…three years ago when I was raving about Nancy Olsen’s bread pudding at Gramercy Tavern a friend of mine told me best version of the dish they’d ever had was at Anita Lo’s Annisa – a chef and restaurant I’d never heard of at the time but one that went onto “the list,” almost making the cut at one point only to (literally) burn down and subsequently fall off my radar until late 2011 when I ate at Corey Lee’s benu in San Francisco and heard Lo’s name and her restaurant spoken of very fondly by not only my waiter and captain, but one of the sous-chefs as well. Admittedly not enthralled by the broad concept of “fusion” in general but intrigued by the positive things I’d heard from people I trust and subsequently the things I’d read about Anita’s skills and dedication the restaurant went back on “the list” and when planning began for this trip to New York it was one of the first reservations I made – a Monday night with two old friends, and two new.
Having spent the better part of my day walking, shopping, and most of all eating my arrival at Annisa would predictably be early – it always is – and with two of my guests on time and two late I spent some time beforehand wandering Greenwich before entering the restaurant. Having heard prior to arrival that Annisa was small, dark, an somewhat loud from others I guess I did not realize just how correct these terms were until I entered the door to find the hostess stand literally inches from me, the stairs to the dining room perhaps a foot away, and the bar less than an arm’s length to my right. Giving the hostess my name our reservation was confirmed, however as my friends were still en route I was offered a seat at the bar since our table was ‘not yet ready.’
Settled at the bar and greeted by the bartender who was busying himself polishing glasses I declined a cocktail but requested a water which was filled promptly and making small talk as I waited I grabbed the display copy of Lo’s book and thumbed through it noting many of her signature items bookmarked along the way. With the room lighted mostly with soft bulbs overhead and candles on the table I was honestly surprised how small the building itself was – perhaps 15 tables if I had to guess – and when I walked back to the restroom I was even more surprised at the tiny kitchen where Lo was visibly overseeing a member of team at the pastry station.
With the arrival of my friends we all exchanged pleasantries and table ready we were led through the rather loud room with light music playing overhead to a table that would have sat four at a larger restaurant but was quite adequate for the five of us even though there was seemingly a dearth of space between plates and glasses, and shortly thereafter we were greeted by John, our server for the evening. Welcoming us first and then proceeding to confirm water choices, explain the menu, and leave us to our decisions I will simply say that overall the service at Annisa was much better than I’d expected based on comments from others as John would prove not only personable and knowledgeable, but also humorous and whimsical both joking with our table and in being harassed by us with a few nit-picky requests despite ordering what was intended to be a “chef’s whim” tasting menu.
With decisions made that we would all engage in the tasting and ‘allergies and intolerances’ confirmed, it would not be long before the evening would begin with the chef’s amuse bouche of Salmon Mousse Tartlettes, a quintet of buttery pastries filled with creamy and smoky mousse topped with chives and lemongrass – a single bite each and then gone, the flavor something like the salmon cones at Spago. Joining the amuses, the house made yeast roll with curls of locally sourced butter also arrived and while I would have personally preferred them to have been served warm, this was a small gripe as the flavor was quite good and the crumb quite light.
Beginning the tasting menu proper, a seven course progression, our first bite would prove not much larger than the amuse but certainly more complex as we were delivered “Bay Scallop Crudo with Crispy Caviar, Bottarga and Uni,” a three slice progressive tasting of sweet and succulent scallops topped with each of the aforementioned components. Working through flavors ranging from intensely smoky to briny and finally to the ethereal urchin and lightly touched with olive oil, meyer lemon jus, and a touch of chive oil this was a very well composed crudo with exemplary ingredients that would be a sign of things to come.
With courses arriving approximately 15 minutes after completing the preceding course and wines being poured for a few members of our table it our second course would arrive with a substitution for one member of our table while the rest of us received one of the requested dishes – the “Unagi and Taro Chawan Mushi,” by far and away my favorite dish of the evening. Starting first with a tender piece of eel only lightly kissed with barbeque sauce and rife with its characteristic oily texture the juices from the eel are then used to make a steamed custard full of eggy notes but also lightly sweet. Smooth and creamy with sweet and smoke in balance, chef Lo finally topped the dish with raw sliced taro root and crunchy fried taro root strips for texture. It was superb.
Not to be outdone by the Chawan Mushi, the “alternative” course was actually one of Chef Lo’s signature dishes – the “Cauliflower Gnocco with Hazelnuts and Sheep’s Cheese” and featuring a crispy-gives-way-to-creamy sheep’s milk ricotta gnocco resting atop roasted cauliflower puree the dish started out with great texture and flavor components only improved with the addition of Romanesco and cauliflower florets atop plus a drizzle of sweet brown butter hazelnut sauce.
For course number three, perhaps Annisa’s most famous dish would arrive, complete with instructions. Dubbed “Seared Foie Gras with Soup Dumplings and Jicama” this Frenchified Chinese dish was delivered on a flat plate along with chopsticks, fork, and knife with instructions to place the dumpling on the spoon, bite off the end, sip the juice, then eat the noodle – instructions that when followed provided the intense sapor of liver, the crunch of jicama, and savory notes from the use of Black Chinese Vinegar. Creamy and unctuous but well balanced by the acid this certainly wasn’t your run of the mill soup dumpling, but my one critique would be that the pasta was not quite thin enough, particularly when compared to Corey Lee’s transparent wrapper at benu.
With conversation flowing and service always in the right place without hovering or being intrusive even as the room began to empty and quiet down the menu next moved to the expected fish course and with a menu descriptor of “Duo of Arctic Char with Savoy Cabbage, Pine Nuts and Dill” the degree of complexity would far outdo these simple words. Beginning first with a filet, broiled and then grilled in brown butter to crisp the skin, the fish itself was impeccable and served over a light dill sauce with pine nuts and shredded cabbage the herbs and pungency helped to tame the fattiness of the fish admirably. Moving next to the other half of the duo, a creamy mousse similar to that in the amuse was wrapped in a savoy cabbage leaf flanked by Greek lemon sauce and sultana raisins, the sweet/sour balance pleasant and unexpected.
For our main course a surprisingly large portion of protein was delivered in the form of “Lamb Tenderloins with Puntarelle, Capers and Anchovy” and much like the Char it was presented as a duo. Beginning first with the loin of lamb, I’d be hard pressed to call it anything but perfect as the medium rare flesh was juicy, flavorful, and well matched with the lamb jus, puntarelle bulb, and saline anchovy sauce. Moving counterclockwise, an equally well prepared lamb tartare with puntarelle greens on top was gamy but smooth. Finally, at the top of the plate, sautéed puntarelle leaves with a touch of caramelized sweetness to the bitter woodsy notes were also quite nicely done.
At this point entirely pleased with the day and the evening, a cheese course would arrive to make things even better and described by John as Chef Lo’s “favorite thing in the world” the cheeses were all purchased earlier that day from Murray’s and served in surprisingly nice portions along with raisins on the vine and bread crisps we received an unnamed Austrian raw sheep’s milk cheese, Petit Bichon, Salva Cremasco Italian, Manchego, Tellagio, Grayson Meadow Creek, and Rogue River Smoky Blue – the later two both American cheeses and actually the two most impressive of the night from my standpoint, particularly the blue from Oregon that was pungent but creamy with a unique buttery note that I don’t generally associate with blue cheese.
With coffee offered and some taking espresso while I opted for copiously refilled black coffee from a fair trade group out of South America it would not be long before John returned and having requested the bread pudding for myself (he later claimed, jokingly, that I threatened him…which I may have if he’d said no) we soon learned that we would each receive a different dessert – the entirety of the night’s collection – and with each dish quite ample in portion much sharing was to be done, beginning first with the only item I failed to photograph; Pecan and Salted Butterscotch Beignets with Bourbon Ice Milk. Neglecting to taste the ice milk as it is not particularly a sharable item but gifted one of the quintet of fried dough I can only say that while more reminiscent of a doughnut hole or a hushpuppy in texture than an actual beignet (a la café du monde) the flavor was outstanding, a sweet meets salty gush of flavor beneath a golden crust that was not oily at all.
Moving next to the only dessert that failed to get high praise, the “Lemon Posset with Elderflower and Shiso” featured a semi-firm panna cotta at its base beneath a watery layer of pear poached in elderflower syrup topped with a dehydrated pear skin. Served (without prompting) to someone I know enjoys citrus desserts the single bite I tasted of this dish was okay, but in the end I had to agree that the textures were off even as the flavors were quite well balanced.
Perhaps the most visually impressive of the desserts, “Tower of Caramelized Banana and Peanut Butter with Coconut Sauce” thankfully did not fail to wow and served as a sort of Napoleon with two shortbread cookies sandwiching mousses of coconut milk and peanut butter with caramelized bananas atop and within the flavors were all quite prominent, particularly the fructose sweetness of the banana that was tamed by the creamy coconut.
Taking a page from Bouley’s signature dessert, the fourth selection was titled “Tasting of Chocolate and Malted Desserts” and while not quite as sharable as others, this decadent plate consisting of a steamed chocolate biscuit, Polverone, malted milk chocolate mousse, and a malted milkshake with crème de cacao pearls was deemed a success by those who tasted it – myself particularly enjoying the Mexican wedding cookie’s heavy malted flavor and the richness of the biscuit, a flavor and texture quite similar to Thomas Keller’s chocolate Bouchons.
Obviously saving the object of my desire until last I must say I approached the Poppyseed Bread and Butter Pudding with Meyer Lemon Curd with a bit of trepidation as I generally do not favor citrus desserts, but on taking my first bite my skepticism quickly abated because although the lemon is certainly there, the butter, cream, sugar, and savory poppy seeds render it far less prominent. Nearly custard soft on the interior and golden brown atop, piping hot and full of flavor I can’t say it was the best bread pudding I’ve ever had largely because of my predilection towards chocolate versions or the boozy versions in New Orleans but all things being equal this was stellar and without a doubt the best fruit based version I’ve yet to encounter.
With the clock pushing 11pm and everyone seemingly quite happy with the experience John would stop by to ask if there was anything else we would like and with one last refill of coffee for myself the table was cleared and the check delivered along with a tray of three types of Mignardises – candied ginger, frozen chocolate mint truffles, and papaya pineapple popsicles, all nicely done but none particularly memorable in the setting of such a fine meal with great people.
With the bill paid and the restaurant now nearly empty we spent perhaps another twenty minutes chatting about our dining adventures before standing up and on collecting our coats and bags as well as a requested copy of the menu we stepped out onto the streets of Greenwich village to go our respective ways – myself with a new found appreciation for “fusion” when done well, and yet another restaurant on the long list of places I’d gladly return in New York City. Sure the room is small, crowded, and loud but compared to other Michelin starred restaurants in the city it is comparatively calm and while prices are not ‘cheap’ they are matched by the quality of the cuisine, many dishes which were on par with those being put out by more highly rated (and highly priced) restaurants.