Restaurant: Aziza (Tasting 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 a la carte menu.
The following courses are from Aziza’s Chef’s Tasting 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.
- Sweet pea mousse, garlic puree, mustard flavour
- I usually like my oysters with less sauce and condiments on the side, but this was not an oyster bar.
- It was my first time trying a Shigoku (“ultimate” in Japanese) oyster.
- I wanted to taste its natural flavour and I was afraid it would be masked by the amount of mousse, but it wasn’t.
- The sweet pea mousse was fresh, light and sweet and there was a slight spice at the end from the fresh garlic puree.
- The Shigoku oyster was small and it looked like a Kusshi oyster (my favourite).
- I was impressed with how much the oyster stood out and I could easily taste it.
- It was clean, smooth and briney with a firm and meaty flesh.
- Yogurt, Caviar
- I couldn’t get over the serving dish which was “semi-homemade” upon closer examination.
- A bowl like this would be a costly investment, but they actually improvised by using plastic wrap. It might not be as elegant, but it worked.
- It was executed really well and I had to feel around the edge before I could even tell.
- Generally I prefer caviar on traditional blinis instead of crostinis.
- Blinis are softer and don’t interfere with the mouthfeel of the luxurious caviar.
- This nutty brown rice cracker was very thin and crisp though.
- It actually worked well and gave contrasting texture I could appreciate.
- The caviar was Osetra caviar which is a highly prized Russian caviar from large sturgeon.
- It has a very rich, buttery and salty flavour and it paired well with the yogurt beads which took the same shape.
- The yogurt beads were a nice switch up from crème fraîche and it suited the Moroccan theme better.
- I loved how he used spherification to execute the yogurt because it kept the cracker from getting soggy.
- It also played into the caviar texture and it was a smart method to use for many reasons.
- It was a nice tangy contrast to the salty caviar and it was just the right amount to not overwhelm it.
- It was topped with petals from Borage blossoms which have a mild cucumber like flavour.
- Every component served a purpose and it was a well thought out course to the Tasting Menu.
- Uni, Meyer Lemon, Coconut, Kumquat
- It was dungeness crab, green daikon, curry flakes, dried kumquats, folded uni, and coconut gelée.
- This was an unassuming dish because it looked plain and colourless, but the flavours were rich and incredible.
- The coconut gelée was like a savoury panna cotta.
- It was rich and creamy and almost mayo like with an unbelievable richness and intense umami (savouriness).
- It was set with a pectin or a gelatin, but it wasn’t too much.
- It was sweet from the coconut cream and/or milk and it was infused with lemongrass and perhaps ginger.
- It was fragrant with a warm heat and it did so much for the natural dungeness crab meat and uni.
- I would have loved more crispy curry flakes for texture, but they played right into the coconut and it reminded me of Thai curries.
- The dungeness crab meat was a bit drier in texture, and it was lightly salted and mixed with dried Kumquat peel and Meyer lemon juice.
- The dried Kumquat bits got rid of any unwanted fishiness in the crab and uni, but the seafood was fresh and good.
- The crab component lightened up the heavier coconut gelée.
- The rich uni would have been too indulgent if it was served alone with the gelée.
- I found the flavours more tropical and South East Asian inspired than Moroccan, but it was my favourite course of the night.
- It kind of reminded me of the Dungeness Crab with Dashi Custard at Hawksworth.
- I had high hopes for this, but it didn’t hit the spot although still good.
- I anticipate the pop and then the burst of savoury liquid which follows, but the flavours didn’t show up.
- Castelvetrano Olives are beloved Sicilian olives popularly used in San Francisco.
- They are meaty, firm, and salty sweet, so it was interesting to see it liquefied and removed from its natural texture.
- It was a bit fruit and herby in flavour and it was topped with a spicy onion blossom to balance the olive after taste.
- Ocean Trout Roe, Apple, Herbs
- This was my next favourite course of the night.
- The smoking food trend for 2013 is already getting a bit gimmicky, but when it is done well, it’s done well.
- There was a sensory experience with this course.
- It was incredibly aromatic and intense with lots of applewood smoke which stayed trapped inside until the lid was taken off upon serving.
- It was an applewood smoked potato mousse with ocean trout roe, granny smith apples, tarragon, pepper and apple consommé.
- The room temperature potato mousse was light, but intense with buttery and smoky flavour.
- The combination of smoked potato mousse and trout roe reminded me of smoked salmon and whipped cream cheese.
- The salty pops of trout roe played the role as salt, and the crunchy balls of green apple were made the same size.
- The apple consommé was syrupy sweet and very tart with sharp apple flavour, but it brightened up the smoky dish.
- It had to be eaten sparingly with the potato mousse and roe or the consommé was overpowering.
- Again, I didn’t really get Moroccan with the dish, but I still loved it.
- It was part of the Tasting Menu, but I would order it a la carte if it was available.
- Parmesan, Chicken Crackling, Charmoula
- I love eggs and anything that looks like an egg, so I was very excited to see this mock ‘fried egg’ on the Tasting Menu.
- It was a sous vide (poached) Jidori egg yolk which is one of the latest “foodie-hipster” luxury ingredients.
- These chickens and their eggs sparked the interest of high end restaurants in LA, New York and Chicago in 2010, but it’s still a rather new ingredient for most.
- Jidori eggs originated in Japan from the Jidori chicken which is fed an all vegetable diet.
- It is known for its super rich and decadent bright orange egg yolk. It is enough to be a sauce on its own.
- The free range chicken and eggs are now being bred in the US, but I’m not sure the difference in terms of flavour.
- The poached Jidori egg yolk sat on top of Charmoula and Parmesan foam.
- I can’t say I was a fan of the colour combination and the red Charmoula reminded me of blood, so it didn’t sit well mentally or visually.
- Charmoula is a traditional Moroccan marinade often used on fish and seafood.
- It was a bit unusual to have it sitting under the egg yolk although it held it in place.
- It is an acidic and aromatic sauce made with garlic, lemon juice, paprika, cumin, olive oil, shallots and herbs such as parsley.
- This one tasted a bit like a Middle Eastern marinara sauce.
- The Parmesan foam was a bit thin and bubbly, but it was savoury, nutty and rich in flavour.
- The light and airy texture contrasted the decadent and thick egg yolk.
- Together with the Charmoula it almost tasted like an Italian dish more than Moroccan.
- The sous vide Jidori egg yolk was not salty or noticeably cured, but it was super rich as expected.
- It was lightly sprinkled with salt and pepper and almost like a gel. It coated my mouth like paste.
- The flavour of the yolk was au natural and most of the seasoning for it came from the surrounding condiments.
- I kind of felt like I was eating a bunch of sauces and the yolk could have used some bread or crostini.
- I needed something to dip into the egg yolk, or to wipe the plate with.
- It is a pretty large yolk and the dish got a bit repetitive and I felt like it was missing a component.
- The chicken crackling was only one piece and it tasted like Chinese style crispy 5-spice chicken skin.
- It was a delicious addition which gave the dish texture, but I could have used many more strips of this “bacon”.
- I am assuming Chef wanted to highlight the Jidori yolk as a delicacy, but I think it could have been better although it was still very good.
To be continued…
… sneak peek…