Aziza had been on my list of restaurants to try for a long time; people in foodie bulletin boards rave about it and it gets great reviews from critics as well. I love Moroccan food - indeed, it was one of the first cuisines I explored when I was learning to cook - and I was looking forward to see what chef Mourad Lahlou could do. The answer seems to be incredible appetizers and prosaic, but still good, main dishes.
We decided to go to Aziza on a Friday night in January 2005 with our friends Regina and Boris - Mika was staying with grandparents, so it seemed to be the perfect opportunity for an adults night out. It was, and Aziza was a great place to do it. The restaurant itself is beautiful. It has three small rooms and a bar. The front room features gorgeous blue chairs and tall tables as well as booths and walls with oriental arches. Another room has low chairs and tables and looks a bit more Middle Eastern. The lights are quite dim, the music (Middle Eastern and Spanish) not always so, but it's really a good place to relax over a three-hour meal, which is how long ours took.
We had thought about doing the "dine about town" (DAT) menu (three-course meal for $32) but Aziza didn't offer it on weekends. It wasn't a big deal as I'm very doubtful that you actually save much money doing DAT. At Aziza the most expensive appetizers, main dishes and dessert would have come up to $38, so at the most you'd be saving $6 a person. They do offer a chef's five-course tasting menu for $39 a person and we were encouraged by our waiter to chose this - the problem is that everyone at the table has to order it. It consists of soup, appetizer, shared bastilla, main dish and dessert. You get your choice of one of two soups, your main dish and your dessert - with the chef choosing the appetizers for the table. This can be a good deal, depending on what you order. For us it ended up constituting a $22 savings off a la carte prices (almost as good a deal as DAT). More importantly, it gave us an opportunity to try things we wouldn't think of ordering on our own (like the giant lima beans).
The meal started with soup. Boris, Mike and I ordered the green lentil soup from the menu. It was good, though nothing out of the ordinary. I've had similar lentil soups at many Moroccan restaurants. It was served with a date rather than with a more appropriate slice of lemon - it did really benefit from some lemon juice so I was grateful Mike's drink had come with a lemon slice.
Regina had the soup of the day which was a Jerusalem artichoke soup. It was simply delicious - we kicked ourselves for not being more adventurous and ordering it. I think I will try to find a recipe this and make it soon.
Next came the appetizers: giant lima beans, Mediterranean spread, wild mushrooms in phyllo ravioli and sesame crusted goat cheese. Note that you won't necessarily get the same appetizers every time you order the chef's menu. They were all amazing. The Mediterranean spreads included an aged balsamic eggplant mousse which was intensely flavored, though a bit sour, a very refreshing yogurt-dill spread and the most delicious roasted pepper & pomegranate spread. The latter one was out of this world; I'm going to try to make this as well, though I really like Lahlou's recipe, I've never had anything so good anywhere else.
I loved the melted goat cheese, and I'm not the biggest goat cheese fan. It went well with the accompanying tomato sauce and I only wished they had provided more crostini. The mushroom ravioli were actually large phyllo pastries with a mushroom filling. They were served very hot (be careful!) and they had a great mushroom flavor, but were a bit greasy. Finally, everyone raved about the giant lima beans which came mixed in with a tomato puree and feta cheese.
The next course was a bastilla. Normally served for two, the waiter cut it into four pieces, which we served ourselves once it cooled down. I love bastilla, it's one of my favorite dishes in the world, but I was not impressed by the one at Aziza. Unlike other bastillas in which aromatic chicken, eggs and almonds are layered between sheets of phyllo dough, this was just one big pie with all the ingredients mixed together. I don't think that should have mattered if the chicken had been more flavorful, but it was a bit too bland and somewhat dry for my taste. Nobody else was too impressed either.
It took quite a while to get our main entrees, which was probably good as we were mostly filled by then. It gave me enough time to become hungry again, however, so I was disappointed in how small the portion of squab I'd been served was. Had I ordered a la carte and paid $20 for this dish I would have been dismayed; it consisted of one tiny leg and maybe seven thin, tiny slices of squab. Fortunately, Mike's couscous was too much for him so I didn't go hungry. The reduction sauce the squab came with was great, dark, complex with just the right amount of sweetness and the squab was perfectly cooked. However, it didn't awe me as it didn't taste very different from many other squabs I've had at many other restaurants. I realize I keep ordering squab and saying exactly the same thing wherever I have it, so this may really be just my problem.
But I wasn't the only one who wasn't thrilled with their entrees. Both Mike and Boris ordered the couscous Aziza, "steamed floral couscous, crisp vegetables, grilled chicken & prawns, spicy lamb sausage, stewed lamb." The presentation was very cool, if slightly sexual, with the sausage placed coming out of the mold of couscous, but the dish was again rather bland. Boris felt that all the ingredients: couscous, chicken, shrimp and stew tasted the same, there wasn't enough contrast in flavor between them. Mike disagreed, he found the sausage to be pleasantly spicy and could taste the chicken and the lamb, but felt the whole dish needed something more to bring it together. I was also not impressed, I've made many better couscous dishes at home.
Regina felt similarly about the berber vegetable tagine she ordered. She actually liked the fluffy, flavorful couscous was but was disappointed in the tagine. She appreciated the freshness of the ingredients, but thought they were bland and didn't really come together. She also felt the tagines she cooks are better.
Dessert was a mixed bag. I ordered "the european ice cream man", which consisted of two tiny sandwiches of pistachio nougat ice cream between cookies. They were good but each one was no bigger than one or two bites. This is definitely a dessert you can't afford to share.
Mike got the topped chocolate pot, a hot pot of chocolate pudding topped by a very flaky, somewhat salty cookie and accompanied by slabs of thick chocolate and plain cremes. The cremes weren't that great and the cookie was somewhat weird, but the chocolate pot was outstanding with its intense chocolate flavor. He was very nice and shared it with me.
Boris got Aziza's version of creme brulee and wasn't overly impressed. He said it was good but pedestrian; he's had better elsewhere.
After much debate, Regina went for the sorbet of coastal wild huckleberries sweetened with ch vre sauce. The sorbet was very tart and at first she wasn't sure she liked it, but she grew to really like it and she'd definitely order it again.
Aziza has a very nice selection of mixed drinks ($9 each), wines and teas - though their selection of wine by the glass is not that great. Mike got the preserved meyer lemon drop (preserved meyer lemon vodka, grey goose la vanille, cointreau, fresh lemon juice, splash of bubbles) which he liked very much, although he wished it had been stronger. I found it to be too sour, but I'm not a mixed-drink kind of person. Boris went for the ginger & pear (fresh ginger muddled with frangelico & simple syrup, pear infused gin) which he also liked. It had a very intense ginger flavor, so make sure you really like ginger if you want to order it. Regina also liked her blood orange cosmo. As the teetotaler of the bunch I had a glass of pineapple juice ($3). It was actually just a half glass (maybe 4 oz of liquid) and it tasted canned. The water that came with dinner had been infused with cucumber, though plain water was available when I asked.
Service throughout the evening was quite good, though Regina found it a bit patronizing. The whole meal cost about $240 for the 4 of us, which seemed a fair price for the quality of the food and the wonderful, relaxing evening we had.
In all, I liked Aziza and I would go back there, though I would prefer to just feast on the appetizers and forgo the main dishes. It's a very adult type of place, so I wouldn't take a young child there.
5800 Geary Blvd
415 752 2222