Chinese American chef Anita Lo became a Downtown luminary four years ago at Mirezi, a stunning, short-lived Village restaurant featuring East-West fusion from an Asian perspective. I still dream about her sticky barbecued ribs burning with ginger, tangy papaya salad, and mandoo dumplings zapped with fresh shiso. At her new venue, Lo's cooking has become more delicate and nuanced, showcasing French technique and zany combinations of ingredients, with fewer Asian flourishes. In fact, the lineup at Annisa (which means "women" in Arabic) harkens more toward the Mediterranean. A craggy pair of squash blossoms ($10), fried in light batter and aimed skyward, come stuffed with a coarse chickpea puree that's well on the way to becoming hummus. A light but peppery tomato-and-saffron sauce adds to the exhilaration, though your initial impression of this strange-looking dish may be one of a life-form found on a distant planet.
Done exclusively in shades of off-white, the square dining room hovers on a raised platform, while the bar, prep areas, and a wood walkway run below, hidden by a low wall. One side of the room is dominated by a billowing curtain that moves as waiters scurry back and forth; adjacent, a rectangular niche radiates white light like a hatchway to heaven. Directly behind is the invisible kitchen, identifiable by a faint clatter of pots. The effect of the room is like cloud-sitting on an overcast day.
Lo's sense of humor is always in the forefront. A quartet of diver scallops ($27), perfectly pan-seared and memorably sweet, comes in a clear sauce dotted with black flecks that look exactly like Chinese black beans. But they turn out to be woodsy summer truffles, bearing zero flavor resemblance and not even a bit salty. A delicious roulade of rabbit ($26) with a crisp skin of bacon is sided with chewy Korean turnip cakes. Alongside perch two miniature blobs of trembling purple flesh. Though the shape is familiar, it takes a few minutes to figure out what they are: rabbit kidney sashimi. Gee, thanks Anita.
The upper end of the restaurant biz hates the chicken eater, considering her a dieter or lover of the bland, and a typical entrée features a denuded, deboned, and undersauced breast romancing a pile of pallid vegetables. In contrast, you've never seen a nobler bird than the chicken at Annisa ($22), its burnished skin beautifully intact and the wing bone pointing like an accusatory finger. There's even extra crisp skin trailing off into a thick fruit puree that hints of the impending harvest. Underneath, a stuffing reminds you of Mom's Thanksgiving dressing, except it's composed of tiny swatches of pig feethalf crisp, half gelatinous and gooey.
And at the end of the meal, after you've polished off a citadel of wonderful almond-thickened milk pudding in a sea of tart kumquat syrup ($8), or an apple tart in the richest caramel sauce you've ever tasted, or a crusty carrot cake with an unexpectedly airy texture, and finished your coffee, comes the coup de grâce. A freebie platter featuring miniature dark chocolates filled with mint cream, little planks of candied ginger, and tiny homemade popsicleson successive visits we had cantaloupe, orange-lemon, and grapefruit-cranberrywafts you into the summery night.
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