Entries in Anita Lo (6)


Review Recap: Annisa

Today, Sam Sifton of the Times awards two stars to Annisa:

Annisa reopened in April, scrubbed and clean and new. And the food Ms. Lo is cooking there is as good as any she has made in her career…

The ambitions of the kitchen are as quiet as they were a decade ago, but no smaller for the time elapsed since Ms. Lo first introduced us to them. There are the requisite Asian influences, as well as African ones, none of them overwhelming in taste or technique. Ms. Lo is not by any means a flashy chef. She does not stalk the dining room in gleaming whites, glad-handing patrons and accepting praise. She simply stays in the kitchen and works…

That’s not a bad description of Chef Lo, who nevertheless is probably a bit glum, as I’m sure she was aiming at something more than just the same two stars William Grimes gave her a decade ago. We gave Annisa 2½ stars, but if I didn’t have half-stars, I would round down, arriving at the same deuce that Sifton did.

Sifton seems to be obsessed with the civility of a dinner at Annisa, having apparently forgotten that what he calls “novel” used to be the norm:

Ms. Scism champions a service culture that is rare and noteworthy. It dictates that restaurants are about much more than eating, or ought to be. They serve a social purpose, as well.

And so here is something novel in New York City in 2010: You can hear every word of conversation at your table at Annisa, without hearing every word of the one going on at the table across the way. People act like grown-ups in the restaurant. They are polite….

Annisa…remains a destination for grown-up and serious restaurant-goers, both for its cooking and the experience of eating it.

A restaurant for adults! Who’d have believed it? How “rare and noteworthy” is that?

This was one of Sifton’s better-written reviews. Aside from the obscure reference to “Puget Sound novelist David Guterson,” you could actually tell what he was talking about. There was only a bit of Sifton’s tortured and lazy prose:

  • A beautifully cooked piece of chicken breast, crisp on its exterior and stuffed with chanterelles and bits of pig’s trotter, was a marvelous second act…
  • …fluke with caviar and beets brought the same happy laughter you hear drifting out of car windows at beach-town sunsets
  • …a marvelous dish of barbecued squid with Thai basil and fresh peanuts…
  • …a creamy, perfectly cooked fist of halibut…

Not a single “terrific”!




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)

Food: **½
Service: **½
Ambiance: **
Overall: **½

Annisa on Urbanspoon


The Payoff: Bar Q

Just when we thought we had Frank Bruni figured out, he uncorked one of the weirdest reviews of his tenure, awarding two stars to Bar Q:

In terms of its variability from one stretch of the menu to another, Bar Q is a riddle, but it’s a riddle with a solution: don’t pay too much attention to the restaurant’s name, which alludes to barbecue, or to the culinary direction in which that name points you.

With the exception of pork-stuffed spare ribs, richer than a Russian plutocrat and sauced with an elementary school’s worth of peanut butter, the dishes that veer the closest to conventional barbecue or that give you bones to grab and gnaw on are among the least enjoyable and impressive.

Let us be clear: our complaint isn’t that Bruni awarded a different number of stars than we predicted. That has happened plenty of times. And our complaint isn’t that Bruni liked a restaurant we didn’t. That has happened plenty of times, too.

The trouble is that this review, even on its own terms, doesn’t read like two stars. We can’t recall a review in which he had so many complaints about the food and still awarded two stars—unless it was a “three-minus,” such as Gilt or Gordon Ramsay. Bruni’s critics sometimes bellyache about exceedingly casual places he elevated to two stars—Sripraphai and Franny’s come to mind—but at least he made the case for them as passionately as it could be made. With Bar Q, he didn’t even try.

It makes nonsense of the current rating at Annisa, Anita Lo’s other, and infinitely better, restaurant nearby. Annisa carries the same two stars (Grimes, 2000) as Bar Q, a misguided judgment Bruni shows no signs of remedying.

Lastly, he also commits a cardinal no-no, at least in my book: complaining about the tough life restaurant critics (and those who dine with them) lead:

A restaurant critic’s most practiced companions know that the questions to be asked in advance of a meal go beyond the address, the hour and the (fake) reservation name.

More important bits of information: is the visit to the restaurant a first one or a follow-up? And if it’s a follow-up, what are they in for? Is the critic doing them a favor, or are they doing him one?

As I ushered several of my most loyal and keenly inquisitive sidekicks into Bar Q for Visit 2, I tiptoed around the answers. I stressed that I was paying the check: drink up! I emphasized that Bar Q belonged to Anita Lo, whose cooking at Annisa can be sublime.

We know that full-time critics have it rough (I know I couldn’t hack it), but keep it out of the review.

Eater and I both predicted a one-star review. We both lose $1 on our hypothetical one-dollar bets.

              Eater          NYJ
Bankroll $91.50   $111.67
Gain/Loss –1.00   –1.00
Total $90.50   $110.67
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 41–19   43–17

Rolling the Dice: Bar Q

Every week, we take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We track our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni visits Bar Q, Anita Lo’s Asian barbecue in the West Village. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 4-1
One Star: 2-1 √√
Two Stars:
Three Stars: 50-1
Four Stars: 10,000-1

The Skinny: Luckily for Anita Lo, a zero-star review is off the table. Goose eggs are rare, so you can be sure Bruni won’t crack two of them in a row. Ago, last week’s spanking victim, takes Bar Q off the hook.

We agree with Eater that Adam Platt’s two-bagger sets the outer limits of what is possible here. As usual, Platt’s reasoning is suspect: “My wife agitated (loudly) for three stars; my hulking barbecue friends agitated (almost as loudly) for one. Diplomatically, I’ll split the difference.”

We think Bruni will sympathize more with Platt’s barbecue friends than with his wife. Besides, we found the place just a tad better than mediocre—certainly nowhere close to two stars, either in concept or execution.

The Bet: We agree with Eater that Frank Bruni will award one star to Bar Q.


Bar Q

barq_inside2.jpg barq_inside1.jpg

Note: As of February 17, 2009, Bar Q has closed. The space is now the Chesapeake Bay-themed restaurant, Choptank.


Anita Lo, co-owner of the beloved (and Michelin-starred) Annisa, has lately followed the path of many a celebrity chef who was trained in French kitchens: she’s gone downmarket and pan-Asian. First came the Rickshaw Dumpling Bar in 2005, where she consults; and now, Bar Q.


Bar Q is just a few minutes’ walk from Annisa, so she won’t have trouble keeping tabs on the place. But the upscale comfort-food menu looks like it was designed for dependable replication in her absence.

There are a lot of dishes that are braised, smoked, roasted and fried, including plenty of pork. “Tea-smoked” recurs in the description of three different items. There are odd combinations, like “tuna ribs” and “pork wings.” Who knew pigs could fly? A “Trio of Tartares” makes the obligatory appearance.

The space has been beautiully done in blonde woods and white walls. One of the servers said, with a grin, “I painted all the artwork.” There is no artwork; just hard, bare walls. I am a bit concerned that the space could become oppressively loud when full, but that is mere speculation, as the restaurant was nearly empty when I visited at around 6:00 p.m. on a Monday evening. There’s a lovely outdoor garden, which is scheduled to open sometime in May.


The menu is not inexpensive, with raw bar selections at $2–7 per piece, appetizers $11–16, entrées $18–29, and side dishes at $7.

There’s also a tendency to upsell. My server said, “We recommend starting with a raw bar selection, followed by an appetizer and a main course.”

I thought to myself, “Well, yeah, of course you recommend that.”

Once I had nixed that idea, the server helped me narrow down my order to the better appetizer and entrée choices, describing each as a “signature dish.” You have to wonder how that’s possible for a place that has been open three weeks.

There are house cocktails, but when I told the server I don’t like excessive syruppy sweetness, he suggested I give them all a pass. I heeded his advice in favor of an Old Fashioned.

barq02a.jpg barq02b.jpg
Grilled Squid Salad (left); Stuffed Spareribs (right)

I started with the Grilled Squid Salad ($10), which had a wonderful smoky flavor. I asked the server if the squid had been smoked, and he cheekily replied that this was a “secret”. The accompanying Hijiki salad (seaweed) was unmemorable.

A dish called Stuffed Spareribs ($23) might lead you astray. It’s a solid brick of pork, served off the bone: pork stuffed with pork. The sauce is described as “Lemongrass BBQ, Peanut and Thai basil.” Peanut is what stands out. Is it good? The execution was superb, so it comes down to whether you like your spareribs to taste like peanuts. Hours later, I was still a bit haunted by the porky-peanutty taste. But I’m not sure I want my spareribs like that.

Bar Q offers a little bit of fun, but it strikes me as overpriced for a neighborhood place, yet not quite enthralling enough to become a destination.

Bar Q (308–310 Bleecker Street between Grove & Barrow Streets, West Village)

Food: *
Service: *
Ambiance: *
Overall: *



In early September, I took a friend to Annisa for her 40th birthday. It’s a sweet-looking room. We were seated side-by-side on a banquette, which was an intimate twist on the usual arrangement.

The Seared Foie Gras with Soup Dumplings and Jicama appetizer has been on the menu from the beginning. William Grimes loved the dish when he awarded two stars, and I guess the restaurant doesn’t want to fiddle with success. Then again, when an appetizer is this good, why should they?

For the main dish, I tried the Miso Marinated Sable with Crispy Silken Tofu in Bonito Broth, another dish Grimes loved. I suppose I should have trusted my instincts, as I’ve never been a tofu lover. The dish was beautifully prepared, but somehow it just didn’t seem like tofu and sable go together. This item, like the foie gras, has been on the menu from the beginning, so I must be in the minority.

Mind you, we had a wonderful time, especially my friend, and I can see why Annisa has garnered so many plaudits. In my book, it certainly ranks at the high end of two stars. Indeed, I am going with consensus, and awarding three. 

Annisa (13 Barrow St. between Seventh Ave. & W. 4th St., Greenwich Village)

Food: ***
Service: ***
Ambiance: ***
Overall: ***