(This review appeared in South Bay Accent in March, 2010. Regretfully, Zitune closed in 2011. Here’s hoping the talented chef lands somewhere else soon.)
Moroccan cuisine is like dancing. As practiced by your uncoordinated cousin Wally, it’s entirely forgettable but when someone like Mikhail Baryshnikov leaps across the stage, it’s transporting. Most domestic Moroccan restaurants follow a theme of somewhat gloppy food eaten in semi-darkness with the fingers while belly dancers shimmy past periodically. And then there’s Zitune.
Frequently called the best restaurant in Los Altos by local foodies, Zitune marries the lusty, spice-driven flavors of Moroccan cuisine with the fresh, modern fare served in fine-dining establishments. Dancers, low cushions or keening music would be as odd in this sophisticated restaurant as paper hats on the servers. Chef Chafik Larobi — who owns Zitune with his wife Kim Auerbach — uses his considerable cooking skills to reinterpret and elevate his native cuisine into something creative, modern and utterly delicious.
After Culinary school and stints working with notable chefs like Gary Danko, Todd English and others, Larobi knows a thing or three about great cooking. Zitune –which means “olive” — features the pristine ingredients and attractive plating that are hallmarks of top restaurants. Meanwhile, the decor is contemporary and inviting.
After pouncing on the warm olive bread accompanied by hummus and flavorful eggplant spread, then slurping up a divine amuse bouche — a miniature bowl of ethereal mushroom soup drizzled with basil oil — we knew that this would be a Moroccan food experience like no other. Even the wine list — with an impressive by-the-glass offering — shows intelligence and care.
All the starters we tried were outstanding. Juicy lamb meatballs with sumac came with pita squares and little cups of cooling mint yogurt, more of the eggplant spread and a nicely tart goat cheese concoction. Larobi’s creative take on crab cakes paired the sweet shellfish with sage, butternut squash, root vegetables and spicy harissa aioli. A delectable olive tart included spinach, caramelized onions, cheese and tomato confit. But the brightest star in this delicious galaxy was a vegetarian version of famed bisteeya, a sweet/savory, flaky poultry pie.
The main courses were so good that we wished we had room for two apiece. Larobi takes Loch Duart salmon marinated in chermoula — a Moroccan pesto — and perches it on top of spinach , Israeli couscous and peppers surrounded by a lick-it-all-up saffron broth. His seared day-boat scallops were intriguingly spiced with star anise and nicely complimented parsnip mousseline and mushrooms. But even better, if that’s possible, was the amazing roasted Maine lobster. This showstopper was served in the shell and surrounded by potato puree, wild mushrooms, squash and asparagus, with an exotic vanilla sauce that enhanced and melded all the diverse ingredients.
Larobi’s skill was equally evident in the rest of the entrees. Boneless quail was stuffed with shimeji mushrooms and roasted. The deeply flavorful meat was a great counterpoint to a tasty, toothy pilaf featuring farro, a wheat-based grain . Another worthy poultry choice is Cornish hen, marinated in chermoula and served with mind-blowing gnocchi flavored with preserved lemon, a renowned Moroccan staple. Emerging as a much-ordered signature dish is lamb shank roasted with spices, prunes, honey and almonds until it’s fall-off-the-bone tender.
While Morocco isn’t known for its desserts, Larobi has been fiddling with the dessert menu since opening, notching the offerings up to the high level of the other courses. The flaky almond cake with orange blossom honey and lemon lavender ice cream was tasty, while even better was the super-moist, warm date cake with spiced hazelnuts in a pool of crème anglaise. Panna cotta (an addictive creamy gelatin dessert) was paired with persimmon sauce and pomegranate. Larobi makes a mean crème brûlée with a perfect sugar crust and biscotti on the side.
The young wait staff was appropriately attentive and helpful. We sat in the comfortable front room, which offers a view of the vaulted ceiling and open kitchen. Another room in the back is pretty but some patrons prefer the energy of the main room, where huge front windows display the downtown street scene. And blessedly, Zitune isn’t one of the many high-decibel restaurants in unfortunate vogue these days where talking to your companions induces hoarseness.
Larobi says that he was disappointed in how poorly his native food was executed in the United States when he first arrived. The diverse Moroccan history and culture with influences from Europe, the Middle East and Africa produced a complex, exciting cuisine. Zitune captures the thrill of this intensely flavored food but does so with a modern, refined sensibility.
Zitune, 325 Main St., Los Altos, (650) 947-0247, http://www.zitune.com
HOURS: Lunch, Monday-Friday, 11:30-2; dinner, Tuesday-Sunday, 5:30 to 10; Reservations suggested.
PRICES: Starters, $6.75-16.75; entrees, $16.25-28.50; desserts, $6.75-10.25.