new Things I Ate in Cambodia: Aziza: Hip Moroccan, Lamb Shank Big As Yo' Head

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Aziza: Hip Moroccan, Lamb Shank Big As Yo' Head

5800 Geary Boulevard
(between 22nd Ave & 23rd Ave)
San Francisco, CA 94121
(415) 752-2222

I've been hearing about Aziza through the grapevine for a long time. The testimonials were impressive: best Moroccan food in the city, imaginative and bold flavors, hip and understated setting - a nice hand with lamb. I had to try it, and I jumped at the chance to reserve a table the next time I found myself in San Francisco with my family. I wanted lamb. Big, Neanderthal chunks of lamb, preferably swimming in its own juices.

Aziza is located quite a ways out on Geary, although it's a nice straightforward cab ride. (It is also located conveniently across from Ton Kiang, which is riding high on my must-try list.) We arrived right on time and were quickly shown to our table, ushered through Aziza's warren of darkly lit rooms, painted in dark midnight blue and jewel tones. The tables sat next to a big row of plush couches covered in pillows, which I immediately sank down into. (The little boy across from us constructed a fort which he lurked in for the bulk of the meal; he had the right idea.) It's a hip but not pretentious space with a wonderful atmosphere: warm, welcoming, slightly mysterious.

Menus are printed on bare-bones strips of grey paper, and we immediately set to deliberating about what we wanted - hell everything looked delicious.

I have had a life-long love affair with little greasy fish, so I decided on the anchovies with preserved lemon, celery, olio nuevo, and marash pepper ($9.) The presentation was beautiful and minimalist, tiny little fillets laid out on a white plate and drizzled with olive oil. They were scrumptious, with a delicate oily flavor, offset by the pop of the tiny accompanying olives and tangy celery and lemon chunks.

The meatballs, presented on skewers with grapes ($9) , were tender, delicate, and minty, with a subtle and perfumed flavor, offset by the sweetness of the fruit. I also loved the fresh and crunchy jicama salad that accompanied, dressed with yogurt, herbs, and a squirt of lemon.

Finally, we tried the squid with cured black olive and herb jam ($9), presented in an attractive little tan casserole. The squid was cooked just right and had a slightly sweet, tomato and cinnamon infused flavor, offset by the briny olives. (I do wish there was more description of what exactly was in the sauce on the menu rather then leaving it to pleasant mystery.) The crostini with herb jam on them were a bit too crunchy (a minor complaint, I know, I know.)

Our server whisked the plates away, and our entrees came out with impressive promptness - no waiting about, stomach grumbling here.

My lamb shank with barley and spiced prunes ($22) was divine - no other words for it. This is Aziza's trademark dish, and for very, very good reason. The picture is fuzzy, and I apologize, but that is because my hungry eyes turned into giant saucers when the plate was placed in front of me, and so the photo is hasty and poor. I skeletonized it, I will admit. The meat was falling off the bone in fatty little shards, accompanied by a sweet and vinegary sauce infused with the essence of lamb, soaked up by a earthy side of barley. I even savored the juicy and aromatic prunes that came with it - a perfect accompaniment to that tender, tender meat. I may be inexperienced in the ways of sheep, but this was the best lamb I've ever had. I ate it all and wanted more, and it was definitely as big as my head, or at least equidistant.

My mom chose the couscous with chicken, prawn, lamb, and harissa ($20), which came out on a big plate, lumped with golden couscous (specially made by the restaurant) and lots of delicious meats and vegetables. My mother adores carbohydrates (quite a feat for a size 2, really) and thus she loved this dish - the combination of savory spiced meats (lamb sausage, mm) and golden semolina couscous was really quite divine. The harissa, a North African spice paste composed primarily of paprika and cayenne had a delicious slow burn, and I stole most of it when she wasn't looking. Sorry, Mom, sorry.

My dad went with the squab with hon shimeji mushroom and thyme-ras el hanout ($25), a big plate full of meaty and perfectly cooked squab, accompanied by gamy wild mushrooms. The meat was delicious and full flavored, and tasted as rich as any duck - impressive indeed. Combined with the mushrooms and the accompanying greens, it was a great (and surprisingly rich) combination.

I do not generally like desserts. I have little sweet tooth: give me meat and salt and bony little things, finish me off with a bit of fruit or a tiny chunk of dark chocolate, I generally ask for no more (and want no more.) But the desserts here intrigued me, featuring different combinations of ingredients and flavors far beyond the usual Chocolate Decadent Explosion Orgasm Cake most restaurants shove at you. We all ordered dessert. We did not regret it.

I love pears and I love huckleberries, so the pear tart with huckleberry, frangipane, and bitter almond ice cream ($9.50) was a natural choice. Served warm and elegantly appointed with dripping, luscious ice cream over the top, it was tangy and excellent, sort of like an Oriental interpretation of the American apple pie n' ice cream. I loved the delicate crack of the sugared top of the pastry, a creme brulee without the cream. The portion size was spot-on too: quite small, perfect for a respite after a big rich dinner, but not so small that you feel you are being fed doll food. Perfect.

My mom, feeling stuffed like a tick, went for the light option: an orange blossom honey mousse with citrus & mint and prosecco-chili gelée ($8.00.) It was definitely the most high concept dessert on offer with lots of interesting components, but it worked - the whisper-light mousse combined with the crunchy caramelized sugar wafer and the fresh citrus chunks it sat upon. An interesting addition were the tiny gelatin cubes you can see resting in the spoon in the photo above: like an intensely flavored lemony jello. Interesting, but not so interesting that it fills you with a sense of vague confusion.

Finally, my dad selected the cinnamon ice cream with cookie - definitely the simplest dessert we sampled but still tasty, with a nice aromatic flavor and a tasty crunch from the accompanying buckwheat cookie. Aziza obviously has a talented hand with ice cream. Don't miss it.

One final note: our server was a true professional - friendly, extremely knowledgeable about the menu, and prompt. His menu and wine recommendations were spot on, and he certainly helped make our meal flow in the way it should.

Aziza is a superb restaurant. It's a pleasure to find a restaurant offering both a top-tier dining experience and interesting flavors, worlds away from the same 30-bucks-a-plate Asian Tuscan French fusion fluff that most "fancy" San Francisco restaurants peddle. It's hip but not pretentious, and I think that applies to the food - muscular and flavorful Real Food with high quality ingredients and a seasoned hand in the kitchen. It's a must-try if you're looking for something different (and high end) in San Francisco. (I will dream of harissa. And lamb shanks that are larger then my head.)

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