This week, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells gives three stars to Greenwich Village’s Annisa, whose chef Anita Lo crosses borders with the food she serves.
He begins by raving about the rarity of her Spanish mackerel dish: “Take the stunner of a Spanish mackerel dish that I ate there a few months ago. After marinating in sweetened soy sauce, the fish is blistered under a hot salamander, flesh side down, until the skin is crunchy with a bittersweet char… In Hong Kong, she will pick up some fried milk, golden battered globes of squishy-soft pudding made from condensed milk. The oily mackerel could demolish the meek taste of milk with one flick of its fin, so she builds in depth by blending the pudding with mellow roasted garlic and, after a quick shopping run to Southeast Asia, fish sauce. For the brick-red paste beneath the mackerel she pops over to Seoul for gochujang, funky and unabashedly hot.”
Lo’s “free-form” cooking comes from her Asian background, explains Wells. Her mother is Chinese, from Malaysia; her father was Chinese, from Shanghai; but Lo was raised in Michigan by her mother and a non-Chinese stepfather.
“Ms. Lo will tell you that the taste of her mother’s cooking made its way into Annisa’s soup dumplings,” he says. “They have been on the menu from the beginning, and can still startle with their seductive filling of foie gras mousse in a thick, glistening broth seasoned with ginger, star anise and cinnamon.”
The restaurant’s space, Wells says, is just as “remarkable” as the food: “The dining room sits a few steps above Barrow Street, where you can watch terriers wearing warm jackets and disapproving expressions take their evening walk. The canine fashion parade is virtually the only distraction from food and conversation. Around 10 one evening, when a few tables had emptied, a friend asked a question nobody ever asks in most new restaurants: ‘Have they been playing music all night?’ Every week I get emails from readers who say they feel unwelcome in restaurants that have industrial noise levels, congested dining rooms, penitential chairs and subterranean lighting. Annisa is free of these annoyances. I don’t think anyone of any age who enjoys going out to eat would feel out of place there.”
In 2010, Sam Sifton gave Annisa two stars, calling it ‘rare and noteworthy,’ but Wells thinks the restaurant deserves a third star, which is quite a comback after the restaurant was destoyed in a fire in 2009 and was forced to completely rebuild.
“It’s still not easy to say what Ms. Lo’s style is, but it is hers, and hers alone, and the city is a more exciting place for it.”
For Wells' full review, click here.