new Things I Ate in Cambodia: Aziza: Super Refined Moroccan Food, Still Superb

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Aziza: Super Refined Moroccan Food, Still Superb

5800 Geary Boulevard
San Francisco, CA 94121-2005
(415) 752-2222

Aziza is nothing if not distinctive. This restaurant is unlike any other ultra high end restaurant in the Bay Area, departing from the cookie-cutter Seasonal Sustainable Fusion Menus that infest the area and focusing on something different: Moroccan food, interpreted with an artist's eye. That artist is chef Mourad Lahlou, who opened Aziza roughly ten years ago and has seen its impressive rise in ensuing years: he faced off against Cat Cora on Iron Chef in 2009, and will star in a public television television show featuring Moroccan food in 2010 (Is PBS hip among the foodie cognoscenti? Is it tolerable? What's the deal here?)

The menu has undergone a lot of tweaking in the past few years, and has been simplified since my last couple of visits in 2008, which is by no means a bad thing. Menus change very often to reflect seasonal ingredients, and the kitchen works closely with local farmers and producers - one fun aspect of eating at Aziza is exposure to some fairly esoteric local produce. Yes, I had to look up "minutina." This may be related to San Francisco restaurant's minor obsession with out-locavoring the competition, but I feel a bit under-qualified to comment on that.

I love the unctuous, interesting flavor of fresh sardines, and Aziza does a really lovely job with them, serving them simply grilled on top of a fresh brioche crouton, with shaved artichoke, a delicate oyster infused sauce, and minutina greens (10.00). A gorgeous presentation as well, which I didn't exactly notice until reviewing the photos.

This is basteeya, the delicious and surprisingly hard to find Moroccan chicken and almond pie (18.00). It's an ultra rich and very unusual dish, combining meaty chicken with a slightly sweet almond filling in a flaky puff pastry crust - which is then dusted with powdered sugar. The combination of sweet and savory is really pretty superb. It is traditionally made in the homeland with pigeon. Surmising the kitchen didn't have any on hand. San Francisco eaters are probably the USA population most likely to be down with eating pigeons, come to think of it. (They love it in China).

I am what may be defined as a "scallop whore" and find myself almost unable to resist them when on the menu, especially in coastal regions that actually know something about seafood. Thus I picked out the scallops with prawns, savoy cabbage, turnips, and a passion fruit sauce (28.00). This was a delicate and very well executed dish, but I regretted ordering it: it wasn't particularly different from any other scallop dish served in the Bay Area. Big meaty dishes are where Aziza really shines and innovates, in my estimation.

My mom picked out the chicken after an enthusiastic recommendation from our server. Chicken is one of those things generally best avoided at high-end restaurants, but Aziza really redefined the whole dry chicken paradigm here. The chicken is cooked at high heat to give it a crispy, ultra rich crust, then is served with a thick pork cheek, wheat berries, carrots, and snap peas. The combination produces some sort of unholy and delightful alliance between chicken and pig, making it difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins - in a good way.

My dad chose the lamb merguez sausage with charmoulla, black garlic, and swiss chard. Merguez has an excellent spicy, dense flavor and these were some lovely specimens - the vegetables were pretty much gilding a meaty, lamb fat infused lily (25.00). (Christ, now there's a metaphor. It's early).

Desserts at Aziza (last I checked) are done by Melissa Chou, and they are pretty excellent. One of Aziza's strengths is its always innovative and unusual dessert selections - I went with the citrus option this time, featuring meyer lemon cream, a blood orange flavored meringue, some preserved kumquat, and a warm huckleberry cake (9.50). Quite nice and very refreshing, and in accordance with spring ingredients and flavors.

Another perfectly executed meal at Aziza. Still, I had a curious sensation of not being full when I left - whether this may be attributed to our ordering decisions or some sort of odd lightness about Aziza's meaty Moroccan cuisine, I can't say. There could be more substance to some of the dishes, certainly - I recall my earlier visits (back in 2008) evidenced a more robust, if less refined cooking style from chef Mourad. Figuring this out naturallly warrants a future visit, probably one where I order half the menu. Weep for me.

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