No matter how many people I steer to this restaurant, it continually surprises me how few have eaten there. Trust me, people, it's worth that trek to the Richmond, which really isn't a trek at all (unless you are in a cab, in which case it would practically be the same price as going to the airport, but it's so worth it, darling). ~AZIZA~ is one of our city's gems, and is totally in my top five. I love the food the way I love Kokkari, or Zuni's—I don't even think twice about sending someone there. I've sent chefs to Aziza, restaurant publicists, lovebirds, parents, birthday gatherings, out-of-towners looking for something unique—everyone comes away happy. No easy feat in this town of picky palates and fleeting favorites.
Most people hear "Moroccan" and they immediately envision lounging on pillows like a pasha, a hussy belly dancer shaking her groove thang in your face while you pull on a hookah, and drinking mint tea. You can drop that caterpillar-from-Alice-in-Wonderland fantasy right now. Instead, Aziza is a contemporary Moroccan restaurant with California at its core, offering a more traditional sitting-upright-at-a-table dining experience. (The décor still rocks the Casbah, though.)
This sexy restaurant is composed of a couple rooms (plus a spacious private room in the back)—I prefer the dusky front room (especially if you're on a date), with its moody lighting and cozy blue suede booth or corner seating; but if I was in a large group, the back room would make more sense. There are touches of exotica, like inlaid wood tables set with flickering candles, chandeliers of red glass, and a two-tone patterned floor with Mucha-like swirls of flowers. Soft jazzy music plays (don't worry, we're not talking Kenny G or Zamfir), and the tone of the room has some vibrant pockets, but is never rambunctious.
It's time to acquaint yourself with Aziza's famous bar—you'd be hard-pressed to find more exotic cocktails anywhere in the City. I know, bold statement, but trust me, I have seen a lot of bars in this town (can I get an amen?!), and this one rocks ingredients like you rarely see—the lines where the drinks end and the food begins are definitely hazy, like the wispy curtains when you first walk in.
A fez fizz is a natural beginning, with champagne and pomegranate purée, but a couple cocktail champs are the "cilantro," an adult limeade that goes to Mexico, with lime and Hangar One Kaffir lime, or the tarragon caipirinha, with cachaça, lime and cardamom. I know, tarragon—not just for béarnaise anymore. I have a friend who adores the almond margarita, but another found it too cloying—just go with ingredients you know you like, but don't be afraid of trying the celery, vanilla, and peppercorn combo, either. This is one place you can definitely stick with cocktails throughout your dinner if you are so inclined, or inspired. I certainly was. Hic. (All the drinks are $10.)
Beer drinkers will utter a "Cheers, mate" with all the Belgian ales and Bavarian lagers—it's an admirable roundup. I've heard some kvetch about how tight the wine list is, but Wine Director Mark Ellenbogen (Slanted Door fans should recognize his name) seriously knows what he's doing, and he really knows his Rieslings. There are some high-acid Rieslings that pair perfectly with the flavorful dishes (yes, yes, I'll get to them in a second), plus some spicy reds—you can check out the wine descriptions on the website, the first time I've seen this on a restaurant site that I can recall.
Chef Mourad Lahlou's thoughtful menu reads like a who's who of Bay Area farmers and producers; his commitment to local and organic ingredients is not just a P.C. name-checking exercise—it really shows his love and respect for his craft and his ingredients. A native of Marrakech, and a self-taught chef, Lahlou’s modern and Cali-influenced take on Moroccan cuisine is unlike any Moroccan food you’re ever tasted before. So don't fill up on the fluffy sesame and anise-studded bread that comes to the table—easier said than done. The herby and citrusy olives are also dangerous.
On one visit, I was fortunate to be able stick my fork into a pile of tender Marin Roots fava beans ($7) accompanied by a fanning across the plate of alternating ricotta and fava-slathered toasts with a bright drizzle of peppery McEvoy olio nuovo. A refreshing starter is the avocado and pomelo salad ($7), another elegant fanning across the plate of perfectly ripe avocado, a small pile of peppery curly cress that I initially mistook for arugula, and peeled pomelo that was lightly salted, all drizzled with a citrus and shallot vinaigrette that wasn't shy.
Those who know can't resist the tender kefta skewers ($9), succulent bites of grilled Prather Ranch beef and grapes, with a cucumber and torpedo onion salad dressed with an unexpected black sesame vinaigrette. Most of the dishes are really built to share, like the Mediterranean spreads platter ($9) (wait until you taste the pomegranate and walnut spread, with flatbread that rivals Kokkari's), or the wedge of Bodega goat cheese ($9) that's delicious on the za'atar-dusted crostini that you top with cherry tomato and citrus jam holding hunks of pistachio (I would love to have a jar of this stuff). Trust, you will clear your (colorful and ceramic) plate—they alternate between soft hues like sandstone and terracotta and even Prussian blue, visually appealing backdrops for Lahlou's artful presentations.
Now, I try not to order the omnipresent rare-seared ahi tuna when I go out, but Aziza's longline-caught yellowfin tuna ($19) is a different beast: it comes with the most decadent and rich roasted tahini—it's just irresistible. The Tunisian salad with pine nuts, peppers, cucumber, tomato, and black olive makes a nicely acidic counterpoint. The guinea hen ($22) arrives moist and tender, with piped purple potatoes and sporting a spray of chive (which I found a little unnecessary—it's not a peacock), and an addictive savory-sour flavor of lemon, saffron, and black olives. A few of those ingredients appear in the black cod claypot ($18), which on one visit was a pleasing and piping-hot (literally, watch your mouth) combination of saffron, tender potatoes, and green olives, but on another visit the broth was so pungent with saffron it was almost like it was telling me to take my medicine, and the green olive flavor contributed to a wildly over-salted taste. Not sure what happened there—it needed to get dialed back from "eleven."
Vegetarians will adore the fluffy and buttery vegetable couscous ($15), with plump golden raisins, and fresh ingredients like squash, parsnips, and carrots that really shine—the vegetables are the picture of organic, and are cooked perfectly; harissa comes on the side. The pleasantly stew-like Berber vegetable tagine ($16) has a tangy ginger-sorrel broth, with a mouth-entertaining balance of sour and sweet, thanks to the appearances of ingredients like lemon, green beans, peas, and black olives.
Desserts from Janet Rikala Dalton (formerly at Postrio and Town Hall) continue the overall theme of total deliciousness, balancing a variety of flavors that harmonize like the Gay Men's Chorus. The raspberry-watermelon sorbet has a side of Maldon-salted watermelon and buttery shortbread cookies with raspberry jam that truly taste homemade, or the decidedly minty ice cream sandwich with almost cake-like chocolate brownie cookies and a chocolate dip in the middle—I liked the touch of the accompanying herbal tisane. All the desserts are $7.
True to its Moroccan roots, Aziza is a delightful place to relax, and indulge—there's even a five-course tasting menu for $42. It's one of the best deals in the City—you have the run of the menu, and it's downright generous. The only trick is you need your entire party to take part in the tasting menu—and they hopefully came with a good appetite.
Small little detail that is so clever: if you have any leftovers to bring home, your kind server places a petite picture frame on your table to remind you (and the server) to pick up your goodies before you leave. So smart.
5800 Geary Blvd.
Cross: 22nd Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94121