Aziza - San Francisco, California
In Hawaii, there is little diversity in culinary landscape. Besides the most obvious, Asian and Southeast Asian cuisines (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai and Vietnamese), you'll find only a small handful of restaurants serving Middle Eastern, Eastern European or North African cuisines. When I first heard about Aziza, I was quite excited as I had never sampled Moroccan food before.
Arriving at Aziza about 10 minutes late for my reservation, I was afraid that my table had been given up. The restaurant was almost filled to capacity and when I provided my name at the podium and explained that I was late, I was told that my table was ready and waiting for me.
Inside the restaurant is cavernous and quite dark. Shortly after we were seated by the hostess, our server Rebecca stopped by to take our order. We decided on the 5 course tasting menu (US$42.00).
The bread arrived in a large bowl a moment before the soup was brought to the table.
The first course was soup. Since there were two of us, we got one of each type of soup being offered that day. Here is the vegan soup of organic green lentils served with a Medjool date on the side.
Traditionally served on special occasions and during Ramadan, harira is normally accompanied by dates or chabakkia. The harira here was thin and light. The lentils were still a bit firm and the overall flavor was tangy with just a touch of spicy flavor. I could see why this soup would be eaten along with dates, the flavors complimented each other perfectly. The harira was both interesting and delicious.
The other soup being served that day was a Moroccan spiced carrot soup.
Smooth and creamy, this soup was a little sweet with a hint of subtle spiciness.
Mediterranean spreads -- balsamic-eggplant mousse, roasted pepper-pomegranate-walnut, and yogurt-dill -- served with flatbreads.
The balsamic eggplant mousse was made with roasted eggplant and it had an earthy, smokiness to it. The roasted pepper, pomegranate and walnut spread was perhaps my favorite as the sweet, tart flavor of the pomegranate really came through. The yogurt dill spread was probably the least creative of the trio as it reminded me of raita or tzatziki.
Fresh bodega goat cheese with spiced cherry tomato and citrus jam, pistachios and zataar croutons.
The crisp croutons were made "zippy" with a light sprinkling of zataar (a mixture of oregano and ground sesame seeds, among other things). The fresh goat cheese had none of the usual tanginess, but it did have a subtle sweetness to it and the texture was reminiscent of cream cheese.
After we had finished course number three, Rebecca stopped by to clear away the dishes. It was then that she announced, "the next course is basteeya." As we turned our heads in her direction, we discovered that she had floated away from the table and was already three quarters of the way to the kitchen.
As quickly as she had departed, she had returned. I wasn't able to take a photo before she began cutting into the basteeya's crisp pastry.
Traditionally, basteeya (or bastilla) is made with pigeon meat and warka pastry. Here at Aziza, phyllo pastry is wrapped around a filling of saffron braised chicken and ground almonds before being baked until flaky and golden brown. Once baked, the basteeya is given a light dusting of cinnamon and powdered sugar. The combination of sweet and savory makes an accurate description of the flavor sensation next to impossible.
Next to arrive were our individual entrées. First up was the prawn tagine.
The prawns arrived perfectly cooked -- slightly tender and succulent. The vegetables included in the tagine were well stewed, rich and bursting with flavor. The preserved lemons, tiny chunks of them, made this dish bright and vibrant, while the tomatoes brought a bit of balance with some acidity.
The other dish that we selected was the stewed lamb and charred eggplant.
Tender chunks of fork tender lamb were combined with smokey, charred eggplant rendering the usual gaminess associated with lamb well hidden. The saffron flavored sauce that so elegantly decorated the plate was fragrant, but to be honest, I thought there was really too much going on here. I would have preferred if this dish were more simply presented.
Shortly after we had finished the mains, Rebecca stopped by with the dessert menus. The first dessert selected was a roasted lemon sorbet.
The sweet, yet mildly tart sorbet had a wonderfully balanced flavor. Cool and smooth, it contrasted well with the "gritty" chamomile-citrus granita on which it sat. A nice juxtaposition of textures and flavors, the addition of the "twirlly" tuille. It was crisp and a tiny bit sweet.
When we had to choose the second dessert, I was torn. In the end, instead of choosing the lavender-black pepper angel food cake with slow roasted strawberries and crème chantilly, I chose the baked spring rhubarb.
Recommended by our server Rebecca as her "favorite, to-die-for dessert" on the menu, after the first bite, I was already singing its praises.
The stalks of tart rhubarb were cooked until tender then topped with crisp and flaky "biscuits". A small cup of rose geranium crème anglaise was poured over the dessert, rendering it absolutely sublime.
Amazing food, knowledgeable and friendly service, great atmosphere -- what more could anyone ask for? Our server, Rebecca, took the time to explain each dish, which made dining here fun. Her casual attitude and her willingness to answer our questions made this a meal worth remembering long after the food had been consumed. This is definitely a place that I would recommend, and would come back to time and time again.
5800 Geary Boulevard
San Francisco, California