Thursday, November 17, 2005

Chick Pick New York City Entry #35

If restaurants have personalities, they also have gender. The steakhouse represents the archetypal masculinist bastion - a clubhouse for grown-up boys. Yet, until recently there was not an equivalent chick pick. In an industry in which until fairly recently most chefs were men and most owners were as well, this was to be expected - and most of those who made reservations were men as well. Servers considered women to be trouble, and fought to avoid all female parties at their station. The system was well-established. Most restaurants, even those at the high-end, bustled, bruted, and boomed.

The world has turned. It is not only that more women are poised with power - running, shaping, or choosing restaurants, but there is a new sensibility. Serene cuisine. Consider Annisa. This petite West Village establishment is a cove of repose. From the clean white, grey and cream decor with its gently swaying curtain, to the civilized calm, encouraging talk, intimate and otherwise, a diner realizes that this is not your father's restaurant.

Still, Annisa must not be labeled too readily. It is not a feminist restaurant, nor really a "feminine" restaurant (as described by Michelin), but a restaurant with a soft and supple aspect. Despite the fact that many of the well-priced wines are from vineyards with female proprietors or winemakers (selected by co-owner and sommelier Jennifer Scism) and that Annisa means "women" in Arabic, Anita Lo's food is not so easily categorized. The flavors are grand - not at all timid - although I wished that the cooks felt more comfortable in undercooking.

Annisa's menu is notable for the use of obscure foodstuffs: honshimeji mushrooms, bottarga di muggine, sumac, vincotto, Iroquois hominy, mochi, kabocha. Huh? Some boychefs play with chemistry sets or Lincoln Logs; Chef Lo's game is Trivial Pursuit.

As appetizer, I ordered Spicy Grilled Eggplant with Yogurt and Lentils - a dish as clear and compelling as its name. Chef Lo cooked the eggplant in an Indian style but with a well-modulated fire, further calmed by her sweet yogurt. Off to the side was a clever lentil patty. At first glance it appeared as couscous, but a taste revealed a complexity of spices and textures. My only complaint was that the eggplant was charred, and with the skin tough and splintery. If the eggplant is to be cooked such, it deserves to be peeled.

As a main course I ordered Sauteed Filet of Fluke with Fennel, Orange, and Bottaga di Muggine (grey mullet roe). As with the appetizer, the fluke was perfectly composed in its range of flavors. The orange sweet/acid brightened the fluke and the pressed roe, and the fennel added a restrained bitterness. However, the top layer of the fish was a bit overcooked, although the bottom was moist and rich. Cutting the fish, mixing it with the accompaniments, diminished the problem. Yet, both dishes suggest that at the stove sometimes less is more.

We shared two desserts. The star was the Tower of Kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) with mascarpone with ginger. The "tower," less Alfred Portole-vertical than horizontal had the challenges of much culinary architecture. The first forkful precipitated a crackup. Yet, the ginger and pumpkin did nicely even when in shards. Ginger proved a fine accompaniment for pumpkin, and both made this creamy autumn evening memorable.

The second dessert, Crispy Mochi with Black Sesame and a duo of Coconut Caramel and Pineapple Dipping Sauces, was notable for the powerfully silky sauces. While the pineapple flavor was intense, it was the distinctive tropical mix of coconut and caramel that will be remembered. The mochi - sweet rice balls - were too gummy for my taste. They served best as a means of mopping up the delightful sauces.

I was impressed by Chef Lo's beautifully conceived flavor palette, by the reasonably priced wine list, and by the civilized, balmy environment that distinguishes Annisa from its brethren.

Annisa
13 Barrow Street (near 4th Street and 7th Avenue)
Manhattan (West Village)
212-741-6699

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