CHOW Tour
Two CHOW editors on a caloric extravaganza exploring innovation, novelty, and deliciousness. rss
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Moroccan Food Without Kitsch

San Francisco restaurant Aziza has incredible food, a Michelin star, an Iron Chef–winning chef, and a gorgeous, sexy interior. And yet, after eating there and raving about it to friends and co-workers, the response was generally, “Oh I’ve been meaning to get there. So you really liked it?” Maybe because it’s out in the fog-obscured, bad-parking-cursed Richmond District, or maybe because it’s continuously represented as a "Moroccan restaurant," which for many people conjures up images of syrupy-sweet bastila and belly dancing. The truth is, Aziza is as far from the kitschy Americanized version of Moroccan food as you can get. In fact, though Chef Mourad Lahlou was born and raised in Marrakesh, his native cuisine is more of an inspiration for one of the most creative menus around.

The restaurant is big, but feels intimate, with several dining areas separated like rooms of a house. In our portion, giant red glass chandeliers glowed, and the walls were painted rich orange and blue hues.

The meal started with an amuse bouche of harissa pretzel rolls: warm, soft, and cumin-y, with melted butter brushed on top. The menu encourages sharing, with an extremely inventive appetizer section heavy on interesting vegetable preparations. Lahlou is an acolyte of Alice Waters, and uses local, organic produce.

Our server recommended we order a weird-sounding appetizer of fresh corn with salmon roe and toy box tomatoes, which was surprisingly delicious. The roe and the corn kernels were about the same size, which made for an interesting textural experience, and the creamy corn was nicely enhanced by the pop of salty juice from the fish eggs and the fruity-acidy peeled tomatoes.

Hard to believe hummus, red pepper, and yogurt dips could be exciting, but Aziza’s interpretation, dolloped on a plate in vivid paisley shapes, was emphatically rich, earthy, and zingy. We scooped them up completely on a generous supply of grilled flatbread.

Baby yellow zucchini, cooked al dente and perched in a Stone Henge–esque formation atop a creamy emulsion of bone marrow, was ultrasavory. Discs of savory green charmoula bread pudding provided a snacky element, and sprinkled black urfa pepper, commonly used in Mediterranean food but not often seen here, gave the dish a mysterious, hard-to-place aromatic.

Our first entrée, a velvety piece of black cod, arrived on a buttery, saffron-infused foam that made it appear to be floating on a gentle breaker. It came with meaty slices of octopus. In another dish, lamb chops with morel mushrooms, corn, and sweet onion were surrounded by cubes of what looked like the lamb version of pork belly: crispy skin and falling-apart, unctuous meat. The lamb was intensely flavored with a demiglace reduction: meaty, and slightly sweet, almost like Chinese barbecue.

The most impressive dish of the night, however, was a vegetarian number constructed around porcini mushrooms. Beige, savory porcini purée was the base, followed by raw, shaved porcini and big, meaty hunks of cooked porcini that at times seemed almost like chicken. Layered over and around this mushroom assemblage were braised baby lettuces and orange nasturtium flowers. A soft-cooked egg lay on top of that, designed to be pierced, oozing its bright yolk like a surreal waterfall over the tower of colorful vegetation. Eating this dish was sensual, exciting, and tactile, as you found new shapes in every bite, and the flavor was an umami bomb.

Desserts by talented pastry chef Melissa Chou held their own. A blackberry mousse with lemon verbena ice cream delivered summer flavors, but in a form more normally associated with chocolate desserts. A plum sorbet was refreshingly tart and interestingly floral, served with a warm, almond-paste-flavored soft cake and black-cardamom-flavored yogurt.

The service, it should be noted, was excellent. Our table was being pretty annoying taking flash photographs and disrupting the dim, sultry atmosphere. But our server patiently held plates, waiting for us to finish. She flashed a look of real sympathy when she accidentally showed up just as one of our party was showing off a nasty skin rash, and during the dessert course she honored another of our party's childish request for a glass of "tall frosty milk" as if it were perfectly normal.

If Aziza were in a different part of town (on the Embarcadero, in the Mission District), you would never be able to get a reservation. Thank goodness so many San Franciscans view the Avenues as a sort of beach version of Siberia. This inventive, ultimate date spot can live on as a secret weapon.