Prior to my first visit to Aziza, my idea of Moroccan food was something involving raisins, powdered sugar, and a huge pile of grain meant to be eaten with your hands. It left a strange, lingering impression on me as being too sweet, and too sloppy. I held onto that unattractive memory for a long time, which is the reason why, despite knowing about all of the accolades Aziza has received, I avoided it for years. If only I had only known about our mutual love of goat’s milk butter sooner! But after hearing an industry friend, whose opinion I rate very highly, rank it as his favorite SF restaurant, I knew it was time. I was finally ready.
My melodramatic tone may make it seem like I was about to take some huge culinary leap, but honestly, the food wasn’t much of a stretch in terms of taking me outside my comfort zone. At the end of the day, Aziza represents a different breed of California fusion that incorporates familiar, local ingredients into traditionally Moroccan preparations. First let me be clear, just because seasonal ingredients are a key feature of the menu doesn’t mean that the cuisine is vegetable-driven. In fact, a large part of the menu is focuses on expertly executed proteins. It’s difficult to name another restaurant that serves inventive Californian cuisine in the City that doesn’t put more weight on its veggies, and frankly, all of that protein was like a breath of fresh air! I may have expected something completely foreign, but what came out of the kitchen was interesting, approachable, and goddamn delicious.
Chef Mourad Lahlou pointed out that the majority of his dishes originate from traditional Moroccan dishes. But, dishes like asparagus with radish, spring onion, and fava leaf make it clear that having roots in a traditional cuisine doesn’t mean that every dish on the menu is a direct reflection of a classic, Moroccan recipe. Rather, having this cultural basis makes the kitchen more open to different ways of cooking, like using exotic, uncommon flavors and spices, or pairing ingredients in ways that most people simply wouldn’t think of: yellowtail with eggplant, or beets served with licorice yogurt.
So with such a variety of flavors on the menu, what dishes really stood out? Honestly, every single dish was excellent. After two lengthy dinners, and countless courses, I would order every single item again. Any one of them. I’m not sure that I can recall another meal where there wasn’t at least one course that slightly underwhelmed, and to be able to say without exaggeration that I’d be happy to eat any one of those dishes again is a pretty remarkable feat.
Okay, although everything was exceptional and beautifully presented (so many flowers! So much color in every dish!), there were some that verged on being awe-inspiring and deserve recognition. Garlic and Almond Milk Soup with black garlic-coated fregola and a puree of Marasn pepper served at the start actually gave me chills. So light yet so flavorful and aromatic, I’ve never had anything like it. Asparagus ($12) with radish, jidori egg, fava leaf puree, and sumac embodied the freshness of spring. Ocean Trout ($12) paired with avocado, hearts of palm, and chicken crackling seemed to be a deconstructed play on tuna tartare: simplistic but masterfully executed. And as for entrées, the Sweetbread special of the night with asparagus and farro made me fall in love with glands all over again. But the real king of both meals, the dish Aziza is known for, was the Lamb Shank ($27) with barley, sour cherry, and spring onion. Deeply rich in flavor, fatty in the best possible way, and insanely tender, it is the closest meat will ever come to melting in your mouth.
I don’t want to keep rambling about how amazing every course is, but it would be a crime not to point out dessert. Green strawberries? Goat cheese cream? Oatmeal ice cream? The dessert menu is one of the most cutting-edge assortments of sweets I’ve ever come across. The best part? A Mint Bavarian ($10) with lime-buttermilk granita, hibiscus, and pistachio doesn’t just sound good because it’s edgy, it tastes incredible. Even if your seams are splitting after devouring an entire lamb shank, ordering dessert is an absolute requirement of any meal at Aziza.
I’m recommending Aziza to everyone I talk to, I’m taking my mom there for Mother’s Day, and after being hesitant to try it for so long, I now consider it as one of my top three favorite restaurants in San Francisco. Good thing those booths are so large and comfy, because I intend on spending so much time at this restaurant that I may just have to take up permanent residence. Waking up every day to a bag of their homemade, nutty, roasted granola wouldn’t be all that bad – it wouldn’t be bad at all.