I owe the name of this column to the irrepressible Regina Varolli, who writes about food for the Huffington Post. Regina is always passionate about something and in a hurry to see and taste it. But, in a moment of great patience after we were introduced at a convention of foodies and foodmakers, she repressed her vivacity and politely asked what I did for a living. I tried to be succinct: I said I was in charge of, among other things, sending Time magazine reporters to war zones and extricating them when their assignments were over. I added that, for lack of a budget to pay someone else to do the job, I had also been handed the mixology beat. “So,” Regina smiled, “you’re the cocktails-and-carnage correspondent for Time.” Having found a niche into which to slot me, she turned her attention to pastries.
From about the turn of the millennium to May 2013, I was Time’s News Director, overseeing coverage of everything from politics, crime, terrorist attacks, global diplomacy, regional and religious strife, war, natural disaster, scandal and assorted mayhem. I was also, by avocation, one of the magazine’s resident foodies—always on the lookout for the newest restaurants, the ranking of chefs around the world, the latest trends in gastronomy. I have left my job at Time, but I remain a news-and-calorie junkie. Cocktails and Carnage will be a weekly ode to those twin obsessions—each Thursday a new conversation with someone who holds my interest or esteem, set in various dining and drinking waypoints throughout New York City. It will be all about how dining—be it in temples of haute cuisine, fancy dives, pubs or roadside stalls—allows us to digest and absorb the ruckus beyond the confines of the eatery. It will be less about explication than emotion and memory.
To show you what I mean, let me take you to one of my favorite places in New York City. How it came to be so is not a pretty story.
You find Annisa by heading south on 7th Avenue toward the adamantine needle of the Freedom Tower, which should loom before you until you make a left onto an alley-like stretch of Barrow Street in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. In a former time, your compass would have been the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. But they were destroyed on 9/11. In the aftermath of the attack, I traveled at least once a week as far as the barricaded streets would allow in order to see or sense their remains—to assuage my need to bear witness as a journalist as well as to pay tribute to the dead, as a New Yorker.
As night fell on those first trips toward Ground Zero, I would search for places to eat. Once the authorities let people down below 14th Street, some of the best restaurants in the city were again available to New Yorkers longing to recover as much of their pre-9/11 lives as possible. One night, I happened upon a stool at the six-seat bar at Annisa–a small restaurant with an elegant minimalist décor and an elevated gastronomy. The bartender was an actress named Gabrielle Cran, with both Canadian and Midwestern roots, warm and vital and funny. Her welcoming presence opened up the beauties of restaurant: the flavors and textures of Anita Lo’s cooking and the hospitality of the front of the house run by Jennifer Scism, who was Lo’s partner at the time.
Annisa is how I started to make New York feel like home again after 9/11. The food had a lot to do with it. Chef Lo is Chinese-American but her culinary training is French and her influences are global in the best way that “New American” cuisine is all about—diversities that fuse into something cosmopolitan, sort of how New York shapes people from all over the world into citizens of one city, where no one is identical but everyone shares an identity, making everyone belong. For the last dozen years, you’d have found me at Annisa once or twice a week. It had made me belong too.
While Annisa was a refuge from work, the news still swept in to find me.
I would take sources to Annisa; I’d bring potential hires and colleagues as well. I’d judge them all by how they reacted to the food and the atmosphere, whether they were kind to the staff or ignored them or worse. I would eavesdrop on famous people at the bar. I’d also run into the obnoxious or deranged there as well and have to learn to deal with them. (“Do not engage,” a manager once texted me when I sat myself down next to a woman on the verge).
Restaurants are by their nature public places. And so, while Annisa was a refuge from work, the news still swept in to find me. On Wednesday evening March 19, 2003, I was at the bar, just starting dinner, when I received a call saying that the shock-and-awe phase of the Gulf war had begun with the bombing of Baghdad. I announced it to Jennifer who suddenly turned the heat on the kitchen and I was served the fastest food ever churned out by a fine-dining staff. She wrapped the dessert in a large cloth napkin and I jumped into a cab. I munched on Annisa’s famous sesame coated fried mochi back at Time’s Rockefeller Center headquarters while marshaling the magazine’s reporting assets in preparation for the invasion of Iraq.
The restaurant quickly locked the door and called 911.
While the news has swept me out of Annisa on more than one occasion, the world too has been swept into the restaurant. On the night of Friday May 17, 2013, a man who had been pissing on the sidewalk in view of the restaurant’s plate glass windows strode into the bar after being admonished to zip up and relieve himself elsewhere. In a low but menacing voice and standing at the corner of the bar where I often sat, he accosted my friend the bartender and opened his hoodie just enough to show that he had a gun. My friend maintained a courageous calm and, after a few long minutes of confrontation, the intruder left. The restaurant quickly locked the door and called 911. But the gunman had moved on to another target a couple of blocks away, shooting to death a 32-year old gay man named Mark Carson after harassing him with homophobic slurs.
Three days later, I joined my friends from the restaurant at a march through the Village. It was organized to commemorate Carson but for the band from Annisa, the event was almost ritualistic, an attempt to exorcise imaginings of what might have happened if the gunman had refused to leave the restaurant.
And so, Cocktails and Carnage will be more than alliteration. We go out to dine to find sanctuary from the world—even though we know the world will come calling. Until that happens, we may as well try to make sense of it all in the most civilized way possible: let’s eat, drink and make conversation.
In the coming weeks, this column will take you to other restaurants, of course. But you will still be able find me at Annisa. I try to sit and eat in that particular corner of the bar when I can, if only to conquer it from its terrifying recent history, to make it home again. Welcome to my niche.