Thought for Food

How did a second-generation Chinese woman from the Midwest end up cooking Japanese curries and South American ceviches in a Greenwich Village restaurant?

by Adeena Sussman Published Summer 2012
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Photo by Nicole Franzen

Anita Lo ’88CC has brains on the brain as she pulls onto Barrow Street, chains her bike to a lamppost, and slips through the door of Annisa, her twelve-year-old West Village restaurant. It’s just shy of 5:30 p.m. on a Thursday, and she’s running late; the first customers are only minutes behind her.

Lo flies past the bar, where prep is going on for the night’s service. Ella Fitzgerald scats on low volume as the bartender lines up rows of metal shakers on the marble countertop and extracts long curlicues of peel from half-carved lemons, limes, and oranges. In the small dining room, under muted yellow walls with little adornment save some branches suspended in vases, servers are memorizing the night’s specials and giving the silver a final polish. Another evening performance is about to begin.

About seventy reservations are on the books, by no means an unmanageable number, but enough to get away from you if you aren’t paying attention. Still, the seatings are evenly staggered throughout the night, so Lo will have some time to experiment.

Back to those brains. The gray matter in question, as spongy and unappealing as any jarred laboratory specimen, is from a calf that Lo had sought out from one of her meat purveyors that afternoon. “Some people have foragers,” Lo says, extracting the brains from their clear plastic container and turning them over to inspect them on all sides. “I am my own forager.”

Photo by Nicole Franzen

The brains are a good find, since rhubarb is in season, and Lo has been looking for something interesting to pair it with. The brains, which have a high fat content, would be rich enough to cut the rhubarb’s tartness. Lo knows that for many of her diners, they will be unfamiliar, which is all the more reason for her to push them.

Lo’s staging area, a counter no more than five feet long and eighteen inches deep, sits in the center of the tiny but efficient kitchen. Two line cooks stand behind her, ready to grill, fry, and sauce, with another to her left making salads and cold appetizers, and a dishwasher, a few more steps away, already elbow-deep in suds.

Orders start coming in, and dishes start going out. Lo inspects a plate, wiping its rim clean before sending it out to the dining room. “Dice the confit a little smaller next time,” she tells a cook quietly.

She pulls things from the pantry: shallots, white balsamic, sugar, salt, cracked black pepper, and the rhubarb. As another cook turns to watch, she runs her knife over a sharpening steel before unleashing it on the crimson stalks, dicing them with small, elegant motions into fragments so regular that they could have made a perfect mosaic.

She runs her knife over a sharpening steel before unleashing it on the crimson stalks. 

A waitress passes by on her way out to the dining room, carrying an order of Jerusalem-artichoke fritters topped with crisp baby artichokes. “Nash is on the books,” she tells Lo.

Lo stops mid-dice and, without a word, pulls out a black box stuffed with papers, clippings, and Post-its scribbled with intriguing words: fiddleheads, morels, black garlic, tripe. Inside is an inventory of many of the dishes she has served Nash, a regular customer who has eaten 339 meals at Annisa since record keeping began — not including his dozens of walk-in meals at the bar.

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