BELLPORT—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 Asian- and French-influenced restaurant in Greenwich Village.
Anita has defeated Mario Batali on Iron Chef and competed in Top Chef Masters, 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 thought it would be too much work and 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, who had a degree in interior design, 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 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 fall 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 at 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.”
Occasionally some ingredient from Bellport heads west and ends up on the plate 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 summer 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 two met after Anita was featured in a magazine article about single chefs.
The kitchen opens onto the living room where, above a wood-burning stove, hang photos of dogs in a horizontal line.
Into an immersion blender fall garlic, chives, olive oil, clam juice, salt and pepper.
“I don’t like to clean up,” Lo starts, “But I like cooking out here. You have time…”
“And,” Utevsky continues the sentence, changing the pronoun, “we have space at home.”
A Bellport neighbor of German descent sometimes 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. It shows in the dishes she prepares for lunch. Built in the center of a wide white plate is a fall seafood salad; lipstick-tube-size fingers of smoked bluefish are draped 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, derived from the beets, a little paler than the tone of blood. Three snips of chive on top were cut from a garden out back near a swimming pool.
The beets blush in the mouth with an earthy fullness that stands nicely with the gamy meatiness and smoke of the fish. It is all cut across nicely by the acidity of the lemony, full-fat yogurt, a fragile dance that is somehow solid.
The kitchen has a few amenities most home kitchens 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.
In a den off the kitchen there is almost no furniture, as if someone took it all away. But a whole wall of kitchen 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.
Meanwhile, Anita plates 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.
Every Christmas Eve Anita and Anna share the “Feast of Seven Fishes,” eating seven different types of seafood. They do it wherever they are. Six of the varieties can change, but one is always urchin.
When well-fed visitors leave, it is darkening, and the air outside is still as if pinned by brittle reeds.
Allen Salkin is writing a book for G.P. Putnam’s Sons on the history of the Food Network, to be published in Fall 2013. He splits his time between New York City and Amagansett.