5800 Geary Blvd.
Cross: 22nd Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94121
8, 2006 | SAN FRANCISCO
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
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.)
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.
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.
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.)
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
descriptions on the website, the first time I've seen this on
a restaurant site that I can recall.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.