Last night I had planned to celebrate my in-laws wedding anniversary with a dinner at Chef Anita Lo’s well known restaurant Annisa. However, due a change in plans, only the Vegetarian and I made it to the restaurant for the celebratory dinner. If you weren’t familiar with Chef Lo when Annisa opened, you probably are today after her appearance on Iron Chef America, when she beat Mario Batali, and her fine performance on Top Chef Masters. Chef Lo has owned and run Annisa for over ten years, not including the period when the restaurant needed to be rebuilt following a devastating fire. While I can only provide a review from the current incarnation, all accounts and past NY Times reviews proclaim the restaurant to still be in fine form, receiving 2 stars from the NY Times (twice) and a single Michelin star, another sign of true excellence.
The dining room itself is small, seating about 40 people, and is very minimalist. There is no art or design on the walls, the tables are simple with just a white tablecloth and a shimmering oil candle to provide additional ambiance. While simple in its appearance, there is nothing simple about the food that was being prepared in the kitchen. I later learned that Chef Lo herself was in the kitchen, as I saw her talking to diners by the small bar.
Most fine dining restaurants offer a tasting menu, often several varieties with varying course length. Annisa is no different, with a 5 and 7-course option. However, what sets Annisa apart is that you may order the tasting menu vegetarian, or, if you have specific dislikes or allergies, those are easily accommodated. The vegetarian obviously went that route, while I made no requests or restrictions on my 5-course tasting.
To start, I was served a ceviche of fluke with black lime and radishes. The dish was elegant and simple, yet provided a nice complexity of flavors. The black lime was added in drops on the plate and the fluke was seasoned only with oil and salt. The vegetarian’s first course consisted of boiled edamame and peanuts with a hint of mint. The texture of both were soft, unlike any peanuts either of us had tasted before. The first course was a winner.
The second course was what I would have ordered off the a la carte menu. This dish was the seared foie gras with soup dumplings and jicama. A typical order is three, which you could see on every table, however the tasting included just one. My only complaint was that I could have eaten fifteen of these. The seared foie gras on top was perfectly cooked and the soup dumpling was not rounded, instead shaped like a more traditional dumpling — it was superb. The vegetarian received an eggplant duo, one roasted and the other smoked. The eggplant almost took on a new flavor profile after being smoked, very unique.
Next was one of the other signature dishes of Annisa – the miso marinated sable with crispy silken tofu in a bonito broth. This dish was magnificent. The sable, which I have only had maybe once, was quite tasty and a just strong enough to hold up to the broth. The tofu was clearly house made and while slightly crisp on the outside, was creamy and soft on the inside. The vegetarian version was also silken tofu, but with Chinese broccoli and a different broth. Because the tofu wasn’t in a broth, the texture contract of crispy and soft was even more pronounced. Another winner.
The final savory course was lamb tenderloins with puntarelle, capers and anchovy. After a little research, puntarelle is a type of chicory and typically just means “the tip” of that vegetable. The dish also included lamb tartar, a first for me. The meat was a perfect medium rare and the accompaniments were in perfect harmony. Anchovy and puntarelle are apparently a very classic Italian combination. The vegetarian’s final savory course was maybe the best of the night with a single cauliflower and ricotta gnocco (a singular of gnocchi) with cauliflower puree, hazelnuts and thinly sliced grapes. The gnocco was rich, creamy and magnificent (all that from a tiny bite). The final savory course may have been the best of the night, as the progression of dishes seemed to get better.
The dessert course for me was a lemon poppy seed bread pudding with lemon sauce. The dish was heavy, so I couldn’t quite finish it, but had I not just been stuffed with so much food, the task may have been easier. The other dessert was a tasting of chocolate and malted desserts — a chocolate souffle, malted bubble “tea,” chocolate pudding cake and what can only be described as a chocolate butter. The “tea” and souffle were the best of the bunch, specifically the souffle which was so rich it would make Donald Trump blush.
The service throughout the dinner was spot on, without a single hitch or problem. Water glasses were full, bread offered and every other possible need was quickly fulfilled. Chef Lo has clearly kept her restaurant in tip top shape over the years and not lost sight of serving elegant, flavorful food. The cuisine can only be described as slightly Asian influenced Italian-French hybrid. It really is hard to define the overall vision – though many sites refer to it as “New American.” If you are looking to celebrate a birthday or other special occasion, I would highly recommend Annisa. I have had very few meals that have topped the overall experience (food, service, style) as Annisa.