Twelve years ago, I thrilled to Anita Lo’s first big-ticket chef assignment—Mirezi, fitted into a Greenwich Village town house on Fifth Avenue scattered with strange lighting effects. The food was dazzling, too, featuring red snapper wrapped in crunchy rice paper, slippery yam noodles with bulgogi beef, and—best of all—sticky baby back ribs, which burned the mouth with ginger rather than chilies.
Mirezi was short-lived, but Lo re-emerged four years later at Annisa, her own place on Barrow Street. The menu seamlessly fused Middle Eastern and Asian touches with French technique in a juggling act that could easily have failed, but didn’t, delivering such delights as chicken with gooey pig-foot stuffing, bacon-wrapped rabbit roulade sided with Chinese turnip cakes, and squash blossoms stuffed with chickpea purée, looking like suppurating creatures from outer space. The relentlessly off-white dining room was surreal, too, characterized by billowy curtains and a hatch in the wall from which heavenly light streamed. Dinner was like being abducted by a flying saucer.
But Lo stumbled with her fast-food chain, Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, now boasting branches on 8th and 23rd streets. Four times the price of simple Chinese pot stickers at stalls a mile or so southward, these dumplings possessed lackluster fillings and were too often gummy and under-steamed.
So it was with a mix of anticipation and trepidation that I approached Bar Q, a new restaurant of Lo’s that, rather predictably, is aimed at the cocktail crowd, with a menu of potables far longer than the food menu. The décor is reminiscent of Annisa—a multilevel pair of rooms with art-free, off-white walls, chill and refreshing. Picture windows look out on a concrete backyard filled with curvy metal furniture. Just inside the front door, find a liquor bar that points toward a small raw bar, which turns out correspondingly small morsels of seafood: tiny Kumamoto oysters, scallops the size of a baby’s thumb, and raw clams too small to be called littlenecks ($3, $2.50, $2, respectively). You could run up a big bill, and your stomach would still be nearly empty.
But the raw bar seems like an afterthought to a menu of mainly pork and seafood that might be summed up in two words: Asian barbecue. Ribs in various guises—some of them humorous—are one of Lo’s obsessions. “Stuffed” spareribs ($29) hunker in a lake of chunky peanut sauce, a boneless mass of composed meat that might be mistaken as a model for a Henry Moore sculpture. It’s delicious, though the sauce is superfluous. Equally mouth-worthy is a tuna-rib appetizer ($15)—a pile of long fragile bones barely coated with tasty gray meat, black-striped from the grill. If you’ve never tasted tuna ribs before, it’s probably because other chefs throw them away.
From that point, the ribs run downhill. “Grilled shortrib” ($27) describes three bone-free triangles of Korean-style grilled beef, neither filling nor innovative, while an appetizer of baby back ribs ($11) with “my mother’s BBQ sauce” tastes like it’s been dumped out of a white carton from the local Chinese carry-out. Then there are “spicy pork wings,” a mind-bending entrée carved from a pig shin. The wings remain flightless because they’re heavily coated with cloying Korean ketchup.
Among newfangled pork configurations, my favorite is the pork-belly appetizer ($13). Two crisp pieces of layered fat and meat arrive, nestling kimchee, yellow pickled daikon, and two steamed buns that allow you to make small sandwiches. Thanks to David Chang, everyone calls these sandwiches “ssams.” Other downtown chefs receive similar flattering nods. Grilled lamb loin in a sweet glaze is one of the menu’s better entrées, partly because you also get a pile of cubic “garlic fried milk” alongside, very much in a Wylie Dufresne vein.
Another Lo obsession is the Sichuan technique called tea smoking, in which smoldering tea leaves and spices are sealed in a wok, usually with duck, imparting a pleasing color and mild smoky flavor. Lo uses it on salmon, creating an appetizer reminiscent of Nova lox. It comes rather uselessly sided by a shot glass of vichyssoise with salmon roe in the bottom. Lo has more success with duck breast, rendering it smoky but still rare. Best of this flock is tea-smoked chicken, in which crisp-skinned cross-sections wrap around an edamame-dotted bread stuffing, tasting like Japanese Thanksgiving.
The popularity of American-style barbecue spots seems to be spawning all sorts Franken-cues. If Bar Q is the last big-ticket “Asian barbecue” we’ll be seeing this season, I’ll be surprised. Certainly, it won’t be the worst.