Annie Caunt serves up enticing Asian-fusion cuisine in cozy, welcoming atmosphere
“That might be the best sushi I have ever tasted,” the man beside us said to his tablemate as my husband and I settled ourselves into one of the tables inside the cozy dining room of Annie’s Asian Grill.
In short order, we were in full agreement with the man, an ecology student at Chico State. But not just about the sushi at Annie’s, about everything we ate, from Japanese sushi and teriyaki, to Korean Bul Go Gi (bulgoki) and Gal Bi—marinated, mouthwatering, thinly sliced meat and rib dishes.
The food at Annie’s Asian Grill is a lively melding of several different food traditions—Korean, Japanese and Chicoan—into something more interesting and flavorful than any one of them on their own.
I have traveled through parts of Japan, and my husband and I traveled throughout Southeast Asia when we were in our mid-20s. Of the many travel lessons we learned, one was to never judge a guesthouse or restaurant by its outside appearance. Annie’s Asian Grill—founded and owned by Korean-born Annie Caunt and her American husband of close to 20 years, David Caunt—is inauspicious on the outside, but delicious and welcoming on the inside.
Walking into Annie’s, tucked in next to a gentle curve in Little Chico Creek off the main thoroughfare, diners are enveloped by a sense of hospitable, homey warmth. Many colorful, hand-sewn textiles embellish the intimate space, which is fragrant with the exotic cooking from the tiny kitchen. The main dining area opens onto a sweet, soothing, outdoor garden-patio with fountains, umbrellas and heaters. It is transporting.
Hospitality is a very important aspect to most Asian cultures. Annie takes her role of hostess very seriously. “Hospitality is most important,” the slender, soft-spoken Annie told us.
The Caunts moved to the Chico area in early 2006 to be closer to David’s parents, who live in Paradise. David grew up in the area and attended Chico State. Annie came to the United States with her father in the early 1970s. She and David met and were married in the mid-1990s.
After running a successful restaurant—Tasman Teriyaki—together in the Santa Clara area, they wanted to try a similar venture in Chico. In late 2006 Annie’s Asian Grill rose out of what had once been Café Nile (a hookah bar—and yes, to all of you longtime Chicoans, it was once Hot Tub Haven, as well. But you’ve transcended your youth, and Annie’s has thoroughly exorcised your humorous memories from this charming location.)
The sushi we had for lunch was delicious—notably a tsunami roll ($10.95), a cherry blossom roll ($10.95), and a California roll ($5.95)—all of them prepared and carefully presented on the plate by Japanese-born sushi chef Shige Kojima. But a succulent, fresh seared tuna with crispy garlic and ginger artfully arranged in an abalone shell ($7) stole our hearts, only to have them swayed again when the tangy chili-shrimp ($6) arrived. The house specialty, Korean Gal Bi (grilled marinated beef short-ribs, available as a lunch special with white or brown rice, miso soup and salad with homemade ginger dressing for $13.95) perhaps trumped all, though.
Our very friendly and attentive waitress, Cindy, served us the delicate and delicious Korean ribs, accompanied by large lettuce leaves and multiple little bowls filled with interesting condiments to combine with the ribs into a lettuce wrap. “All of the little bowls of condiments together are known as Ban Chan,” Annie explained, and the variety, quality and quantity of these condiments are a “gesture of hospitality to a guest.” Annie makes all of her own Ban Chan from things such as pickled beets, almost-Korean-alphabet-shaped pickled lotus pod and sesame-seed-coated black beans, and the display glittered and beckoned like jewels.
The feeling of homey hospitality and food made with heart infuses the whole atmosphere of Annie’s. Annie and David are almost always at the restaurant, and David’s parents are frequent visitors as well. On any given day, Annie’s is humming with regulars whose orders Cindy knows by heart. On one of my visits, a local artist ate and sketched in her notebook on the back patio; on another, a pair of young mothers popped in with their sleeping babies in carriers.
“We have been here now for five years and I could not do this alone—we all work hard together,” Annie said humbly.