Women on Top: Annisa Is Sensual, Startlingly Original

Annisa is a cool, polished little restaurant tucked away on a hard-to-find strip of Barrow Street in Greenwich Village. Annisa means “women” in Arabic. Not only is it owned by women–one of whom is the chef–its wines are almost exclusively produced by female vintners. But this place displays none of the clichés associated with a “feminine” restaurant–mom’s home cooking, flowery wallpaper and a nice glass of chardonnay with the meal. It’s certainly warm and inviting, but the dining room is as spare as a Quaker meeting house. The food is startlingly original and focused, artful yet unpretentious.

Escaping the crush of West Fourth Street bar-crawlers, you’re greeted by a small, blond-wood bar over which hang white Philippe Starck lamp shades that look like old-fashioned bonnets. The small, elevated dining space is devoid of weird or attention-grabbing design statements. (It doesn’t even have piped-in music!) The carpeted room contains simply a few well-spaced tables and booths bracketed by salmon-pink chenille banquettes. Flowing white curtains, votive candles and soft lighting add the finishing feminine touches.

The restaurant is owned by Jennifer Scism, who runs the front of the house, and French-trained chef Anita Lo, who worked at Michel Rostang, Guy Savoy, Bouley, Chanterelle and Le Bistrot de Maxim’s. At Mirezi (since reincarnated as Alaia and Luahn), her cooking combined Korean and French influences and ingredients. These days, she’s casting her net a great deal farther and wider.

“Reading this menu, I feel it’s been written to impress a Roman senator who’s had so many pleasures in life that he’s bored with everything,” said my companion, his eyes lighting up. Indeed, at first glance you wonder if the chef has simply tossed together random ingredients–whatever is at hand–to see what happens. Hence, sea urchin and potato terrine with a salad of black radish and bacon, and–yikes!–skate with braised endive, caramelized apples and chicken livers.

No need to worry. Ms. Lo knows what she is doing.

To create the above terrine, Ms. Lo makes a sea-urchin mousse spiked with a dash of soy and lemon, binds it with gelatin and then layers it with potato. She then cuts it into thick slices and serves them with a salad of grated black radishes tossed in a bacon vinaigrette. It’s as sensual a dish as you’ve ever had. Also in a Japanese-French vein, lacquered chunks of unagi (eel) arrived not on sticky rice, but rather mustardy celery rémoulade to cut the richness of the fish.

Foie gras made its appearance in a glorified version of dim sum. Seared strips were laid upon Shanghai soup dumplings that had been filled with foie gras mousse and crunchy jicama before being poached in a broth infused with star anise, cinnamon and soy. The plate was swirled with a thick reduction of black and balsamic vinegars into which the foie gras and dumplings were dipped. A hint of wasabi and radish injected a spicy tang. On a more straightforward note, you can begin with a “tower” of mushrooms–black trumpets, chanterelles, hen of the wood and oyster–sautéed in olive oil and butter and tossed with roasted garlic and pine nuts.

To go with this food, Roger Dagorn, sommelier at Chanterelle, put together an interesting selection of about 75 wines, almost half of which are under $40. One night, our charming and humorous French waitress persuaded us to try a California chardonnay. “I prefer sucking matches to most American chardonnays, but this one is very pleasant,” she said, adding, “At least they’re getting over oak.”

The wine, a Canepa Gauer Adobe 3 from Alexander Valley, was excellent and, as promised, not the slightest bit oaky. It went perfectly with the sable I had ordered. The seared, miso-marinated codlike fish arrived on a raft of tofu in a clear amber bonito broth in which pearls of flying-fish roe and sticks of seaweed floated serenely. The tofu was crisp on top but creamy and soft underneath. Zen food.

Some dishes were more French-inspired. Seared diver scallops with young garlic chives were loaded with diced black truffles and offset by a crunch of fried taro root. Braised endive, caramelized apples and bits of chicken liver garnished a sautéed filet of skate. Plump escargots in a buttery garlic-sage sauce were dotted around red snapper on a bed of Chinese spinach and fingerling potatoes. Ms. Lo turned to Greece to create the lamb tenderloin, serving it in a lamb sausage “robe” and seasoning it with mint, garlic, cinnamon and cumin. In the center of it all was a salad of yogurt and cucumbers with mint.

Asked how his rabbit was, my companion replied, “If an Oriental chef were to spend a weekend on a great shooting estate in Scotland, he or she might come up with something like this.” Indeed, the meat was wrapped in bacon and served with a great dim-sum-style turnip pancake studded with Chinese sausage.

The desserts were as good as the rest of the meal. They included a picture-book apple tart: ultra-thin slivers on a feathery pastry shell, served with caramel sauce. The mille-feuille of fresh figs could have been figgier, but the delicate mixture of fresh ricotta with lemon and pine nuts that was folded in between the layers of pastry was sensational. Calamansi , a tiny citrus fruit from the Philippines, made its debut in a lemony tart alongside a snowball of meringue. Warm carrot bundt cake with ginger and macadamia nuts was accompanied by both a generous dollop of crème fraîche and sweet carrot butter scented with vanilla bean. A large chocolate beggar’s purse was filled with gooey dark chocolate and surrounded by fresh rose petals.

“And this is the last surprise of the night!” said our waitress as she set down a plate of tiny chocolates, candied ginger and miniature strawberry ices on sticks.

By now, the dining room was full and quite noisy. On the back wall I noticed an odd design detail, a glass rectangle of light that looked like an empty aquarium. Seeing it, I was reminded of the aquarium of the Berkshire Museum, where I had watched a chameleon from Yemen having dinner the previous day. It had taken on the exact colors and pattern of the Day-Glo pink, green and ivory leaves it was sitting on and looked as though it had been upholstered in chintz by Mario Buatta. But when an attendant placed a white plastic bucket filled with live crickets into the aquarium, the chameleon hung upside down by its prehensile tail, flipped out a long tongue that unrolled like a child’s noisemaker and snapped up the crickets one by one. By the time it had finished, the chameleon had taken on the hue of the bucket. It was almost as white as the walls of Annisa, and had clearly enjoyed its dinner every bit as much as we had enjoyed ours.

Annisa

* * 1/2

13 Barrow Street (between West Fourth Street and Seventh Avenue South)

741-6699

Dress: Casual

Noise level: Quite high, but not unreasonable

Wine list: Excellent, with many bottles under $40

Credit cards: All major cards

Price range: Main courses $22 to $29

Dinner: Monday to Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor

Women on Top: Annisa Is Sensual, Startlingly Original