Friends and I ate last week at Annisa and Blue Hill. Two of my friends, went, in addition, to Jean George (Tasting menu) and Aureole. Ill focus on Annisa and BH and also share my friends opinion about JG and Aureole.
We also went to two Queens ethnics - Sripraphai (Thai) & Rajdhani (Indian) - not included in this review. Not a bad week overall.
The proximity of the restaurants visits allowed us to compare and rate the culinary experience in all. The following rating is of the food only - disregarding décor, service & ambiance:
1. Jean George - Keeps its superiority
2. Blue Hill - Astonishingly good, fantastic, top tier.
3. Annisa - Good to very good.
4. Aureole - Disappointing
About the raters and the ratings
Five rated Annisa as very good. Three rated it as just good.
All (eight) rated Blue Hill significantly higher than Annisa.
All shared the opinion that Annisas deserts are two levels below the level its food (the impact of the deserts on the above rating is minor).
Four of the eight are savvy eaters that have experienced many cuisines around the world, from street food to the top restaurants. One is a part time food critic from abroad. Their ratings are factored with higher weights than the others.
At Annisa & Blue Hill we organized our tasting menu by ordering many dishes and sharing all. (We have not ordered the restaurants formal tasting menus. At BH the tasting menu was different than the regular menu). In JG my friends shared many dishes of the lunch tasting menu. At Aureole (diner) they shared regular dishes.
The rating is based on one visit to each restaurant not a professional sampling, but we all felt that we understood the food of each restaurant well enough to make our judgment.
Annisa & Blue Hill
We ate very good food at Annisa but less good than we expected based on Chowhounds & Zagats outstanding recommendations. Annisas deserts are second-rate.
We ate astonishingly good food at Blue Hill - better than we expected. The food and the deserts are stunning, the quality of the ingredients is of the top and the execution is impeccable. Blue Hill delivers culinary artistry of simple food preparation at its best (not really so simple though). Annisa food is of a lower, yet respectable, tier.
I feel a bit uncomfortable to place Annisa in an inferior position since its food is creative, good, honest and gained my respect but Blue Hills young chefs (Daniel Barber and Michael Anthony) are prodigies, with rare qualities, that cook better food. They already play among the second layer of the top tier chefs (JG, DB, Eric Rippert, Thomas Keller and such are the top of the top) and my impression is that they have the potential to go higher. They are already there with at least one dish Poached Foie Gras in duck consommé and root vegetables (this is an opinion of somebody who suffers from Foie Gras fatigue). Their Romaine Lettuce Soup with Meyer lemon, toasted walnuts and apples is an exercise of taste intensification and texture smoothing that works and displays skills of wizards. The Seafood Salad in a carrot-consommé with pickled Fennel and yogurt sorbet is another masterpiece. The Main Crabmeat Lasagna with grain mustard and mussel juice sauce is among the best crabmeat preparations that I have ever eaten. (See list of dishes below).
Blue Hills dinner was one of those you memorize for a long time as an exceptional culinary experience great achievement for what is perceived as a non-top-tier restaurant. Annisa visit ended up with just another good dinner we expected more than that. We will return to Blue Hill and more than once. We would return less to Annisa if at all. I hope Annisas admirers would continue to pack the place since it deserves it.
The décor seems to fit the culinary message of both restaurants. I prefer BHs décor. Annisas simple-stylish décor is nice but may look somewhat suspicious to hard-core food lovers (not my cup of tea). I wished that Annisas food that Zagats describes as Dynamite would break (gently) through the barriers of the décor but it didnt. Annisas food that we had was gently sophisticated, dynamite it was not.
The good things about Annisa
Annisas New American is effort-ly global (see the list of dishes that we ate below). The chef (Anita Lo) mixes local ingredients with exotic Asian and South American ingredients to create well executed dishes of contained spectrum of flavors released gently in your mouth (eat slow and small quantities). She succeeds to avoid falling into the fusion trap of an uncontrolled chaos of tastes. Her food preparation is intelligently creative and not just a showoff. If you could imagine a fusion rendition of cameric music you would understand Anitas food. It is the opposite of Mario Batalis excess and boldness, it is precise and not about overloads - portions are small, not extremely small though. Annisas deserts are two levels bellow its food except the simple but wonderful desert of Crispy sesame mochi with coconut & pineapple dipping sauces.
So, am I falling to a sort of a William Grimes trap of praising a restaurant and giving it a low score? Ill try to explain why not it is the league that a restaurant positions itself by the talents of its chef and the execution of these talents. BH chefs play in a higher league. The spectrum of tastes that BHs chefs create has a much wider span. They continue to explode in your mouth after Annisas tastes reach their limits. They fly higher and provide supreme food experience. Not just another good one.
BH's excellence is exposed along all its dishes, including the fantastic deserts. BH is about the ultimate sophistication of simple food preparation. It may sound like an oxymoron but it is not. BH chefs have that very rare and very deep understanding of the nature of tastes, how to intensify the taste of simple ingredients and to weave them together to create culinary masterpieces - without passing the extravaganza line (such as serving white truffles or heaps of caviar). They deepen the taste of each ingredient while combining all of them together without overwhelming one taste by the others, but by intensifying each by the others, creating a magical waterfall of tastes, delivered together and individually with high precision. The lettuce is more lettuce-y the carrot is more carroty, the root vegetables are more rooty, the pees are greener and all play together magically to deliver great meat and fish preparations. The results reflect culinary greatness. Brilliant food.
LIST OF DISHES TASTED
I would not describe each dish - Cabrales did it already in his series of mother of all reviews of Blue Hill go to his thread (see link below)
Annisas best dishes are marked with stars.
All Blue Hills dishes are superb. Those with stars are the spectacular ones.
ANNISA DISHES TASTED
Annisa - Appetizers
Unagi in salted egg yolk tempura with Meyer lemon
Roasted squash & Maitake Mushrooms with bitter chocolate.
* Ceviche of Tilefish with fig, anchovy & pistachio
* Fried oysters with buckwheat & caviar
* Seared foie gras with soup dumplings & Jicama
Annisa - Main dishes
** Miso marinated sable with crispy silken tofu in bonito broth
* Sautéed filet of skate with avocado, chili & iroquois corn
Butter poached wild salmon with Brussels sprouts & chestnuts
*** Lobster with steamer clams, artichoke & almonds
*** Pan roasted farm chicken with sherry, white truffle and pig feet
Crispy skinned breast of duck with piquillo peppers and migas.
Annisa - Deserts
** Crispy sesame mochi with coconut & pineapple dipping sauces
Yogurt panna cotta with dates & sweet cherry
Apple tart with caramel sauce and vanilla
Chocolate biscuit pudding with banana mousse
BLUE HILL DISHES TASTED
Small Plates of Row fish
Salmon belly, spicy carrot vinaigrette
Yellowtail Tuna, citrus-soy vinaigrette
Bass tartare, herring roe and mussel juice
Blue Hill Appetizers
*** Poached Foie Gras in duck consommé and root vegetables
** Romaine Lettuce Soup with Meyer lemon, toasted walnuts and apples
** Seafood Salad in a carrot-consommé with pickled Fennel and yogurt sorbet
** Main Crabmeat Lasagna with grain mustard and mussel juice sauce
** Spring Mushrooms braised and steamed with fingerling potato tart
Blue Hill Entrees
** Yellowtail, braised button mushrooms, brussel sprout leaves, herring roe and cauliflower sauce
Skate, pistou of spring vegetables in their own sauce with pureed basil
** Hudson Valley Grass fed veal, braised romaine lettuce and roasted fingerling potatoes
Poached duck, stew of organic carrots cooked in their own juice with toasted spices
** Grass Fed Lamb, leg and braised shoulder in cannelloni with pearl onions, spinach, salsify
Blue Hill Deserts
*** Passion Fruit Soufflé 10 minutes for maximum flavors
Mango, lime and banana with coconut tapioca
*** Apple baked 24 hours (?) do not remember the exact name
Other 2 desert that I havent written down.