Friday, July 18, 2008

An Anita Lo Anniversary (Annisa and Bar Q)

On June 24th, Rob and I celebrated our five years together by going to Annisa in the West Village. This was our second visit -- Rob's uncle took us a few years ago and it was nothing less than spectacular. Since chef Anita Lo has been focusing much of her energy on Bar Q, the new Japanese barbeque spot down the street, we wanted to make sure we went one last time before Annisa closes altogether.

Rob's brother Greg is a bartender at Annisa, but he was in Turkey during our visit. He left instructions for the staff to take care of us, and take care of us they did! We were ushered into a booth side-by-side looking out onto the restaurant. At first the arrangement felt a little odd, but it was also very cozy with the table pushed right over our laps. The waitress brought us a bottle of Dare -- 2004 Cabernet Franc. "Dare" I say this was the best wine either of us has ever had? Rob doesn't even like to drink during his meals and he couldn't get his hand off his glass. Turns out that this is the exact wine that our friend Julia had when she went with her parents a week or so before us and couldn't stop raving about. It was sweet and wet and perfectly balanced.

And now onto the food. First I must say that Anita Lo really is a genius in the kitchen. Everything tasted so delicate and fresh, a thousand tastes mingling together to make every bite of every course a perfect one. She loves to prepare the same food in different ways on the same plate to show her versatility. Every dish is like a state-of-the-art masterpiece.

We ordered the five-course tasting menu, one for every year of our togetherness. We started with tuna prepared three ways, each with a different type of mint: tuna tartar on the left, seared tuna in the middle, and cooked tuna on the right. We were encouraged to eat like we read -- from left to right. The tuna tartar was fresh and delicate and clean-tasting, with pineapple mint and a hint of spicy mayo. The seared tuna -- tataki -- had a heavier taste, served with a dusting of bottarga (dried roe) and topped with a julienne of spearmint and fennel. The last piece of tuna is cooked in olive oil and served with chocolate mint. Each piece tasted entirely different, and it was fun to experience the chef's versatility and creativity at the same time.

I was excited about course two -- it was my favorite from our last visit. Anita Lo reaches back to her Chinese heritage to create a perfect soup dumpling topped with foi gras and served atop a swirl of reduction sauce. The trick is to pick up the dumpling with your chopsticks, balance it on a soup spoon and bite and slurp without spilling anything. It was a bit more difficult to do than I remember -- maybe it was all that wine -- but I was still able to get every last drop. That's the thing with these dishes. They aren't just perfect and tasty and elegant, they are also a lot of fun to eat.

Course three: the skate. This may have been Rob's favorite. A skate wing is lightly fried, its extremely buttery and seems to flake off in almost any direction you want it to. It is served with both a mild kimchee sauce and an avocado sauce, then topped with a kimchee radish (which is like daikon, but a bit more dense). Then the cool part: the skate is accompanied by a stack consisting of the same ingredients used to make the dish, but raw: sashimi, cubed avocado, sliced radish. A very fun idea and it plays out well.

Course four was when I began to slow down -- it was a much larger portion than the past few courses. This dish breaks away from the higher level creativity we just experienced and lends itself instead to a more traditional Japanese style meal. A large bowl of sable marinated in miso is served atop silken tofu as it marinates in a sweet bonito broth. It was beautiful but definitely hard to keep the fish on top of that tofu.

Course five -- finally, we're done with fish! We finish our stellar meal with a very creative lamb tenderloin dish. Drawing back from the different forms of preparation ideal, tender lamb medallions are wrapped in a seal of ground lamb and then grilled. The result mimics the ideal of fresh baked bread -- perfectly soft on the inside with a crusty, different taste around the outside. In the center of the medallions lies a small heap of white soybeans, circles of garlic chives and a single piece of fried tofu sticking out as a signature flair. The meal feels comfortable and hearty yet entirely different from anything we've ever come to know as 'comfort food.'

I would have felt very happy stopping here, but they were not done with us yet. We were then presented with not one, not two, but THREE different types of desserts. First, the lemon poppy cake. I'm not a big fan of rich, tart desserts like this so I only had a few bites; we wound up taking it home with us. Next, the prettiest dessert: the banana rainbow. Here we were given a rich chocolate cake, a mound of whipped banana cream so light it tasted like a cloud, brought together with a dried banana so it both tastes AND looks like heaven. Finally, my favorite: a soft apple tart in a bed of warm caramel topped with vanilla ice cream and a candle to mark our celebration. It was simple, but soft and sweet and all the right things a caramel apple dessert SHOULD be.

Even though we were full, even though we had drunk more than enough wine, and even though we could barely move, we decided to investigate Bar Q, Anita Lo's newest establishment, to grab one last drink of the night. What can I say, she had impressed us! Plus, we wanted to visit our friend Julia who was waitressing that night. So we took the short walk over to Bleecker Street. It's not much to look at from the outside -- I think we almost walked right past it -- but inside it feels warm, inviting and relaxing -- just what we needed at the end of the night. We cozied up to the bar and took in the atmosphere. I was excited to try the bubble tea cocktail I had read about in the Times -- sweet green tea, vodka, and, of course, the tapioca hunks all along the bottom. It really was a perfect fusion of an adult beverage and a kid's drink; very sweet, not too strong. The only problem was there wasn't a straw big enough to suck the gummy balls through -- I could only jab at them with my skinny stir straw. I actually got pretty good at tapioca hunting after awhile, and Julia was able to sneak away from her tables long enough to rave with us about the food over at Annisa. Overall, a perfect nightcap to a wonderful five-course meal. A special thanks to Greg, Julia and Anita Lo for making it happen.

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