Tucked unobtrusively in the middle of Barrow Street between West Fourth Street and Seventh Avenue, the restaurant Annisa has for a decade now been the proving ground and main creative outlet for chef-owner Anita Lo. The New York Times identified and placed Lo squarely within a trend of talented chefs who have chosen quiet career paths, “opening small restaurants where everything is modest except the ambitions of the kitchen,” while New York Magazine praised Lo for turning out “some of the most consistently interesting food in the city.”
Annisa purred along quietly, attracting an eclectic crowd and more praise for Lo and her precise, refined blend of French, Asian and globally influenced cuisine. Then last year, Lo hit a nasty run of bad luck. In February 2009 her adventurous Asian barbecue restaurant, Bleecker Street’s Bar Q, closed after 10 months, a victim of the recession and a staffing choice that Lo says was a mistake. Five months later, an electrical fire ripped through Annisa’s kitchen, and rebuilding was delayed by a difficult lease renegotiation. Lo’s PR coup of appearing on the Bravo reality show Top Chef Masters was heavily diluted since the series aired during Annisa’s nine-month rebuilding period.
Now, Lo and her partner, general manager and sommelier Jennifer Scism, are back in business. The daughter of Maylasia- and Singapore-born parents, Lo grew up in Michigan on a mix of Chinese, Maylasian, and international foods. “My family was absolutely obsessed with food,” says Lo, sitting at Annisa’s serene, sunlight-filled bar. The room is done up in soothing cream and beige, and large vases of curly willow decorate one side of the room. The word “annisa” means “women” in Arabic, fitting at a restaurant whose 100-bottle wine lists promotes the labels of women vintners, such as Dr. Su Hua Newton (Newton Vineyard) and Helen Turley (Marcassin).
Lo’s mother was a doctor who worked 12-hour shifts and then, Lo says, “put six dishes on the table for us.” Summers on Cape Cod meant eating lobster and other New England specialties, and Lo recalls, “My mother, who went to college in the south, made great fried chicken.”
Lo chose to major in French over math at Columbia, and in the summer of her junior year, enrolled in a cooking class in Paris. Her first job was at Bouley making canapés. She returned to Paris to continue her culinary studies, then apprenticed with French masters Michel Rostang and Guy Savoy. Back in New York, stints at Chanterelle, the Soho French-Vietnamese restaurant Can, Maxim’s and Mirezi followed, and Lo began attracting national attention. Her primary culinary influences are David Waltuck of Chanterelle and David Bouley. Waltuck, she says, “really taught me about flavor as I worked through all the stations at Chanterelle,” while Bouley, she adds, “taught me about ingredients. This was in 1988, and he was buying direct from different farms back then; we were getting tomatoes that were picked that morning.”
Lo’s last trips were hunting and fishing in Mongolia (where the food was not the primary draw) and touring Egypt, which inspired a squab and fava bean dish on the Annisa menu. It might even make it into Lo’s cookbook, due out in fall 2010 and tentatively titled Cooking Without Borders.
The chef has lived in the West Village for over 15 years, and says of her neighborhood, “I love the trees, that you can wake up with bird sounds, and that I can walk to work.” She adds, “People understand my food better downtown. It’s not a conservative cuisine.”