July 12, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

In the Realm of Annisa (CLOSED)

Anita Lo is back in the kitchen at feng shui-guarded Annisa/ Photo: Steven Richter
Anita Lo is back in the kitchen at feng shui-guarded Annisa/ Photo: Steven Richter

        There’s a low buzz and a soft jazz beat. The restored Annisa is not the bare Zen sanctuary in creamy hues it was before a devastating late-night fire exactly a year ago.  But it still has a serenity that makes you lower your voice as you come in from Barrow Street. There is still the small bar up front and 13 tables on a raised platform. But now banquettes are a rusty red. An ornate mirror hangs angled to attract good energy and prescribed objects are displayed or hidden, following the dictates of feng shui. Co-owner Jennifer Scism conducts the dining room at a dignified adagio, though the servers are not all equally in tune. Still, it’s light enough to see the food and I can speak without straining to be heard. So civilized. So grownup.

Still serene, the room has more color and a mirror to collect good vibes. Photo: Seven Richter

        Supernatural vibes may be superfluous given how quickly bold invention is provoking murmurs of shock and pleasure from our foursome tonight: the exquisitely rare and flavorful veal served in slices with crisp fried sweetbreads and artichoke in a puddle of oyster sauce with black truffle, and the tremulous quiver of custard in a covered cup (the chef’s Japanese Chawan Mushi) with morels, lotus and sea urchin. It’s cruel I can’t have my own rather than share.

Veal with sweetbreads and oysters in a pool of briny sauce.

        Yes, chef-owner Anita Lo is back to the little storefront where she made her name, won two stars from the Times, and one from Michelin. She is back from a period of building her brand like the guys do – beating Mario Batali on Iron Chef, signing on as a consultant with Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, opening and abruptly closing her Q Barbeque on Bleecker, knocking off the competition in the early stages of last year’s Bravo’s Top Chef Masters.  For now, she is invisible in a gleaming new kitchen, playing with an advanced palette of Asian and African flavors that has already won raves from the city’s influential print critics.

Sea urchin, morels and lotus gather in tremulous custard. Photo: Steven Richter

        Lo did not choose Asian food, it chose her. Chinese, born in Birmingham - outside Detroit - she says people just expected her to know Asian cooking even though she studied in France, worked for Guy Savor and Michel Rostang, then at Chanterelle, Le Bistro Maxim’s and for David Bouley. I discovered her at Mizezi, the pet cause of a Samsung heiress, on 5th Avenue near 15th Street in 1996, cooking with Korean, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese inflection for her first two star Times rating before leaving to open Annisa with Scism.

Three riffs on steamer clams, fired, poached and raw. Photo: Steven Richter

        Tonight her amuse, always served in a crisp pastry cup made from crepe batter, signals the up-to-date contemporary ambition to come. It’s a fat snail with a pancetta crisp in garlic cream. Next week it might be a fresh anchovy lounging on piquillo pepper.  Barbecued squid with Thai basil on a nest of edamame and fresh peanuts is layered with flavor, a tangle of Thai fish sauce, lemongrass, alongside a dab of hot chili.

Barbecued squid with Thai Basil, edemame and fresh peanuts. Photo: Steven Richter

        Steamer clams come three ways: deep-fried in tempura batter, steamed bellies with chive buds and chopped raw in a soft briny clam tartare with garlic-chive sauce, a medley of texture. Miso marinated sable is paired with crisply fried soft tofu in a heady bonito broth. All Cirque du Soleil daring and delicious.

Grilled and fried squab on fava bean puree with a tempura’d bean pod. Photo: Steven Richter

        Squab breast grilled and the leg fried on a puree of dried fava beans could be more rare for my taste. Tuna hot and cold and a main course of roasted rack of lamb with tamarind chutney will seem safe enough for the timid not quite ready to deal with pigs’ feet and white truffle stuffed into their pan roasted chicken: a hit at our table.  I should note that the small lamb casserole topped with custard is a bobotie, a South African dish of Asian origin and the tamarind chutney is her own. 

Splendid lamb chops with a South African custard-topped casserole. Photo: Steven Richter

        She is the pastry chef too – responsible for pecan and salted butterscotch beignets with bourbon ice milk, poppy seed bread and butter pudding with not enough Meyer lemon curd for me, and a millefeuille of strawberries with ricotta and pink peppercorns - its sweetness tempered with aged balsamic. I suspect her heart is not in dessert. These are thoughtful but not swoon-worthy as is so much of what we have tasted. And it’s been a pricey night out for everyday dining.  With $9 to $18 starters, and entrees $28 to $37, two cocktails and no wine, we’re spending $300 for four, not excessive perhaps for a celebration or for a brilliant voyage in such a civilized setting. Our companions – he’s an eminence of the restaurant world – will be back, they say. “It’s the best food I’ve eaten this year,” he says.  I’m more dazzled than hooked. Still I’m shocked when a chef I know who has dined across the room comes up to say hello and comments: “You sure have to bring your own fun here.”  Not only is he spooked by the serenity, it seems, but clearly Lo’s efforts have not moved him at all.

Lo’s miso marinated sable sits in a fragrant broth. Photo: Steven Richter

        At the end, a waiter drops off Annisa’s traditional farewell, my idea of just-enough sweetness: strips of candied ginger, mint truffles and little passion fruit popsicles.  And then Anita herself makes a rare appearance in the dining room to say hello, her inevitable do-rag tied in the back.

Aged balsamic counters the sweetness in strawberry-ricotta millefeuille. Photo: Steven Richter

        Just last week she told FloFab in the Times she would not renew her contract with Rickshaw Dumpling. Clearly she is focused for now on Annisa, cooking herself, as male star chefs rarely do these days, and there’s a cookbook in the works. Many of the women who started in the kitchen when she did moved into pastry for more predictable hours – and, they say, to escape male harassment. Others left the restaurant life long ago to have a family. A small group of feisty women remain.  Anita is their hero.

13 Barrow Street between Seventh Avenue and West Fourth Street. 212 741 6699. Dinner only Monday to Saturday 5:30 to 10:3o pm, Sunday to 9:30 pm.

Patina Restaurant Group