Why Annisa Should Have Three Stars

Earlier this year, Keith McNally–owner of Balthazar, Pastis and the newly opened Morandi–wrote an open letter to New York Times food critic Frank Bruni accusing him of sexism. McNally wrote: “Bruni has never given a female chef in Manhattan anything more than one star, ever….On the two momentous occasions that Bruni saw fit to hand a woman two stars (both outside of Manhattan) he flatly refused to mention that the chef was a woman. This is peculiar, because when the chef is a man Bruni often makes quite a song and dance about it.”

Most people, myself included, found McNally’s rant to be misguided: as a response to Morandi’s one star (the chef is a woman), it came across as sour grapes. The issues it raised, though, are important ones: why don’t female chefs in New York have more stars? Is it sexism or do female chefs just not aspire to the same heights that their male counterparts do? What’s going on?

The way I understand the star system, four star restaurants must offer everything there is to offer when it comes to fine dining–stellar service, a beautiful setting, and highly accomplished, innovative, breathtaking food. A four star restaurant must fire on all cylinders all the time; it must succeed in every way that it’s possible for a restaurant to succeed. And because four star restaurants are all so similar (Jean-Georges, Daniel, Le Bernardin) it’s easy to judge the aptness of other star appointments based on how close they are to the ultimate dining experience.

Annisa–Anita Lo’s two-starred restaurant on Barrow Street–gets very close. I ate there for the first time last night with my friends Lauren and Julie and our meal was delightful in every way a restaurant meal can be delightful. The service was exemplary, the setting was lovely, and the food was extraordinary. Take for example, this first course: Seared Foie Gras with Soup Dumplings and Jicama:

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This dish was a triumph on several levels. First of all, the execution was flawless. The soup dumplings were cooked perfectly, the proportion of foie gras to dumpling to broth was right on. Second of all, it was incredibly creative, it was innovative and exciting. It mixed the unfamiliar with the familiar, street food with fine dining. Like the end of a good book or play, it felt surprising and inevitable: I had a catharsis in my mouth.

My entree was equally thrilling–veal with veal sweetbreads:

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I’ve had sweetbreads elsewhere, but I’ve never had sweetbreads as glorious as these. They were crispy, caramelized pockets of meaty goodness. The veal was perfectly cooked, as you can see in the picture. And the cabbage provided perfect vegetal contrast; the sauce was fruity–rhubarb, if I remember correctly–and all together, eating this was a sublime experience. I was recently asked what I wanted for my last meal, and if this were what I was served I’d be happy to die. Only I’d want this for dessert:

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That’s a goat cheese cheesecake with candied beets. Look how colorful and inventive: it makes me think of Miami or Mardi Gras. And then there was a poppy seed bread pudding with lemon curd that was equally amazing. These desserts dazzled, as did the whole meal. So why doesn’t Annisa have three stars?

This is a question I want to take seriously. I don’t want to make up my mind that Annisa deserves three stars for political reasons without balancing the matter against what I know about how stars are awarded. Luckily, Frank Bruni has given us a blueprint for what makes a three star restaurant a three star restaurant in his re-review of 11 Madison Park.

He writes: “I gave Eleven Madison two stars in February 2005, and while I normally wouldn’t review a restaurant again so soon, Mr. Humm’s food — not the new table settings, not the tweaked lighting — made me do it. I can’t have beef tenderloin in a bordelaise sauce this dense with marrow — this druggy — and stay mum. I can’t cut into such impeccably roasted duck — glazed smartly, but not too sweetly, with lavender and honey — and shut up about it. That would be a dereliction of duty. It would be just plain mean.”

So, clearly, enhanced performance impresses Bruni. It comes down to the food, and that makes sense. The New York Times archive only has a little blurb about Annisa, not the full review, so it’s hard to know what it was marked down for. The blurb says: “Ms. Lo reaches far and wide for ideas and influences, without strain. Throughout, her cooking is defined by good taste and good judgment. Fish is infallible at Annisa.”

So what went wrong? Or did anything go wrong? Maybe Anita Lo doesn’t aspire to be a three-star chef. Certainly her peer, Gabrielle Hamilton, doesn’t. As quoted by Frank Bruni in his one-star review of Prune, Hamilton wrote in a Food & Wine essay: “I wanted an unassuming way to slip into the shallow end of the pool of New York City restaurants. I wanted to cook for my neighbors.”

Maybe that’s all Anita Lo wants too. Annisa certainly feels like a neighborhood joint. But my suspicion is that Ms. Lo wants more. She kicked Mario Batali’s ass on Iron Chef America and Batali is a three-star chef twice over (Babbo, Del Posto). She was a contender to cook at the White House; she was a Food & Wine Chef of the Year. She means business and she is, perhaps, the female chef best primed to shift the gender paradigm as it now exists for chefs in New York (and elsewhere): how fitting that Annisa means “women” in Arabic.

Here’s hoping that Bruni pays Annisa a visit sometime soon. It’s a perfect opportunity for him to challenge (or at least address) McNally’s claim that he’s sexist and an even better opportunity for Lo to get the extra star that she so richly deserves.

12 comments

  1. I am confident that MY meal was better than the AG’s. I had the sable and it was UH-MAZING. The service and presentation was impeccable. The food, really couldn’t have been better. The meal was ‘challenging’ in the sense that each course challenged me to like a seemingly odd (or, more accurately, ‘new’) pairing of items, such as cheesecake and beets. It was certainly a learning experience.

    Please note that one of the main reasons why we went to Anissa was due to the woman-owned aspect of the restaurant and it’s woman-friendly wine selection. That got us in the door, and the enjoyable experience inside will bring us back again.

  2. If the standards for four stars are stellar service, a beautiful setting, and highly accomplished, innovative, breathtaking food, Annisa makes it on all counts and multiple occasions. Annisa is our “celebration” restaurant; my birthday, our anniversaries, a great accomplishment for one of us. It rewards everytime on all the items set above. The dishes mentioned by others are among our favorites. Doneness applicable to the specific food is perfect. Not yet covered: the tables are far apart and you can’t hear your neighbors conversation. The lighting is soft and comfortable not dark and murky. The servers are charming AND non-obrusive. I, too, hope Mr. Bruni reviews Annisa.

  3. The NYT’s 2-star rating of Annisa came from William Grimes in 2000. But Frank Bruni has commented on the restaurant, which I am pasting here, because you might only be able to get it through the subscriber-paid Times Select feature. To the best of my knowledge FB has not “formally” reviewed Annisa. His re-review of EMP was based solely on change in chef’s BTW – ans having eaten at bot Annisa and EMP recently – EMP is the clear winner – and IMHO – deserves to be a Michelin 2 Star in NYC.

    And, just as an FYI, FB even said “I like the fact that a woman runs the kitchen, a situation much too rare in prominent, celebrated Manhattan restaurants. (Ms. Lo has since opened Rickshaw Dumpling Bar in Chelsea as well.)”

    This Diner’s Journal blog entry is from March 10, 2006…

    March 10, 2006, 4:55 pm

    High and Lo

    By Frank Bruni

    Tags: Chefs, Fusion, Manhattan, Menus, Service/Tips

    I’ve mentioned previously that one of the difficulties in assessing restaurants — and one of the factors that give rise to disagreements about them — is how different they can be from night to night and dish to dish. A case in point: Annisa.

    I went with a friend a little more than a month ago, had a seven-course tasting menu (five savory courses, cheese and dessert) and was utterly smitten. The food was excellent and the service gracious.

    I went back a few weeks later with another friend, tried dishes that hadn’t been on the tasting menu and was disappointed. The food was uneven and the service a bit brusque.

    Annisa opened in 2000. According to its two-star review by William Grimes in the Times that year, the name of the restaurant means “women” in Arabic, and Annisa is run by two women: Anita Lo, its chef, and Jennifer Scism, who deals with the front of the house.

    Ms. Lo’s food weds French and Asian influences, traveling elsewhere if an interesting flavor or effect beckons, and it seldom feels overworked. She has wisely resisted any temptation to jettison a great dish just because she’s been doing it for years. One of the early courses of the tasting menu was her long-running, outstanding pairing of seared foie gras and a Shanghai-style soup dumpling containing foie gras mousse and a thick broth made with pig’s feet, veal stock and chicken stock.

    Other highlights from that tasting menu, which assembled smaller portions of appetizers and entrees that were also available on the a la carte menu, included a grilled filet of wild striped bass with sunchokes, an artichoke puree and sumac and pan-roasted squab with sweetbreads and chestnuts. The fish and the squab were perfectly cooked, and the flavors that augmented them were robust and right.

    The aggregate amount of food fit the $88 price of the tasting menu, and we left feeling sated but not crazily stuffed. Our server was attentive but not overbearing.

    A few weeks later, that wasn’t so. The woman serving my friend and me seemed distracted, never cracked a smile and never asked me if I wanted more coffee, though I had drained my cup within three minutes of getting it and it sat empty for the next 15 minutes.

    We ordered a la carte that night and I thought the portions of several dishes were too small. A grilled octopus appetizer, for $16, had just a few narrow, squiggly tendrils of octopus, their texture too chewy, their taste faint.

    A pan-roasted chicken breast with chanterelle mushrooms and bits of pig’s feet between the flesh and the skin and a sauce flavored with white truffles also struck me as too paltry for its $27 cost, though I adored what was there. (It’s also been on the menu since the start.) A portion of pork loin ($29) was more appropriate, but the meat itself was tough.

    I’d still go back to Annisa. I like the fact that a woman runs the kitchen, a situation much too rare in prominent, celebrated Manhattan restaurants. (Ms. Lo has since opened Rickshaw Dumpling Bar in Chelsea as well.)

    I like the way Ms. Scism greets and treats guests: during that first visit, when a more private table near ours opened up 10 minutes after we had been seated, she promptly offered to move us there.

    I like the scale of Annisa. With about 45 seats, it’s small but not too small. It doesn’t cram chairs and tables ridiculously close together and then try to peddle claustrophobia as intimacy.

    The dining room is raised a few steps from a tiny bar area in front and a corridor to the side, so it feels like a stage and gives an otherwise plain restaurant a dash of drama.

    I just wish, in its case and in the cases of so many other restaurants with talented chefs and undeniable charms, that there was more consistency, more assurance of a wholly gratifying night out.

    Annisa, 13 Barrow Street, between West Fourth Street and Seventh Avenue South, Greenwich Village, (212) 741-6699. Appetizers, $9 to $17. Entrees, $27 to $33. Five-course tasting menu, $68. Seven courses, $88.

  4. I enjoy reading all of your posts Adam, but was really impressed with this one and wanted to comment on it. It reminded me of your post a few weeks back on wanting more out of your culinary destiny and being told that you already carried a lot of clout with this blog. Hear hear, this post clearly shows a depth of maturity in your writing and your commitment to your local [foodie] community that you are now more freely willing to use – kudos and I hope Ms. Lo indeed gets a “formal” visit from Mr. Bruni!

  5. The Grimes review from 2000– though, Adam, after your review, I’m looking forward to trying it.

    ____________________

    THE outlines of the trend are not clear yet, and I’m not sure what name to give it, but there’s something afoot on the dining scene in New York. In the last year or so, a number of talented chefs with strong resumes have chosen a quiet career path, opening small restaurants where everything is modest except the ambitions of the kitchen.

    I’m thinking of places like 71 Clinton Fresh Food, Eight Mile Creek or Blue Hill, neighborhood spots with a few tables and banquettes, a distinct point of view and exciting food. They’re a little like a sharply written Off Broadway play, or a sneakily clever independent film, so nimble that they make many of their big-budget competitors look obvious and flat-footed.

    Annisa is the latest addition to this honor roll. True to the breed, the restaurant, formerly 13 Barrow, makes a pleasant but unremarkable impression. A tiny bar looks out on the street through large picture windows, and the dining room, slightly elevated above street level, has a cool, rather bland decor. Only a cylindrical glass vase near the entrance, stuffed with an ever-changing and often bizarre arrangement of seed pods or garlic stalks, offers a hint of unusual doings.

    The hint is picked up in the amuse-bouches that begin each meal. They all have the same packaging, a feather-light cup of fried crepe batter not much larger than a thimble, but they are filled with happy surprises, like a small blob of garlic custard concealing a plump escargot, or horseradish cream wrapped around a firm chunk of smoked trout. As attention getters, they are hard to beat.

    Annisa, whose name means “women” in Arabic, is a two-woman show. Anita Lo, who last worked at Mirezi, turns out the food. Her partner, Jennifer Scism, runs the front of the house, greeting guests and running from table to table over the evening to keep things moving along. Both of them seem to be very clear-eyed about the kind of restaurant they want, a place with clean lines, a welcoming, inclusive atmosphere (I defy anyone to define the very eclectic crowd here) and a quietly persuasive menu, filled with arresting ingredient and flavor combinations. It’s all very understated. Even the menu language is terse.

    Ms. Lo worked with a narrower idiom at Mirezi, introducing Korean ingredients into French dishes. At Annisa she reaches far and wide for ideas and influences, without strain. Throughout, her cooking is defined by good taste and good judgment. Generally, one twist per dish is enough for her.

    She takes a Middle Eastern approach to zucchini blossoms, deep-fried in a spiky breading of semolina flour and stuffed with falafel that’s been lightened up with grilled zucchini. A spicy tomato sauce gives the dish some acidic bite and a bit of fire.

    Foie gras, like one of those constantly available guests on the talk-show circuit, has long been threatening to wear out its welcome in New York, but Ms. Lo has a trick up her sleeve. She pairs a perfectly seared slice of liver with her own version of Shanghai soup dumplings, stuffed with a little foie gras mousse and thickened spicy soy broth. The plate is slicked with a sauce of black vinegar to cut the richness and a bit of jicama for crunch. The result is an appetizer that makes you fall in love with foie gras all over again.

    Less dramatic, but still pleasing, are a lobster and avocado salad with lobster coral sauce, and a well-orchestrated salad of grilled squid balanced atop a timbale of seaweed that contains a scattering of firm white beans. Little cubes of blue potato surrounding the dish give it extra eye appeal.

    There are miscues along the way. Saddle of rabbit wrapped in bacon with a scallion lining was just slightly dry, and the rabbit struggled to hold its own against the very flavorful bacon, whose saltiness was unfortunately amplified by a delicious but well-salted turnip cake. Grilled sirloin with mustard sauce and a potato pancake made with gorgeously gooey raclette cheese was undeniably hearty but not particularly impressive as a piece of meat. It ran a distant second to lamb tenderloin wrapped in spicy lamb sausage and cooled off with a sauce of minty yogurt and cucumbers. Pan-roasted chicken in a high-low sauce of sherry-accented truffles and pig’s feet qualifies as a new-age bistro breakthrough, original but perfectly sane.

    Fish is infallible at Annisa, starting with a pellucid block of miso-marinated sable, seared to a thick black crust on top and accompanied by golden blocks of fried tofu in a briny bonito broth. Soft-shell crabs, fried to a light crisp, get straightforward, honest treatment, served witha salad of fresh corn in an opal-basil vinaigrette. The surprise comes with the addition of sea urchin, adding a sharp iodine note that weaves its way ingeniously through the crab and the corn. Seared scallops with garlic chives and truffles taste as good as they sound.

    For some strange reason, desserts take a long time to get to the table. This delay is all the more noticeable because, by the end of the meal, the restaurant has filled and you notice that despite the intimate-feeling decor, Annisa has awful acoustics and can be a tough place for conversation. The good news is that when the desserts do show up, they are good. Not the sorbets, or at least the mushy cantaloupe and watermelon flavors I tried. But there’s no resisting the attractive fluted carrot cake, filled with bits of macadamia nut and served with a pouf of creme fraiche. The apple tart, surrounded by a sticky pool of caramel sauce, ranks very high, a beautifully executed classic with a textbook crust and ideally tart apples.

    Annisa is a restaurant with a small room, a small staff and a small menu. But with disarming ease, it manages to make a big impression.

    Annisa

    **

    Rating: two stars

  6. after reading and hearing how those poor creatures are tortured so the foie gras can be created how can you possibly order it much less eat it and rave about it in your blog?–they cut the legs and beaks off of them and force them to live in a cage the size of a shoe box and force feed them–as a gay man you should be more cognizant and sensitive–food should be glorious and enjoyed–but not produced ala Abu Ghraib

  7. Its tempting, for me, both in terms of gender and in the world of food, to root for the underdog – and these days women chefs continue to be the underdog. But nothing does the cause of the underdog less than complaining about discrimination in whatever form. So I would be very hesitant, without real firm proof of discrimination to support someone saying Anita Lo isn’t receiving her 3rd star because she is a woman.

    Its a man’s world out there in professional kitchens, but I believe for Ms. Lo to have gotten where she is she would have had to beat the men at their own game – she already knows she has to do things better, faster and in a more original way than them. And she has proved that she can.

    Whatever she aspires to be, if she wants 3 stars, she will get them.

    The food on this post made me drool, next time I’m in NYC it’ll definitely be on my list of places to visit!

    B

    Hand to Mouth

    Making Stock of the Situation

    A blog for the penniless gourmet

  8. ChrisP, you must not have seen the blog on eating and morality, or you would know how AG feels about issues like foie gras… And what does one’s sexuality have anything to do with one’s sensitivity?

    Excellent post, AG!

  9. CrisP, I love how you’ve once again proven the inevitable, which is that on every foodblog, with every article that even so much as mentions foie gras, there must be an outcry. It’s an old boring argument; get over yourself. I’m going to continue right on eating that stuff because it tastes good. But my main problem with your post is this part: “as a gay man you should be more cognizant and sensitive.” ?…??? Excuse me, what? That might be the most ridiculous phrase I’ve read in a really long time. Is that a compliment disguised as an insult to anyone who’s not gay? Or are you actually so deluded as to think sexual orientation makes people have better personalities?

  10. I’m not sure I agree w/ your assessment of Annisa as a three-star place. While I would agree the food is marvelous, I found the service generally lacking. The wine (white and sparkling) was never at the right temperature, the table wasn’t crumbed properly, requests were ignored and there was too much of a hurried atmosphere to think of this as a three-star in my opinion. Also, the minimalist space is elegant but it’s very loud for a dimly lit, calm (looking) space. At Babbo clearly they’re blasting music and going for a different vibe, but they seem to miss the mark here. Finally, the restaurant limits itself with such a paltry wine list. The list is only stocked with wine from women proprietors or winemakers, but the reality of the wine world is that women are still making leaps and bounds to catch up to the long male legacy of making fine wine. And what great female winemakers are out there are largely absent from the list. Why is Helen Turley’s Chardonnay the only option listed when she’s known much better for her reds? Where is the Colgin winery? I think these elements combine to bring Annisa down a notch. At that level I’d argue it’s about much more than the food.