Sometimes you don’t want to cook, you just want to play with fire. I bet many chefs would admit as much (see: guys and grilling, for example). The other day, still on the hunt for our next apartment (a tedious hunt, by the way) I found myself, in a trance, wandering into my kitchen, turning on the gas stove, and holding a skinny Japanese eggplant over the flame with tongs. Was I having a serial killer moment? Maybe. But I’d learned this technique from Chef Anita Lo while writing my cookbook.
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:
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:
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:
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.