it would be enough to bring out the gourmand in anybody.

The Setai Fifth Avenue, 400 5th Avenue, New York, NY 10018 USA
(212) 695 4005;