Budget gourmet typically means stools that have no cushions, tables that have no linens and rooms that lack enough lighting to let you see that there’s a charge for the bread basket.
Then there’s French-Asian Annisa, a 13-table anomaly. It splurged on a feng shui consultant (just in case diners were looking for auspicious environs to devour an excellent $18 duo of lobster). Fresh lavender evokes an era when restaurants had flower budgets.
The Spartan look and low-cost, high-end food trend took off five years ago with noisy restaurants like Fatty Crab, but I like to think it was the decade-old Annisa that began feeding young, downtown patrons who wouldn’t mind spending an extra dollar or two to hear each other speak.
After a fire shuttered it last July, Annisa has reopened, with a new design.
Chef-owner Anita Lo, a Columbia University French major who went on to stints at Bouley, Guy Savoy and Chanterelle, offers that rare New York luxury: fancy food in a fancy setting at reasonable prices. A seven course tasting menu is $95 and most of the chairs actually have backs.
Also rare: It’s quiet. The raised bento box of a dining room has tablecloths, carpeting and plush fabric booths to absorb sound. Things are adult here. Reservation takers answer calls after one ring; the lighting is dim enough to flatter, bright enough to allow menu reading without squinting.
Dumplings cost $18, a few bucks more than at Rickshaw Dumpling Bar (in which Lo no longer is involved, a good thing, since it didn’t serve terribly exciting dumplings). At Annisa, they’re made with foie gras: Bite the tip, suck out the broth of chicken, veal and pork, then bite into a rich slab of seared liver.
This is very good, often three-star food that belongs to the Jean-Georges school of almost-Asian. Expect French technique and American ingredients, with hints of heat and sweet to push, if not breach, boundaries. Fish sauce and sugar softens the bite of chili-lime dressing on barbecued squid. Nobu-style black cod is fish as candy. It practically flakes itself into a salty pool of roe and bonito.
Keep It Simple
Lo keeps things simple here. Mostly. She slips some pig’s feet between the skin and flesh of a roast chicken with truffle sauce. It’s only the fatty crunch of perfectly rendered bird flesh that you notice. A duck three-way concentrates the gamy poultry into a heady rillette, a seared breast and a pho-like soup; you’re not told the latter is studded with heart and gizzard meat.
Now that Lo has just one restaurant to oversee, she should work on the misses: overcooked veal here, a mushy, metallic tasting of spicy eggplant there. Was it cured pork fat that overwhelmed a soft-shell crab with sea urchin sauce? It was a $35 mistake. Amy’s Bread supplies crunch-less, forgettable rolls.
While $75 for five courses is a steal, it can seem expensive when you need to flag down your bartender for drinks, or if you eat on a counter stool that lacks back support.
Lo deserves credit for a wine list that exclusively highlights female vinters of vineyard owners.
Smoke erupted from under the bar during one recent visit; our entrees cooled off while I inhaled fresh air outside and watched the fire engines pull up. But Annisa didn’t close this time. The firemen left shortly afterward. And we relaxed in quiet comfort.
Annisa is at 13 Barrow Street, near West 4th Street. Information: +1-212-741-6699; http://www.annisarestaurant.com
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost: Most mains a touch over $30; $75-$95 tastings.
Sound Level: Quiet, 65-70 decibels.
Date Place: Yes.
Inside tip: Skip the watery lavender julep.
Special feature: Poppyseed bread pudding for dessert.
Will I be back: Yes.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):
51 to 55: Church on a weekday. 56 to 60: The vegetable aisle at the Food Emporium. 61 to 65: Keyboards clacking at the office. 66 to 70: My alarm clock when it goes off inches from my ear. 71 to 75: Corner deli at lunchtime. 76 to 80: Back of a taxi with advertisements at full volume. 81 to 85: Loud, crowded subway with announcements.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)