In restaurants, as in everything else, the aughts were a time of rampant gold-rush expansion, when a rabble of talented cooks (Boulud, Jean-Georges, Colicchio, Batali) stampeded over the fine-dining landscape, expanding their brands (restaurants, books, TV shows) in a kind of mad frenzy. It was a time, for many chefs, fraught with temptation and peril. Just ask Anita Lo, who opened her original flagship restaurant, Annisa, in a small, garage-size space down on Barrow Street exactly a decade ago. After making her name there, Lo attempted to expand her brand in all sorts of fashionable ways. She opened a dumpling chain, Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, with mixed success, appeared on the requisite cooking shows (Iron Chef, Top Chef Masters), and attempted to capitalize on the David Chang–induced Asian-barbecue craze with a West Village restaurant called Bar Q that closed, despite favorable reviews, less than a year after it opened. Then, last July, in a freak nighttime electrical fire, Annisa burned down, leaving Lo back more or less where she began.
Two months ago, however, the little jewel box of a room reopened, this time with a glittering new kitchen, a refined color scheme, and an updated menu executed nightly, unfashionably enough, by Lo herself. To help with their luck this time around, Lo and her co-owner Jennifer Scism (who runs the front of the house) enlisted a professional feng shui consultant. The room still has an elegant wooden bar in front, and the same thirteen tables, set on a raised platform in front of the kitchen. But the faded-yellow color palette has been augmented with a stylish coppery red (a mix said, in feng shui circles, to promote felicitous digestion). A new mirror hangs in the front of the room to attract good energy, and various trinkets (soothing vases of water, round gourds, a series of buried Chinese good-luck coins) have been placed strategically around the room. The new spiritual realignment lends a focused, almost cheerful vibrancy to the proceedings that wasn’t evident in the restaurant’s original iteration.
But the most notable changes at Annisa 2.0 take place on the plate. With its mannered size and mingling of classical and fusion influences (Lo, who is Asian-American, trained with Guy Savoy and David Bouley, among others), the original Annisa was an almost perfect expression of the dainty fine-dining sensibilities of the nineties. Now that sensibility has been refocused with a whole fresh range of recipes and ingredients. “This thing’s the #*@$ bomb!” declared one of the jaded Wall Street high rollers at my table as he tasted our little predinner amuse, which consisted of a single escargot sunk in a thimble-size pastry cup filled with a fiendishly delicious substance called bacon cream. It was followed by a slightly overflavored Korean version of steak tartare (served with sweet chile and diced Asian pear), and a cup of hot, silken Japanese egg custard, called chawan mushi, folded with morels, crisped lotus root, and nuggets of fresh uni. The chef’s famous foie gras soup dumplings are still on the appetizer menu (although they weren’t as soupy as I recall), but now you can complement them with curls of fresh barbecued squid (soaked in lemongrass and Thai fish sauce, and set over a bed of edamame and boiled peanuts) and an inventive seasonal riff on steamed clams, which Lo composes with fried clam necks seized in a light tempura batter, clam bellies with chive buds, and a cool disk of clam tartare sprinkled with garlic chive sauce.
The entrées tend to be less aggressively Asian in their influences, and only one of them (an excessively sweet combination of fluke, caviar, and beets) received less than rave reviews from the crowd of tasters at my table. As an homage to the haute-barnyard movement, Lo serves up a plump segment of chicken breast crisped on its exterior, stuffed with a delicately gamy preparation of pig’s trotter and chanterelles, and served with a sherry truffle-oil sauce. My order of grilled squab over puréed fava beans was slightly overcooked, but no one complained about the perfectly pink veal tenderloin, which is garnished with crispy sweetbreads, artichokes, and hidden little deposits of fresh oysters. The butter-poached lobster I sampled (pink lobster, green sweet-pea flan, greener ramps) had an almost peachy sweetness to it, and so did the fillet of sable, which Lo marinates in miso in the time-honored Nobu style, balances on a block of crispy silken tofu, and sets in a steamy bonito broth scattered with drifts of popping, ruby-red flying-fish roe.
It’s easy with this kind of auteurish, fusion cooking to produce food that feels dated or self-conscious. But that doesn’t happen here. In her newly attuned state, Lo seems to have let the old superstar-chef concerns drop away. She’s not worried about expanding her brand, or chasing trends, or pleasing hordes of riotous eaters in Vegas-size dining rooms. The result is an experience that strikes that delicate (and increasingly rare) balance between modern style, classic technique, and pure, old-fashioned gourmet pleasure. For dessert, I recommend the poppy-seed bread-and-butter pudding, or the housemade beignets infused with salted butterscotch and served with iced milk touched with bourbon. Then there’s the strawberry mille-feuille, which the kitchen constructs with layers of creamy ricotta, slabs of buttery phyllo pastry, and a touch of balsamic vinegar. It was so good that I put down my fork and asked our waiter the name of the new pastry chef in the kitchen. “We don’t have a pastry chef,” she replied. “Anita does it all.”