Billing itself as a Moroccan and Spanish tapas bar, Itto’s (4160 California Ave. S.W., 932-5039) opened in West Seattle to little fanfare last fall. That’s a shame because it is an undeniably charming spot, with a menu full of the expected as well as plenty of surprises. I admit I was skeptical—not only because I hadn’t heard much about it, but also because I’m burned out on “tapas,” particularly given that every restaurant, whether it claims the word or not, is serving small plates in that style.
But when I walked out of the thrashing rain and into Itto’s last Thursday, the quietly bustling candlelit room instantly soothed me. The surprisingly large menu is full of both solid traditional dishes—like lamb tagine (here served in a miniature tagine dish with English-muffin-size housemade semolina bread and a large braised fig) and meatballs in a dark, rich sauce with a hint of harissa topped with a soft poached egg on top—and less-predictable ones, like “squid steak”: Thin strips of it are marinated in milk, resulting in the tenderest squid I’ve ever encountered, with a texture like a firm yet pliant tofu. Capers and an avocado aioli give it a subtle, seductive zing, and I loved the cabbage slaw it rested on.
The server talked us into the beet salad, and I begrudgingly went along, expecting the ubiquitous sweet-ish beets with greens and goat cheese. Instead, the small, garnet-red chunks were bathed in a cumin vinaigrette that gave the root vegetable a new life. It’s the best beet preparation I’ve had in a long time. Unfortunately, the Moroccan lemon chicken was a bit of a letdown; the preserved lemon, which typically works miracles in almost anything it touches, failed to bring its trademark citrus brine and the chicken itself was overcooked. We were left with lots of broth and had to request extra bread to sop it up. Though tempted to try the Berbere burger (next time!), we instead opted for the vegetarian version; made with garbanzo beans and slathered with tomato, red cabbage, pickles, and a garlic-cilantro sauce, it was better than I’d expected, with a texture neither mushy nor dry. Stuffed dates get an interesting twist, wrapped not just in bacon but in eggplant as well. I loved the creaminess of the goat cheese in the center, and the taste of the eggplant subtly permeates each bite.
I don’t usually spend a lot of time detailing drinks, particularly given the proliferation of craft cocktails that often fail to live up to their price tag. But Itto’s has the bar on lock. My Moon Over Menara, with a gin base, was both refreshing and warming. With hibiscus cooler, fresh grapefruit, simple syrup, egg white, and a sage leaf, the distinctive herb infuses the sweet/sour concoction with its woodsy bite. Meanwhile, a friend tried the Marrakech Driver, a beautifully balanced, robust drink with star-anise infused rye, Cointreau, and chocolate bitters.
But what’s really special about this place is how low the prices are relative to the portions and the quality. Three of us shared at least eight plates, plus a couple rounds of drinks, and the bill was just over $100. West Seattle seems to be getting all the luck these days when it comes to restaurants. Do yourself a favor and don’t let a bridge stop you from nudging in on the territory.