Itta Bena, named for B.B. King's Mississippi hometown, opened in August 2007 by the owners of B.B. King's Blues Club on Beale Street. Situated directly above the club, it's unmarked and accessible from the street via fire-escape stairs facing Second and a staircase inside the club — no elevator. The idea is to be a discreet, clubby restaurant/bar well above the hubbub of the entertainment district, with better food and tonier atmosphere than the rest of the street.
As a result Itta Bena has a secret, speakeasy feel, though its décor suggests a vintage warehouse outfitted for a party more than an elegant club. The ceilings are high and open, the paint is distressed in places, and the windows are covered in a blue film that turns night into twilight and absorbs color from the neon lights outside. There's a large bar, booths and tables with red tablecloths, and amber "ranchero" style light fixtures complete the decor. An intimate lounge area with TV is separated from the larger room with lacy Afghan-carved screens, as is a private dining area. >>>
The restaurant was soundproofed as much as it could be, but you can still hear and feel drumbeats from the bands downstairs.
The food at Itta Bena is American with Southern and/or Cajun accents to some of the dishes. That was in evidence in the skillet shrimp with spicy barbecue butter, one of the five appetizers we tried. These large shrimp had just the subtlest barbecue flavor, but the standout was the delicious seasoned broth. The mussels were also served in a tart, flavorful broth with roasted and raw garlic, diced tomato, and herbs. This refreshing version, as with the shrimp, made us regret we didn't get spoons to polish off the broth. The filet bites were actually a pair of tasty miniature hamburgers, with sliced filet instead of ground beef. The meat had a fresh-from-the-grill aroma, and was served on a homemade yeast roll with seasoned mayo, lettuce, and cherry tomato on the side. And speaking of the rolls, which were served with our meals as well, they were exceptional: house-made, sweet and yeasty, and fresh from the oven.
Sadly, the crabcakes were unremark-able: The shredded crab mixture mildly seasoned, browned on the outside and rather wet on the inside. Jumbo grilled scallops were certainly jumbo and flavorfully grilled, served with diced tomato and balsamic vinaigrette, though a bit underdone for my taste and gelatinous in the center.
We also sampled two soups. The she-crab soup was rich, with plenty of shredded crabmeat and a lively note of red pepper. The mushroom soup was ultra-thick with thyme and equally full of mushroom pieces. Unfortunately, both were overly salty.
The Itta Bena Signature Pasta consisted of angel hair pasta with a savory, thick, wild mushroom and Parmesan sauce, reminiscent of the soup, available plain or (for an extra charge) with chicken, beef filet, or shrimp. It was good, but not as sensational as one might expect a signature dish to be.
The pork chop was tender and juicy, with a cinnamon baked apple on top and a slightly sweet sauce. The mashed sweet potatoes on the side were tasty and fresh, but awfully fibrous. Our ribeye was tender and flavorful, cooked medium rare as ordered, with garlic-tinged mashed potatoes that had a satisfying waxy red-potato texture.
Pan-seared halibut was nicely cooked with a citrusy sauce and bits of roasted red pepper. As for jumbo shrimp and scallops with white cheddar grits, the shrimp was a bit overdone, the scallops a bit underdone, served with diced tomato in balsamic vinaigrette.
The special was ono (also known as wahoo, a close relative of the king mackerel), stuffed with crab and topped with Newburg sauce. It was slightly overcooked, and the accompanying rice mushy, but the sauce was lovely and creamy.
For dessert, we tried a Bavarian cream cake, which was nicely creamy but fairly bland. The chocolate lava cake was a small upside-down cupcake of a dessert with the stingiest squirt of "lava" in the middle — not very inspired. Good coffee would have helped, but the brew served was watery and weak.
The restaurant has a small wine list, and a full bar is available as well.
Service was a mixed bag. On our first visit the server was engaging but amateurish at the beginning, but as the meal went on, proved quite proficient. The timing of the courses was right on target, and when we asked for a break between appetizer and main course, we got it, yet our entrees didn't seem to have languished under heating lights. Water, bread, and wine glasses were well attended. On our second visit the server acted more professional at the beginning, yet timing was way off, with entrees arriving on top of the appetizer and salad. Other details were reasonably well attended.
Itta Bena succeeds in its mission to offer a clubby respite from the rowdiness of Beale Street, and does so with a speakeasy-in-a-cotton-warehouse style that is still very "Memphis." Menu standouts include the filet bites, the mussels, the perfectly cooked pork chop and ribeye, and of course the heavenly homemade yeast rolls. However, some of the cooking is just a bit off, with seafood underdone or overdone, the soups a bit too salty.
Still, the food is a refreshing cut above the typical Beale Street club fare of po'boys and gumbo, and the speakeasy atmosphere makes Itta Bena a lot of fun. M
Itta Bena 143 Beale 578-3031