Photography by Michael Sharkey
Anita Lo is a woman self-possessed. In the airy dining room of her celebrated Manhattan restaurant, Annisa, she recounts her complicated biography with assurance: a tale of loss, hope, wonderings, and wanderings, the keystone always on the plate or in the bowl. “I come from a broken family on some level,” Lo says. “But the best part of growing up was always the food.”
Annisa is 14 years old. In New York dining years, that makes Lo’s West Village restaurant a venerable Galápagos tortoise in an ecosystem loaded with short-lived octopi. Lo knows that restaurants matter. “Food brings people together and makes them happy,” she notes. “And eating at Annisa is a way of traveling without having to actually travel.”
Lo is a Francophile: She lived in France for two years and had most of her culinary training in the world of French fine dining. So there is roast chicken with sherry and truffles on the current menu, as well as tête de veau. But because Lo’s curiosity is relentless, Annisa also celebrates silken tofu, Japanese dried fish, and sesame. Plenty of American chefs have dabbled with global influences. Lo, though, was an inadvertent trailblazer: Her long-standing curiosity was, in many ways, clairvoyance.
Her road to nearly a decade and a half in New York’s merciless restaurant scene has not been effortless. The acclaim for Annisa never wavered, even after the restaurant was shuttered for nine months between 2009 and 2010 by a brutal fire. But Lo’s expansion plans faltered. “At one point, I did want to have multiple restaurants,” says Lo. “It’s what you did as a chef. I tried it,” Lo guffaws knowingly, “and didn’t do particularly well.” Her Asian barbecue and raw bar Bar Q lasted only 10 short months during the late aughts.
These days, you’ll find Lo in the kitchen at Annisa most nights. Like its chef-owner, Annisa is stalwart but always changing. Lo recalls a recent trip to Senegal, where she discovered the earthy, fragrant selim pepper. She looks up, and a grin sprawls across her face. She begins describing the pepper’s taste and how it’s being used at Annisa. She’s exhilarated, as if she’s still that same food-obsessed teenager. “If you stop experimenting and learning,” she says, “you may as well just get out of the industry.”