Over the summer, on three trips to the Bay Area, my culinary focus primarily shifted between farm-to-table and Asian restaurants, with my eye rarely resting on high end fare. However, on one Sunday night, my family and friend Matthew “Mattatouille” Kang started throwing out words like “Michelin,” and we hatched a plan to visit a high end Moroccan restaurant called Aziza, where self-taught, Marrakech-born chef-owner Mourad Lahlou has managed to increase his repertoire and reputation since opening in San Francisco’s outlying Richmond neighborhood in 2001. During our dinner, Lahlou more than honored the name, which is his mother’s and means “sweetheart” in Arabic.
The dining room didn’t submit to played out Moroccan conventions. There were no belly dancers or garish wall dressings, just simple blue and red walls, red glass chandeliers, arches, and black and white photos of horses. Plush booths and tables sported classic white tablecloths.
They organized the cocktail menu by base spirits, many with Moroccan accents. My subtly sweet Aperitif involved Santa Rosa Plum ($7) floc de Gascogne and angelika root. My father ordered an herbaceous, refreshing cocktail that they garnished with cilantro.
The tasting menu seemed reasonable at $75, but ordering it required the participation of the entire table. The four of us had the opportunity to share even more dishes, so we went a la carte.
It’s rare that an olive plate is actually worth $9, or a restaurant would even charge that much, but it was worth it at Aziza. Their Castelvetrano olives were probably my all-time favorites, served warm, and tossed with cumin, coriander, preserved lemon, raw almonds and rosemary.
Even the Spreads ($11) demonstrated imaginative plating, with a row of warm flatbread triangles on one side and three colorful dips, each with a slight twist, on the other, including tangy yogurt dill, red piquillo pepper with chopped almonds and smoky roasted eggplant with sherry vinegar.
For a change, roasted Beet salad ($13) avoided its played out partner – goat cheese – and gravitated toward sweet summer melon, purslane, a hint of chile and tangy, earthy ash yogurt, produced using ashes of charred leeks.
Lamb Cheeks ($13) were a rare misstep. Sure, they looked great, planted in a pool of bright green charmoula alongside firm roasted chanterelles and rings of crunchy onion. Unfortunately, the meat, known for its fat content and melt-in-your-mouth texture, was surprisingly tough.
The previous four days of eating was particularly intense, so the idea of keeping my entree meat-free seemed unusually appealing. Aziza offered a couple vegetarian mains, including my choice, Green Farro ($20). The bowl of nutty grains was graced with delicate squash blossoms, shaved zucchini – yellow and green – sesame seeds – black and white sesame – and bergamot, which added a floral citrus tinge. It was a fine plate of food, but really would have worked better as a side, and given the portion size, $20 was asking too much of diners.
My main felt lacking and motivated me to sneak bites from other plates. Chicken ($26) was especially good, with roulade sporting crispy skins. The juicy discs came with tomato, preserved lemon marmalade, beans – both string and tiny pastel green – eggplant and bastilla-like roll with spiced stuffing and a crispy phyllo shell. All too often, chicken gets dinged for being unimaginative, but not at Aziza.
Lamb Shank ($27) was the most traditional Moroccan dish on our table, with tender meat clinging to marrow-filled bones that rested on saffron stained barley that the chef embellished with sweet roasted onions and sweet, sticky prunes.
Pastry chef Melissa Chou created desserts like “Strawberry,” brilliant red strawberries cut like Life Savers, which arrived on the plate with rich, tangy goat cheese cream, hazelnut-bourbon ice cream and pieces of praline. Basically, this was nouveau strawberry shortcake, and a good one at that.
“Caramel Ice Cream” was our more geometric selection. A creamy brick of ice cream rested on a cookie square that adjoined fluffy white chocolate mousse, tiny squares of aromatic rose gelée and tayberry sorbet, a tart hybrid similar to a supercharged raspberry.
According to San Francisco Chronicle restaurant reporter Paolo Lucchesi, Aziza is moving to the Financial District. That’s probably a good idea, since they can get a more convenient location and a more contemporary design to better showcase Lahlou’s progressive cooking, which aside from a few plates elements, really impressed us.