BELLPORT, LONG ISLAND—The mailbox on the narrow leafy road is squat and green and on it is stenciled “Lo 15.” It stands in front of a modest brown-shingled house in Bellport, which belongs to Anita Lo, the renowned chef of Annisa, the 12-year-old contemporary American restaurant in the West Village.
Anita has competed in Top Chef Masters and defeated Mario Batali on Iron Chef, but she still cooks nightly at her restaurant. A house in the country did not originally fit into her plans. But lives are not always what we project them to be.
“I was reticent,” Lo recalls, setting a small pot down on her stove in Bellport, wearing a gray long-sleeved shirt, scrunched up at the sleeves, a white apron and brown jeans. “I need to go out to dinner in the city,” in the name of research and catching up with colleagues.
Still, Anita had come to visit a friend in Bellport and enjoyed the light and the sea. When she and her then-partner started feeling claustrophobic in the city, a decision presented itself about eight years ago.
“I had my 450-square-feet West Village apartment,” Lo says. “We needed more space. It was two shih tzus, two women and a restaurant three blocks away. The apartment upstairs was for sale, and it was half the price to buy a house than to buy that apartment.”
So she bought the house.
“My two requirements were to have a fireplace and to have water access,” Lo says. In season, she pulls a kayak from her garage and carries it about 40 yards along her deeded water access path through a stand of 10-foot-tall reeds. There she alights in the body of water called Puddle Cove and paddles toward Bird Island to dig for steamers and cherrystones.
She will also grab a rod and reel and cast out for baby bluefish, which she catches on little lures, brings into the house and sautés in brown butter with capers. There are two kayaks, one a tandem and one a single. Both are fitted with brackets for holding fishing rods.
Lo was raised in Detroit. Her father, born in Shanghai, died when she was three. One of her nannies was Hungarian and regularly cooked paprika-laced dishes for Lo, her stepfather and her mother, Malaysian. Annisa is Arabic for “women.”
In the foreword to her cookbook, Cooking Without Borders, Lo and co-author Charlotte Druckman, wrote of New York City:
“I’ve been eating and cooking here for 25 years and now consider myself a New Yorker. I’ve built a home for myself, and my cuisine, in the West Village. I am grateful to have been able to carve out my own niche in one of the world’s biggest urban epicenters. And that is what I think the American palate aspires to do—create its own unique cuisine…. This book is an assimilation of all those elements that contribute to my perspective on the wonderful, ever-shifting cultural chaos around me.”
On a recent afternoon, Lo prepares a late lunch for two visitors. Into a toaster oven go beets in red, pink and yellow from Early Girl Farm in East Moriches. Scurrying underfoot are two black-and-white dogs, Mochi and Adzuki.
Anita’s girlfriend Anna Utevsky sits up on the black soapstone kitchen counter in a brown chunky sweater and torn jeans, a blue bandana in her hair. Utevsky manages a café called Joe the Art of Coffee in the city and is a fiction writer. The two had driven out the night before, after dinner service. They’d gotten in late.
Lo is not only a restaurant overseer or a name associated with a hot spot. She is one of those who cooks, handling heat and pressure five nights a week. The good news is that from 12:30 a.m., when she and Anna got in the car in Manhattan, the drive to Bellport took only an hour and 15 minutes.
The steamers she is using today are from the Lobster Place in Chelsea Market. Anita is boiling them in water, nothing else.
“This is New England,” she says. “I’ll put the flavors in later.”
Into an immersion blender fall garlic, chives, olive oil, clam juice, salt and pepper.
Occasionally an ingredient from Bellport heads west and ends up on at Annisa, but when it does, it is not easy to recognize. “It always gets more complicated when it gets to the restaurant,” she explains.
Take squash. Before Anita saw the diversity at Early Girl Farm, she says, “I didn’t think of zucchini as fine dining, but when I saw all the different ones, I put them on [the menu].” A plate at Annisa offered two dazzling preparations: One side of the plate had a whole soft-shell crab with pan-roasted pieces of zucchini draped with lardo and sea urchin sauce. On the other side was zucchini cut into spaghetti shapes, heated with chili and lardo and served with whole pieces of sea urchin alongside a zucchini flower filled with crab meat.
There is a lot of action on those plates, a lot of effort and a lot of execution. One asks much of oneself to perform like that night after night. Creating a niche, a home of any kind, for some requires constant pressing.
As Lo cooks in Bellport, Utevsky slides off the counter, opens the refrigerator and grabs a pear juice in one of those squat clear little bottles sold not cheaply by Organic Avenue.
The kitchen has a few amenities most homes lack: above the stove, a big faucet can run water right into pots without the bother of heading to the sink, convenient for making soup and pasta. The space opens onto the living room where, above a wood-burning stove, hang photos of dogs in a horizontal line. In a den off the kitchen a whole wall of cabinets is filled with devices for making coffee: a white ceramic drip filter holder, a wood-neck pour-over pot, a French press, and, Anna explains, showing enthusiasm for her coffee-making fascination, for company, a vintage Chemex.
A Bellport neighbor of German descent used to bring food over. The woman, who has since passed away, cooked a hearty five-bean soup with Parmesan rinds and prosciutto. Sometimes Anita makes soup for the late woman’s widower, Jerry, bringing over a pot of avgolemono, a Greek chicken and rice soup with lemon and egg.
Cooking Without Borders features Lo’s all-world fusion approach to cuisine, a style that shows in the dishes she prepares for lunch. In the center of a wide white plate she builds a seafood salad; draping fingers of smoked bluefish over beets that rest on a dollop of Greek yogurt with lemon zest. Surrounding is a coronet of olive oil she dapples with tiny droplets of a red juice from the beets, just paler than blood. Three snips of chive were cut from a garden out back near a swimming pool.
Anita plates the wild striped bass with sunchokes and a steamer sauce with whole clams, their black-tipped tails matching the color of the gentle pan-char on the fish.
The beets blush in the mouth with an earthy fullness that stands well with the fish’s gamy meatiness and smoke. It is all cut by the acidity of the rich, lemony yogurt, a fragile dance that is somehow solid.
“I like cooking out here,” Lo starts. “You have time…”
“And,” Utevsky adds, “we have space.”
It is darkening and the air outside is still as if pinned by brittle reeds when the well-fed visitors leave. The two women will drink in the ocean air for another day before they head back to their 450 square feet in the city.
Allen Salkin’s book on the history of the Food Network is being published in October by G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Photo credit: Lindsay Morris & Lucy Schaeffer
Adapted from Anita Lo’s Cooking Without Borders
1 (1½-pound) whole black sea bass or other
white-fleshed fish, scaled and gutted
¼ cup thinly sliced scallion greens
1 heaping tablespoon finely julienned fresh ginger
¼ cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons peanut oil
Dash of sesame oil
Pinch of sugar
In a large pot, bring an inch of water to boil and insert a steamer rack. Score the fish in 2-inch intervals and transfer to a dish that fits inside the pot. Season the fish with salt and pepper and scatter the scallions and ginger inside and out.
In a small bowl, combine the remaining ingredients and pour over the fish. Place the dish with the fish on the rack above the boiling water and cover the pot. Cook until a knife can be easily inserted into the thickest part of the fish, 6 to 7 minutes.