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Nibbling Doubts

For a certain kind of eater, nothing less than a pot roast will do. But Annisa, with its intimate setting and delicate flavors, scores a convert.

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I'm someone of extended culinary appetites, the kind of eater the writer A. J. Liebling used to call a feeder. Feeders are discerning omnivores of the old school. They favor hearty dishes over subtle ones, and lots of food over just a little. Faced with a choice between a robust veal chop, say, or a tidbit of carefully articulated quail, a feeder chooses the veal chop every time. So it was with mild trepidation that I made my way to Annisa, the sleek new restaurant at 13 Barrow Street, in the clamorous center of the West Village. The storefront space is one of those Zelig-like addresses where chefs and their clientele come and go over the years, always more or less approximating the spirit of the times. It housed chef John Tesar's One/3 not long ago, and the stolid neighborhood joint Rizzolio's for years before that. Now it has been redone, by co-owners Jennifer Scism and Anita Lo, in a blaze of clean minimalism, with an array of dainty fusion items on the menu and two garden benches outside (plus a potted-fern garden), so patrons can natter on their cell phones in the peace of the great outdoors.

As with the name (it means "women" in Arabic), there's a tangible feminine brightness to the proceedings at Annisa. After picking my way among the seedy trinket joints around Sheridan Square, I was pleased to find Ms. Scism herself mixing cocktails in a bubble-gum-pink dress. An orchid decorated one corner of the honey-colored bar, near a jar of spindly garlic, fresh from the Greenmarket in Union Square. A pair of women sat at the bar sipping flamingo-colored Cosmopolitans in perfect unison. Ms. Scism suggested a martini made with Lillet, the sugary aperitif from the south of France. A bowl of speckled eggs (salted duck as well as chicken) were on display at the bar, and when I lunged for one, she cut it in half and placed it delicately on a plate. "It's purely a nibble," she said.

Nibble is the operative term at Annisa, where the dining area is the size of a commodious suburban garage. Grand restaurants often peddle the illusion of intimacy; it is rare, however, to find an intimate restaurant that manages, unobtrusively, to appear grand. It's a stylistic trick as well as a culinary one, and Annisa pulls it off. The walls are painted in creamy, outdoor colors, and a variety of architectural tricks -- suspended lampshades, a shimmering wall curtain -- give the space an elevated, lofty feel. The bar faces two tall picture windows, and the tables -- there are only thirteen -- are behind it on a little rise, so diners are lifted above the view of the careering traffic outside. I focused diligently on a nice bowl of vichyssoise larded with iced oysters (after the sweet cocktails, the cool leek flavor had a soothing effect) while glancing furtively around the table at the little towers of lobster salad (leavened with avocado), a helping of grilled squid atop a pedestal of white-bean salad, and the plate of zucchini blossoms -- golden-fried and stuffed with a North African blend of chickpeas, in a tomato sauce and saffron -- being fiercely nibbled by my wife.

Chef Lo, who is Chinese-American (from Detroit) and last worked at the doomed pan-Asian restaurant Mirezi, specializes in these cross-cultural tricks. The finicky Japan expert at our table pronounced the tuna appetizer (a sashimi-carpaccio hybrid, brushed with a cod-roe sauce) slightly underwhelming. But everyone fought for a taste of the seared-foie gras soup dumplings, which were plated in a symmetrical pattern and contained an aromatic Chinese broth -- reduced from pigs' feet, among other things, Ms. Scism sweetly explained -- plus a delicate hint of vinegar. My soft-shell crab had a tempura lightness and arrived on a bed of corn salad, shot full of creamy Japanese uni. The lamb tenderloin, garnished with minted yogurt and cucumbers, was a successful riff on the classic Greek dish. The saddle of rabbit, wrapped with scallions and sizzly strips of apple-wood-smoked bacon, was so delicious I ordered it twice. "That Thumper was farm-raised in California," said the waitress when she saw my beatific smile.

More conventional items on Chef Lo's summer menu met with a more conventional response. The roasted fillet of cod tasted chalky despite a pleasingly crunchy pistachio sauce. My friend the Italian snob turned up her nose at the pan-roasted chicken, unmoved by a savory sauce laced with white truffles and sherry. "That's a fatty chicken," she exclaimed. "That chicken hasn't been anywhere. That's an American chicken." Not that we voiced these complaints to Annisa's terminally upbeat staff. The sommelier was dressed like Elvis Costello and announced his recommendations with operatic vigor. I drank a fine Pinot Meunier with my crab one night, and iced organic sake (at $10 per glass, from the temple city of Nara) with my rabbit the next. The sommelier also had poetic opinions about cheese. "It's from the Loire Valley," went his description of one well-known chèvre. "It tastes like a late-August afternoon."

Whether other diners at Annisa enjoyed similar Proustian moments is hard to say. The mini-crowd seemed to be an odd mix of boisterous girlfriends and eccentric neighborhood couples. I spied a man with pickle-colored hair one night, next to a claque of aspiring models zipped into airtight hip-huggers. Another evening, their places were taken by some startled-looking tourists and an elderly couple dressed in matching safari outfits. Ms. Scism, who spent a formative year as a hostess at Chanterelle, managed this diverse room with a neighborly touch. On my second visit, she recognized me as the Lillet-martini drinker and cheerfully suggested the sweet house cocktail, champagne spiked with pastis, ginger syrup, and cubes of candied ginger. Her malicious pick for dessert was the chocolate beggar's purse, a cholesterol bomb of flourless chocolate cake and port-soaked cherries baked in a feathery North African pastry dough called brique. This confection caused group mayhem at our table, obliterating all other sweets in its wake.

Later on, when my jittery taste buds had subsided, I made my methodical way through a perfectly proportioned apple tart drizzled in caramel sauce, then an artful mound of carrot cake, which was light in texture like a madeleine but crispy-cornered like a muffin. After that, I paused, Zen-like, to imbibe a blossom-filled pot of green tea. There are more elaborate spirits on Annisa's menu ($220 for a bottle of the Krug Grande Cuvée), but perhaps I was feeling healthful, even a little demure. A tray of miniature fruit ices appeared after dessert, along with mint truffles and slivers of candied ginger. I took a few rabbit-size bites of a single truffle, then put it back down. It was purely a nibble, after all.

Annisa, 13 Barrow Street (212-741-6699). Dinner only, Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Appetizers, $8 to $16; entrées, $20 to $29. All major credit cards.


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