Chef Anita Lo didn’t have the best of luck in 2009. Annisa, her flagship Greenwich Village restaurant, closed after an electrical fire. An ill-considered venture into Asian barbecue, Bar Q, quickly failed.
Lo’s national profile gained luster with an appearance on Top Chef: Masters, in which she reached the champions round. But anyone who was impressed with her food would have had no restaurant in which to find it.
Annisa re-opened last month, after nine months of re-building. She and her partner, Jennifer Scism, say that it was like having a baby. The space has been brightened up a bit, with help from a fung shui consultant. Food is now served at the small bar, which (as before) is separated by a half-wall from the dining room.
In the Times, William Grimes awarded two stars to the original incarnation of Annisa. I gave three stars in 2005, though I was being more generous back then, and I always had a nagging feeling I’d overrated it. My doubts were confirmed with a re-visit on Saturday night.
Don’t get me wrong: Annisa is a very enjoyable restaurant. Chef Lo’s wizardry with French technique and Asian accents produces food that is often compelling. And it comes in one of the city’s most romantic rooms, on one of its most romantic blocks.
There are also a few misses. The newly remodeled room is a bit cramped, and the air conditioning is under-powered: we found it sweltering, and the server acknowledged that we are not the first customers to notice. It will only get worse as the summer goes on.
I puzzled over the wine list, which seemed shorter than it ought to be, and had no particular focus that I could discern. Finally, Ms. Scism explained it: Annisa (which means “women” in Arabic) only serves wines made by women, or from wineries owned by women. Ultimately, we were pleased with the wine we chose—the marvellously funky La Stoppa “Ageno” (listed with the wrong year)—but it feels like a 1970s conceit to limit oneself to suppliers with two X chromasomes.
The menu is on the expensive side, especially the entrées, almost all of which are north of $30. Tasting menus are $75 (five courses) or $95 (seven). These prices are not unreasonable for the quality of the ingredients and the care taken in preparing them.
Photos weren’t an option, in low light with the tables on either side of us occupied. I’ll describe the food as best I can.
The amuse was a duck rillette with mustard seed, pickled barbary, and chives, that tasted like it had been in the refrigerator a while, and did not have much flavor. Bread rolls were cold and a bit chewy, though the butter was soft, just as I like it.
To start, Steak Tartare with Korean Chili, Yamaimo and Asian Pear ($16) was a classic Anita Lo dish. There wasn’t quite enough chili sauce, but even without it, the flavors were strong and vivid.
Tuna: Hot and Cold ($17) was a dud, as the “hot” side of the plate was a a square of over-cooked and unseasoned fish. We later saw the same dish at another table, and it appeared the tuna had a sauce or garnish that ours had lacked. The “cold” side of the tuna was a tartare—not bad, but not as special as the steak.
The entrées were more successful. Butter Poached Lobster ($37) was as good a preparation as you’ll find outside of a seafood restaurant. It came with a sweet pea flan so good that it deserves promotion to an appetizer in its own right.
Fluke ($31) was beautifully prepared, tender and full of flavor, in a beet sauce so rich it could have been blueberry. A fluke tartare was just fine, but didn’t quite stand up to that, even with caviar.
We could have been happy with any of the desserts (Anita Lo is the pastry chef, as well), but we settled on the Pecan and Salted Butterscotch Beignets with Bourbon Milk Ice ($9), which were as wonderful as they sound.
Annisa may be a hair short of the three stars the chef aspires to, but it is a compelling restaurant, and a lovely place for a romantic meal.
Annisa (13 Barrow St. between Seventh Av. S. & W. 4th St., Greenwich Village)