Zen Fishing and Cooking with Anita Lo
From Manhattan to Moriches, we follow our love and inspiration for fishing and cooking!
Full disclosure: I had dinner at the restaurant Annisa, in Manhattan, and fell for Anita Lo. Her approach to restaurant design, service staff, menu writing, and even the plating of my first course of barbecued squid was simple, balanced and well thought out. The modern cream and white decor and peaceful aura of the dining room allows one to be present with the tasting experience.
My visit was so memorable that I bought her cookbook “Cooking Without Borders” from the floor staff and I read it on my train ride home. Not only was I delighted to find out that she was a crusader for balanced, diverse and sustainable food for all, but that she was also passionate about fishing and loved to “go off looking” for clams, hoping for striped bass, bluefish, fluke or flounder as she explored the waters of Moriches Bay near her house in a small Long Island town. As soon as I arrived home I sat down and wrote the her a note inviting her to spend a day fishing me and with my pal, fishing guide Jimmy Levison. A few days later she replied and we planned our trip. Always striving to make contact with chefs who inspire me, I thought that since Anita had a second home only 30 minutes from mine – this was a natural connection.
It was a surprise to find this quiet spot. East Moriches is just a half hour from my home in East Hampton. A secluded haven surrounded by small farm fields off the beaten path with long docks and traditional, modest boathouses connecting the property and Moriches Bay. This was my first Zen lesson on the trip: I’ve been driving past this place for years for the first time, I slowed down to take notice.
We started at 9am in a rising morning tide and set off from a dock just a few hundred yards from the first flat. Heading out in Captain Jim’s “Hewes Bayfisher” (a 16’ boat with an outboard engine designed for fishing the “flats”), the goal was to flat fish in shallow water where direct sunlight exposes fish that can be easily spotted as their shadows move across sandy bottoms.
We soon found an area of long stretched flats featuring shallow water on one side of the boat and deeper regions on the other side that might be holding fish. This would let us fish in two ways, call it our own “Yin Yang approach”. I could fly cast from the deck on the bow while Anita worked a spinning rig from the stern.
It’s important to keep in mind that the main reason one chooses to use a fly on the flats is to avoid spooking fish cruising in these shallow 3 foot waters (the fly lands on the water silently when properly presented). On the other hand, Anita as a spin caster throwing plugs might have better success blind casting in deeper water on the other side of the boat where fish could rise to hit the lure.
We had a perfect day; high sun, moving tide, gorgeous saltwater flats with bright, consistent sandy bottoms. But alas only one fish was spotted. As we moved toward the Coast Guard station with Moriches Bay Inlet behind us and a nice light breeze at our back, Jim spotted a large, heavy fish moving in a shallow channel to the right.
Following Jim’s lead, I saw the large striped bass coming toward the boat and with a second sweep loading the rod, I fired a cast 30 feet from the boat, coming up short. In the split second it took to reload the rod and cast again, we watched as the massive fish turned and swim away from the boat. So it goes in flats fishing, a cruising striper is a joy to see from the bow of a flats boat, a hog like creature that comes along rarely and I unfortunately missed my big chance.
Sobering remembrances of TWA flight 800 in 1996 and Zen-like fishing techniques
After another thirty minutes of fly casting, with the wind picking up, we decided to switch the method of fishing. This was new to me but it is Anita’s specialty: drifting with live bait. Armed with our pickel barrel filled with three live bait fish, we set out against the tide with the aim of drifting back through the channel along with the live bait hooked safely on the line and weighted down with small sinkers. So we headed out to the ocean side of the inlet sadly made famous as the closest point of access for attempting rescue after the fateful crash of TWA’s flight 800 in July of 1996. We talked briefly about the tragic story and how busy this small inlet must have been on that day and then we rode the last of the incoming tide in from the edge of the beach toward the bay.
In short time Anita had a fish on! I was taken back by her Zen-like style of fishing. Quietly and calmly she reported that the fish was drawing line from her reel. We’d been fishing for a few hours without a look, and now, as the tide drew our small boat toward the bay, Anita took her time to set the snelled hook.
No tugging in this method – you needed to FEEL that the larger fish had taken the live bait that held the hook. Once on, she slowly, cautiously reeled in the fish exhibiting very little emotion – limited excitement, maximum determination. As the fish neared the boat, we all identified it as a bluefish, and from the chefs description, just the right size for dinner.
On the third and final drift through the inlet, Anita once again felt her reel spinning a line off. Patiently holding the spool with her thumb and the rod tip to the water she took a breath, then raised the rod’s tip and allowed the hook to set. Quietly retrieving the fish, she smiled and said this one’s a little bigger. In time we saw a flash which was revealing stripes and once at the boat’s rail. We thought perhaps this bass was big enough to add to Anita’s creel.
Anita is a self proclaimed “meat fisherwoman” and Jim was aware that if she was to land a legal fish it would be caught for dinner. This one was just short, measuring at 25 inches (28 is the size limit) and I released the fish after a quick photo.
Simple, delicious elegance
As our day on the water ended, Anita kindly invited us to return to her small house where she and her companion Mary prepared a lovely nibble of grilled oysters. Again, as she had done at Annisa a few months earlier, she amazed me with delicious, simple, real food. A bag full of oysters to shuck superbly added to a bowl full of sweet butter mixed with shaved garlic, chives, parsley and lemon zest. She dipped into the herb butter with a teaspoon and dabbed each oyster with a touch of the yellow goodness. Then she transferred all oyster shells carefully onto the grill into her big Green Egg. In two minutes smoky, bubbly, grilled oysters emerged and were placed on a plate with piles of sea salt as a base for the shells.
Seldom does the sight and smell of simple food come together as perfectly as it did last Tuesday in Anita’s kitchen. Rarely have I met a person so comfortable and in control of all aspects of her daily experience. At the end of a perfect day on the water, having met a new friend, I can repeat simply and directly, I’ve fallen for Anita Lo.
Moriches Bay: June 13, 2017 | East Moriches, New York | Anita Lo | Jim Levison, guide