Restaurant: Aziza (A la carte menu)
Cuisine: Moroccan/New American/Mediterranean
Last visited: May 6, 2013
Location: San Francisco, CA (Outer Richmond)
Address: 5800 Geary Blvd
Phone: (415) 752-2222
Transit: Geary Blvd & 22nd Ave
Price Range: $30-50+ ($25-35 mains)
1: Poor 2: OK 3: Good 4: Very good 5: Excellent 6: FMF Must Try!
Food: 4.5 (based on what I tried)
- Chef/Owner Mourad Lahlou
- Innovative New Moroccan cuisine
- 1 Michelin Star
- Critically acclaimed
- Local and global ingredients
- Seasonal menus
- Chef Tasting Menus
- Cocktail/wine program
- Reservations recommended
- Wed-Mon 5:30–10:30 pm
- Closed Tuesday
- Twitter: @AzizaSF
**Recommendations: The 13 course Chef’s Tasting Menu ($95/person) was more impressive than the a la carte, although the a la carte was still very good. The cocktails and dessert menu should not be missed. If you’re ordering a la carte try the Lentil Soup, Sardines, and Duck Confit Basteeya. The desserts change often and according to season, but on the current menu I recommend the Almond-Honey Semifreddo.
It’s a 1 Michelin Star upscale restaurant featuring new Moroccan cuisine, and it was unexpected to find it on this street corner. The sign didn’t really shout “upscale” and from the outside it looked a bit shady, but I knew what I was getting myself in to. I knew well in advance too, as to why I even made reservations a week early. It is not a restaurant you just happen to walk by, it is restaurant you make plans to visit.
The Richmond District is populated with Chinese and Russian immigrants and mom and pop type ethnic eateries (mostly Asian) which dominate the area. Aziza is located in Outer Richmond which is the up and coming part of the Richmond District, as opposed to the inner part which is already full of restaurants.
It opened in 2001 and the love for it has only grown stronger. It won reviews from local media early on and has been on the James Beard Award radar most recently. It received James Beard Award nominations for Aziza, Mourad, and his Pastry Chef Melissa Chou, and the restaurant and team is still on the rise.
It is not easy to stay in the spotlight after opening for over 10 years (especially for modern restaurants like this), but Aziza must be doing something right or the hype would have died a long time ago. It still remains a neighbourhood gem and attracts locals and traveling food enthusiasts alike.
Follow Me Foodie to San Francisco started at Aziza and I was off to a good start. The restaurant was more pleasant once inside and it was a lot bigger than expected. There are 3 separate rooms, each uniquely themed, but still Moroccan inspired. It had the white tablecloths and the service was formal, but the room was trendy and not as committed to traditional fine dining quality. It was stylish and sophisticated, but not ritzy or rich.
Before I dwell into the food, I have to state my biases. I actually met Mourad last year at West Restaurant when he was invited as a guest chef. He prepared a New Moroccan Menu and I wrote about the experience here. It can be tricky writing about food when you become friends with the chef, but there is a mutual understanding and respect. Regardless it is not the first time I’ve done it, and if you’re familiar with this blog then you already trust it or you don’t.
I can’t say I’ve had much experience with Moroccan cuisine let alone “New Moroccan” cuisine. I refuse to put it under the umbrella categories of Middle Eastern or African food just because it isn’t specific enough. I find it deserving of its own category. Nonetheless I don’t have many point of references for how Mourad’s dishes came to be, but based on reading his book and trying his food, I could see his intentions.
More often than not I would order a Tasting Menu (not a price fixe menu), but I was anticipating a Tasting Menu at benu the next day and I didn’t want to suffer from palate fatigue. (Omg, did I really just say that?! First world problems.) I know it sounds silly, but it’s true. Sometimes overindulgence can ruin an experience. So I ended up ordering from the a la carte menu, but Chef was kind enough to send out some items from his Chef’s Tasting Menu.
Although I preferred the Chef’s Tasting Menu (even only after trying 1/3 of it), I am glad I got to try the a la carte items too. It gave me a better idea of how to maneuver the menu. Mourad’s creativity is best expressed in his Tasting Menu and I wasn’t expecting it to get as intense as it did. He is a real chef who is passionate about cooking and the menu was progressive, artistic, and innovative.
The Tasting Menu was riskier and more exciting than the a la carte menu, and without trying the Tasting Menu I would have missed out. It wouldn’t have been bad, but I wouldn’t have been surprised and my dining experience would not have reached full potential. The Tasting Menu was more suited for my tastes and dining style.
While both menus featured New Moroccan cuisine, the flavours of Morocco were not always obvious. This is his style though and how he approaches Moroccan cuisine.
The dishes are inspired by traditional dishes, but the spices and flavours are lighter and toned down with spices. It isn’t watered down because his reason for using less spices isn’t to cater to the majority, but it is to showcase the flavour profile of each spice by not using them excessively or mixing around too many. The theory may be unfamiliar to purists of traditional Moroccan cuisine, but Mourad is not one to play by rules as to why he also emphasizes Aziza as a “New Moroccan” restaurant.
Although Aziza is known as the first Moroccan restaurant to receive a Michelin Star, I wouldn’t celebrate it as that. Some of the Tasting Menu courses seemed New American and I was more intrigued with Mourad’s creativity and techniques than I was with his “New Moroccan” flavours.
The food was delicate, light with sauces, and clean in presentation. Both menus used Moroccan and Californian ingredients, but the Tasting Menu in particular was executed with very carefully selected ingredients which were well highlighted.
Mourad’s personality came out in the Tasting Menu and it showed who he was as a chef. It offered a sense of discovery and experience. Aziza is an unique and welcomed addition to the neighbourhood, but it is no ordinary neighbourhood restaurant. The room feels more Moroccan than the food, but the carefully put together menu speaks of a strong team.
If it hasn’t gotten comfortable over 10 years and it is still getting deserved recognition, then it hasn’t even peaked. Not to mention North America still hasn’t embraced Moroccan cuisine, so at this point Aziza is ahead of the game and almost before its time. I didn’t find an excellent Moroccan restaurant in San Francisco by coming here, but I found a talented and confident Chef, an experienced team, and restaurant original to San Francisco.
On the table:
See my post for Aziza’s Chef’s Tasting Menu
The following dishes are from Aziza’s a la carte menu.
- The innovative cocktail menu is worth exploring alone.
- All cocktails are made with muddled herbs, vegetables, fruits and spices and they take a bit longer to prepare.
- This one was sweet, sour and then subtly spicy – in that order too.
- There was gentle heat from the turmeric root which has a gingery flavour.
- I thought it would be more savoury, but it wasn’t.
- It was refreshing, and zesty with flavours of lime and lemon.
- It was a smooth tequila and even non-tequila fans could warm up to this.
- Spring Onion, Rye, Radish, Fiddlehead Fern, Spinach, Ash $15
- I feel like I just saw half of the people reading this scrunch their nose… well if you’re reading this blog maybe less than half, but still.
- Sardines. You love them or you hate them. Guess which side I’m on?
- Sardines are sustainable, low on the food chain (meaning they have little contaminants and mercury), and they’re super high in omega-3′s. What’s not to love? The flavour? Nah. Get your mind away from canned sardines (even though I don’t mind those either), the fresh ones are totally different. They’re delicious.
- This appetizer had 3 boneless fillets of beautiful local Monterey Bay sardines.
- These under appreciated fish were gently folded and well highlighted. I loved the presentation.
- This dish was more Mediterranean-Californian than Moroccan though.
- The sardines were marinated and blanched, fresh tasting, a bit salty, juicy, mildly pickled, not fishy, and clean in flavour.
- The high quality sardines were the star of the show and heavier than the weight of the crackers.
- The rye crackers were thin, crunchy and crisp and they played a roll in texture and gave the dish a nutty flavour.
- It was almost salad like and it could have been boring, but he used interesting farm fresh spring vegetables.
- It had thinly shaved slices of black and red radish, Peruvian red radishes, red spinach, fiddlehead ferns, and onion ash.
- Onion ash on herring is something Rene Redzepi of Scandinavian restaurant Noma (now “#2 Best Restaurant in the World”) pioneered, so this was likely inspired by that concept.
- The onion ash sprinkle was undetectable, but it was supposed to give smoky bitter flavours to the sardines.
- The “dressing” was dollops of green garlic puree which tasted like a mild and light herb sauce.
- I wouldn’t have minded something stronger like a chermoula sauce because the sardines were not that salty and the veggies au natural.
- Fried sardines stuffed with chermoula is also traditional Moroccan food so it would suit the theme.
- It was a very delicate and almost under seasoned dish, but it let the quality of the sardines shine and I loved that.
- Raisin, Almond $23 (available as appetizer, half portion shown in photo)
- This is one of Aziza’s signature dishes as to why I recommend it.
- I had a version of his Basteeya at his Guest Chef dinner at West last year – see here, but this was another version.
- Basteeya is native to Morocco and known as Moroccan Chicken Pot Pie.
- It is labour intensive and made for special occasions because it’s a 2 day process.
- I haven’t tried an authentic Basteeya so do not have an original to draw reference from.
- The traditional version looks like a giant wheel of cheese wrapped in phyllo.
- It’s supposed to be an equally sweet and savoury dish which is a combination I love.
- This version was not a traditional Basteeya and it seemed unexpectedly simpler.
- Traditionally basteeya is made with chicken, but it was “upgraded” to duck in Mourad’s New Moroccan version.
- It was sweet, tender and moist duck confit wrapped in a thin, light, crisp and flaky phyllo dough.
- There was no skimping on the duck and it wasn’t filler or stuffing like at all.
- The duck was sweet from caramelized onions and seasoned with Moroccan spices like cinnamon, cloves and coriander.
- I was actually hoping for more layers and textures of raisins and almonds.
- The almonds were ground and the raisins seemed melted and undetectable in texture.
- The duck was sauteed in a sweet sauce and the raisins seemed like they got lost in it.
- It was spring roll like and a traditional basteeya seemed more complex, but this still tasted very good.
- It was very rich and buttery in flavour being duck confit, so it was balanced with cooling components on the side.
- The raw sour plums were crunchy and tart, but not sour.
- There was also some sour plum puree to eat with the basteeya.
- I could have used a bit more sour plum puree to finish the basteeya with, and it was actually my first time having green plums with duck.
- Sour cherry, red plum, fig or prunes are classic French accompaniments to duck, so this played on that.
- Lastly there were some fresh green almonds (delicacy; since they only appear for 8 weeks in the Spring).
- They were removed from their shells and possibly compressed and moist.
- They tasted like lily bulbs or water chestnuts and looked like cloves of garlic.
- I enjoyed the dish, but it almost seemed too simplified and I just wanted more layers in the stuffing although it was still flavourful.
- Cauliflower, Lime Yogurt, Hazelnut $33
- I had to order a lamb course at a Moroccan restaurant.
- It seemed like a modern interpretation of a lamb tagine.
- The lamb was sous vide and roasted upon order and I requested it medium rare.
- The meat was a bit chewy though and it didn’t seem quite marinated.
- It was a bit gamey tasting, but not overly so and I am sensitive to game.
- Instead of traditional cous cous it was served over cauliflower which was executed like cous cous.
- I loved the nutty diced cauliflower and I think it was sauteed in brown butter.
- It would be even better more crispy because they were still quite crunchy and firm.
- It would be nice to have some almonds and raisins mixed in to be more like a cous cous, but it was still good.
- The description said “hazelnut“, but I’m not sure where they were on the plate and I couldn’t taste them.
- The lime yogurt puree (brown in colour) tasted like a savoury, creamy rich mushroom puree.
- The lamb belly and puree were my favourite parts of the dish and the puree had an intense umami (savoury flavour).
- The umami was not from mushrooms though, it was from sweet caramelized onions and perhaps some brown butter.
- It didn’t really taste like yogurt and I think the lime was dry lime (common Middle Eastern ingredient for soups and stews).
- The puree had a mild acidity, but it was the sauce to the lamb and cauliflower.
- It was thicker to almost compensate for a Morrocan lamb tagine or stew.
- Often yogurt or raita finishes a traditional tagine, so this puree played with that idea.
- There was a single char-grilled scallion draped in the centre which gave the dish some sweetness.
- The sweetly glazed lamb belly was incredible. It almost always is if executed well.
- It was only a small piece, which is good because it is so decadent.
- I enjoyed this more than the lamb loin and it was much richer and more flavourful being the belly.
- It was surprisingly not fatty for being belly and much of the fat had rendered.
- I’m quite sure it was sous vide and it was falling apart nicely.
- The exciting part of the dish was the puree and the rest was more common although still good.
- Potato, Chard, Smoked Date, Duck Liver, Granola $31
- I wasn’t going to order another duck dish, but this is incomparable to the basteeya.
- The duck was sous vide and roasted to a medium rare (as requested).
- I probably should have requested this medium though because under cooked duck is safe to eat, but tends to be a bit chewy.
- It was only duck breast and I was hoping for duck leg, but I think that was used all for the basteeya.
- Again the meat wasn’t spiced with obvious Moroccan flavours and it was quite as is like the lamb.
- It was still good quality duck and the fat was incredibly well rendered and almost completely gone.
- Fat is flavour, but it can be excessive on duck and in this case it was actually cut off and used in the granola. It was confit granola.
- The granola was savoury and meaty and it tasted like it was made with hemp seeds, toasted rye crumbs, pumpkin seeds, and ground cornflakes.
- I’m sure there were no cornflakes, but it tasted like it.
- There was some ground pistachio too, but not much and overall it tasted very seedy and breadcrumb like in texture.
- It was very lightly sweetened, savoury and subtly spicy granola.
- It was not really sweet or savoury enough though and it could have been more of both.
- I could have used more granola for the amount of duck and potatoes too. It was good for texture, but the flavour was okay.
- There was a very small amount of smoked date puree which was the sweet condiment for the duck, but again I needed more.
- There was no jus or demi glace or sauce for the duck so it really relied on the date puree, or it got a bit regular.
- The duck liver puree was also on the shy side, but I loved it! Foie gras is banned in California, so this had to do.
- The puree was extremely savoury, rich and creamy and it was delicious with the duck and potatoes.
- The confit potatoes were unassuming and they were better than they looked. They looked good too.
- They were buttery throughout, a bit smoky, and very meaty in flavour.
- They were ultra tender and creamy and could have been sous vide before being char grilled.
- The flesh was waxy instead of starchy and they were excellent potatoes.
- The swiss chard did not seem very pickled, but they were supposed to be the acid and vegetable to balance the rich potatoes.
- There were not many strong flavours or spices and I’m not sure if I got the Moroccan theme.
- This would be nice with apricots too because duck and apricots is quite common in Moroccan cooking.
- The date puree, duck liver and granola were the creative and inspired components of the dish, and I could have used more of each.
- It was a bit of a “meat and potatoes” dish, but the meat and potatoes were very good!
To be continued…
… sneak peek…