Elusive, Eclectic Asian Fare in an Intimate West Village Space
Anita Lo, Annisa’s head chef, is a bit of a local celebrity in the food world. With a degree in French language under her belt from Columbia, she worked under David Bouley at his eponymous TriBeCa restaurant before enrolling in Paris’s prestigious Escole Ritz-Escoffier and graduating first in her class (during which time she interned under Guy Savoy). After moving back stateside and earning two New York Times stars at contemporary Korean restaurant Mirezi, Lo opened Annisa in 2000.
The restaurant garnered two stars from The New York Times in its opening year, and Food & Wine deemed Lo one of the “Best New Chefs in America” in 2001. Her food, combining Pan-Asian flavors with French elements and techniques, resisted any neat definition but delighted critics and diners looking for a refined night out. From there, Lo’s reputation only continued to grow: in 2005 she bested Mario Batali in a mushroom battle on Iron Chef America and co-founded the casual and carryout Rickshaw Dumpling Bar.
Bar Q, an Asian-inspired barbecue spot, proved less successful: opening in early 2008 and closing just ten months later despite a two-star review from Frank Bruni. 2009 looked to be a better year, with Lo placing fourth (and earning $20,000 for cancer support group SHARE) on the first season of Top Chef Masters, a season that featured the likes of Wylie Dufresne, Graham Elliot, Rick Bayless, and Ludo Lefebvre. Yet the chef’s TV triumph came coupled with tragedy, as Annisa fell victim to a fire that completely destroyed the restaurant. Cutting ties with the dumpling bar and pouring all her efforts back into the rebuilding, Lo reopened in the same location the following April, earning two stars from Sam Sifton in 2010 and three from Pete Wells in 2014.
I traveled to Annisa knowing none of this. Well, I knew Lo had been on Top Chef in some form (which doesn’t mean a lot to me these days), and that there was a healthy amount of disgust that her restaurant had been snubbed by Michelin in their latest Red Guide. I expected some sort of vaguely Asian cuisine as well but with the creeping skepticism that I’d be in for just another West Village gimmick.
All I do know is that she can cook. She can cook real well, and she has recipes–some of them the product of over fifteen years of work–that rival the most avant-garde establishments in town. The presentations might not wow the way the old French masters’ do, but they strike right at the soul of any diner with a nostalgia for warm, comforting flavors of soy and miso.
The evening of my visit, an all-male team of servers commanded dinner in Annisa’s hushed 40-seat space, sharing responsibility for each of the night’s tables. While this method can come off as scattered and impersonal, the staff was unquestionably peppy and fun loving throughout the night. The water and wine got filled faster and dishes made their way to diners without sitting in the pass. For such a small space, the camaraderie and flow of service truly lent to the atmosphere, with the servers’ deep respect for chef Lo also apparent with each course’s description.
In an appeal to its neighborhood setting, Annisa’s menu is centered on à la carte dining; however, there are two chef’s tasting menu options at five courses ($88) and seven courses ($118). Refreshingly, the set menus draw only on the items already on the menu, taking special care to highlight Lo’s signature dishes with (slightly) reduced portion sizes. I’ve never been known to turn down a tasting menu and, despite my measured skepticism for just what the restaurant would have to offer, gleefully informed my waiter that, yes, I came in at 9:15 to eat seven dishes by myself.
As I slurped the last drops of my pre-pairing vodka cucumber spritz, a different server appeared with my first course: torched seabream crudo with plums, pistachio, and anise hyssop. I’m no huge fan of crudo in general–I think many restaurants treat it like sashimi (and charge similarly exorbitant prices) rather than making a flavorful, composed dish. Pleasantly, however, Lo knows her fish, and she knows how to build its natural essence. The seabream came in six thick, glistening slices with just a thin strip of torched crust for color and texture. Meaty and extra luscious due to a coating of olive oil, the fish coated the tongue with a pleasant umami taste. The crisp slices of plum and accompanying plum sauce provided a semi-sweet tang to proceedings without overshadowing the main attraction while the pistachios–finely chopped–brought a nice earth and crunch. Lo deserves some real credit for the crudo, and she certainly didn’t skimp on the portion at all either.
I instantly recognized the next dish that arrived as one of Lo’s classics–I mean, if someone is bold enough to serve a solitary soup dumpling then it must undoubtedly be good. The expertly thin but generously stuffed dumpling wrapper is filled with jicama, foie gras mousse, and a broth taken from the chef’s mother. The dish needs nothing more than a delicate piece of seared foie gras on top and a flourish of Chinese black vinegar reduction on the plate. Nothing impresses me more than intensity of flavor, and Lo’s soup dumpling simply burst with it. Even putting aside the presence of the foie–which was creamy, fatty, and decadent–the chew of the wrapper and enveloping warmth of the broth had a transcendent, nostalgic, and comforting effect. The jicama added a nice crunch, the black vinegar the perfect fruity complexity and depth, but Lo’s soup dumpling is sublime down to its two core elements. There’s no question why it’s remained on the menu for some fifteen years.
I truly thought my dinner might have peaked with the dumpling, especially when I saw a piece of fish approaching my table, yet the meal went from strength to strength. Another stalwart on Annisa’s menu since the original opening, miso-marinated sable sat perched atop a rectangle of crispy silken tofu in a devilishly dark bonito broth. Fish preparations almost always fall flat by my standards, yet I can confidently declare chef Lo’s sable the absolute best fish dish I’ve ever tasted. Sorry Éric Ripert. The fish itself was nicely flaky and benefitted from its topping of intensely crisp skin. The miso marinade was pungent and powerful, lending a punch of savory backing to the sable. Though crispy tofu can be hit or miss, Lo’s carried an impressive, golden skin while maintain a warm and creamy inside. It didn’t offer much by way of flavor, yet that is exactly where the bonito came in. I knew that bonito flakes are a major ingredient in the creation of dashi, but nothing prepared me for the intensity of Lo’s bonito broth. Filled with salt and an earthiness that just stuck to the tongue, the liquid was pure umami goodness that elevated both fish and tofu. I must admit that my enjoyment of the dish hinged almost completely on the power of that broth, but it worked so well alone and with the other flavors that I have no shame labeling it as the only unforgettable element of the dish.
The fish dish that followed–though I doubt anything could match the sable–much more closely reflected my usual experience. Grilled bluefish wrapped in grape leaves had a nice texture and benefitted from the part-acidic, part-funky tang of lemon-anchovy vinaigrette. While the bitterness of the leaves and salt of the fish played nicely with the accompanying new potatoes and green chickpeas, the dish had a hard time competing conceptually with Lo’s more Asian-inspired fare. Like so many fish dishes in so many restaurants, the bluefish was good but unexciting.
The final savory course of the evening–and the first to primarily feature meat–was a duo of rabbit (saddle and rillette) with Calabrian chili and dandelion greens. The saddle was the stronger of the two preparations, being deboned, rolled, and roasted with fennel pollen. Though not the easiest protein to keep moist, the rabbit broke apart like a succulent porchetta while displaying a surprising golden crust and hearty bit of spice. The rillette had a nice consistency to it but an underwhelming, blandly “meaty” flavor (perhaps due to its low fat content). The dandelion greens brought a bit of earth and bitterness to the preparation, yet the rabbit’s own personality struggled to assert itself in the second preparation.
Dessert took on the form of one of my very favorite dishes: bread pudding. Lo’s variant, that she makes herself as Annisa’s pastry chef, is a poppy seed “bread and butter” pudding with Meyer lemon curd. Caramelized and crunchy on top but pillowy and warm throughout, the pudding balanced the curd’s slight tanginess (Meyer lemons are naturally higher in sweetness) with nutty caramel sauce for a complete and satisfying final dish.
With all the twists and turns in chef Lo’s career, Annisa deserves its plaudits and legion of diehard fans. The cuisine, though perhaps most impressive in its Asian elements, excels and surprises in resisting any clear definition. It’s not the fussy French and Asian fusion so popular now–a trend Lo predated–but the personal cuisine of one chef’s travels, education, and nostalgia. I wouldn’t quite say the restaurant was snubbed or robbed by Michelin–the rabbit was too underwhelming to anchor the menu as the only true meat element–but it’s certainly on the threshold of earning a star. With mainstays like the soup dumpling and sable dishes still impressing after fifteen years, Lo clearly has the vision and technique to match some of the city’s top chefs. If she can shore up the rest of the menu with that level of quality, Annisa might once and truly rise from the ashes into one of NYC’s most distinct and inimitable restaurants.
Date Visited: 10/6/15