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Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Aziza:Restaurant Review

I am so enamored of Morocco. It's the rich super-saturated colors and the flavors that appeal to me, I can't imagine it ever being bland or boring. I know I romanticize the place but I've never been, so indulge me. The closest I've been to Morocco is Aziza, a local restaurant that features contemporary and California interpretations of Moroccan food. I've eaten at Aziza three or four times since it opened a couple of years ago and it's the perfect place for celebrations, small or large.

The restaurant has a warm beautiful interior that breaks several spaces into cozy mini dining rooms. The colors are rich terra cotta, blues and golds that give the place an elegant and festive feeling from the moment you step inside. Your evening begins when rose water is offered to refresh your hands. The scent will transport you if the visual environment hasn't already.

The staff at Aziza is very professional and accommodating which is necessary because this is not the kind of place where you stop in for a quick bite. The menu is large but the wait staff is informed and willing to make suggestions along the way. I have to recommend dining "family-style" and ordering the five course chef's tasting menu ($39/person) because you will get a chance to try more items, and it is a friendlier more communal way to enjoy the experience. But even if you order off the regular menu, be sure to indulge in multiple appetizers, they are always wonderful.

At dinner this past Saturday night we had so many appetizers we could have a made a meal of them. There were bowls of a light lentil soup as well as a creamy celeriac soup, deliciously thick dips--balsamic eggplant, roasted pepper and pomegranate, and yogurt-dill, served along with freshly grilled flat bread. We enjoyed nibbles of grilled tender grass-fed beef and grape kebabs over a shredded cucumber salad dressed with a black sesame vinaigrette. One dish I kept digging into was a casserole of giant beans oven baked in a ras el hanout tomato puree, covered in shaved french feta, and doused with tuscan olive oil and a generous amount of minced garlic. Finally there was a baked goat cheese covered with a warm roasted tomato-argan oil compote served with long and crisp zaatar seasoned croutons. The appetizers will vary depending upon what the chef chooses that night, so don't be fooled into thinking that eating here once is enough!

After all the appetizers, came the best version of basteeya I've ever had. This is a phyllo "pie" filled with a chicken, almonds and dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon. Often it is too sweet and the chicken is dry, crumbly and flavorless, but here it was a great balance of sweet and savory and the chicken was moist and saffron scented.

I won't even go into the specifics of the main dishes we had, except to say the that a couple of the lamb dishes could have easily served two. Some of the main courses are more traditional than others, what they have in common is the use of local high-quality fresh ingredients that show off the creativity of chef Mourad Lahlou.

Finally dessert, the highlights were an intense huckleberry sorbet served with a yogurt and goat cheese soup and a napoleon of crisp phyllo spread with tangy meyer lemon curd and fluffy pastry cream mingled with blood orange segments and bergamot and tarragon essences. The two desserts were fresh, inventive plays on traditional themes, and a wonderful combination of textures and refreshing flavors. And that, in a nutshell, is Aziza.

5800 Geary Blvd @ 22nd Ave
San Francisco
Weds-Sun 5:30-10:30 pm