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Aziza’s modern take on Moroccan food is fresher than ever

26 February 2009 1,324 views No Comment

After more than seven years in business, most restaurants settle into a predictable pattern – for good or bad. But at Aziza, a contemporary Moroccan restaurant in San Francisco’s Richmond District, chef-owner Mourad Lahlou shows the passion and drive of a chef just starting out.

I can’t think of another restaurant that has so transformed itself to come into its own.

Lahlou always has had a modern take on Moroccan food, but in the last few years he’s stepped it up. At Aziza, customers will find no belly dancing, no washing of hands with rose water or prodding by servers to eat with your hands as you might at a typical Moroccan restaurant. Instead, the service befits the upscale food.

While the decor has sophisticated Moorish styling, the food is contemporary, and many dishes are often served on white plates that could be at home at Gary Danko or Michael Mina.

The restaurant is more relaxed that either of those places, but Lahlou’s cooking is every bit as complex, and the prices are exceptional considering the talent. The five-course tasting menu is $55, and main courses a la carte start at $17 and top out at $26.

Shortly after diners sit down, wedges of warm, aromatic grilled flatbread come to the table, along with individual pats of house-churned butter, each garnished with a pink peppercorn. Lahlou makes just about everything on site and employs many of the new techniques that have become the rage.

His stunningly presented artichoke heart ($10) is arranged on an oversized plate with stacked cubes of Tibetan pear that’s been cooked sous vide style, along with a triangle of Parmigiano-Reggiano, parsley, capers and dots of pureed preserved lemons. Rich, earthy turnip soup ($8) is topped with a froth of coconut milk and cocoa nibs, a seemingly unlikely combination that somehow brings the flavors together.

Over the last few years Lahlou has perfected his style and technique. The traditional lentil soup ($7) has been on the menu since opening, but the flavor and presentation have been refined; the carrots are precisely diced to approximate the size of the lentils, for example. He skewers warm whole grapes, cipollini onions and the same-size spheres of ground seasoned meat for a meatball appetizer ($9) served with a julienne of jicama, green from a fragrant herbed vinaigrette.

The menu is written with the main ingredient on one side and a few ingredients on the other, which doesn’t capture the allure of the finished product. One main course is listed as “beef” followed by “couscous, carrot-tomato stew, brown butter” ($22). It turns out to be a beautiful amalgamation of beef cheeks on a delicious jam-like tomato, couscous and a glaze of brown butter that adds nuttiness.

Traditional flavors are front and center, but Lahlou continually reinvents the combinations and the presentations. Couscous with prawns, lamb sausage and cubes of chicken ($21) is a mound of the lightest couscous with precisely arranged meats over the top. Quail ($23), with a cumin-orange glaze, is butterflied and propped on a bread salad, with a neat pile of berries and a smear of purple sauce resembling the tail of a comet.

Melissa Chou’s desserts are just as well conceived and executed. Pomegranate granita caps an airy disk of rose parfait, topped with a frilly citrus-flavored tuille ($7.50). The Meyer lemon Napoleon ($8) consists of precise rectangles of custard between paper-thin sheets of nougatine; it’s served with little dices of salty preserved lemon and an intensely flavored huckleberry sorbet.

Then there are the ice cream sandwiches ($4 each), precise squares of gingersnap cookies with lime ice cream, or espresso with chocolate wafers.

From the inventive artisan cocktails to the final bite of dessert, Aziza offers a seamless experience. The restaurant honors the passion of its owners, and Lahlou and Chou are creating some of the most exciting food I’ve had in years.


5800 Geary Blvd. (at 22nd Avenue), San Francisco

(415) 752-2222 or aziza-sf.com

Dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Wednesday-Monday. Full bar. Reservations and credit cards accepted. Valet $10.

Service Rating: THREE STARS
Atmosphere Rating: TWO AND A HALF STARS
Prices $$$
Noise Rating Noise Rating: THREE BELLS


FOUR STARS = Extraordinary; THREE STARS = Excellent; TWO STARS = Good; ONE STAR = Fair; NO STARS = Poor

$ = Inexpensive: entrees $10 and under; $$ = Moderate: $11-$17; $$$ = Expensive: $18-$24; $$$$ = Very Expensive: more than $25

ONE BELL = Pleasantly quiet (less than 65 decibels); TWO BELLS = Can talk easily (65-70); THREE BELLS = Talking normally gets difficult (70-75); FOUR BELLS = Can talk only in raised voices (75-80); BOMB = Too noisy for normal conversation (80+)

Prices are based on main courses. When entrees fall between these categories, the prices of appetizers help determine the dollar ratings. Chronicle critics make every attempt to remain anonymous. All meals are paid for by The Chronicle. Star ratings are based on a minimum of three visits. Ratings are updated continually based on at least one revisit.

Reviewers: Michael Bauer (M.B.), Tara Duggan (T.D.), Mandy Erickson (M.E.), Amanda Gold (A.G.), Miriam Morgan (M.M.), Carol Ness (C.N.), Karola Saekel (K.M.S.) and Carey Sweet (C.S.)

Michael Bauer is The Chronicle’s restaurant critic. You can e-mail him at mbauer@sfchronicle.com, and read his blog and previous reviews on sfgate.com/food.

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