(image from www.aziza-sf.com)
When Stephen and I moved to San Francisco, our choice of neighborhood was dictated largely by where we could afford. As recent college graduates with no jobs lined up, we ended up in the Outer Richmond. We have an apartment we love with a rent reasonable enough not to require giving up eating in order to afford it. That’s a good thing, because what we lack in clubs and shopping here in the Richmond, we more than make up with food.
We’ve got great sushi, Korean barbecue, dim sum, a wee tiny place with unbelievable thin-crust pizzas, some of the best roasted crab with garlic noodles in the city, a bistro so classically French you’d think you need your passport, and an intimate Italian place where the owner will serve you the most tender gnocchi you’ve ever had. They run the gamut from dingy noodle houses to refined destinations, and our favorite of the latter type is Aziza.
At Aziza, chef Mourad Lahlou has melded Moroccan flavors and techniques with California ingredients and style; the results are simply enchanting. Aziza has become a favorite date spot for Stephen and me. The dé cor is dim and sexy with rich colors and just a hint of exotic flair, essentially an ideal location for long looks and holding hands over the table.
That is, of course, if your hands aren’t busy lifting an herb-flecked cocktail or scooping a rich yogurt spread onto house-made grilled flatbread. And indeed, it would be a shame to miss the cocktails. From the Tarragon Caipirinha, fragrant with cardamom pods and the anise-scented leaves, to the Celery that muddles the vegetable with vanilla and black pepper, it’s clear you’ll never settle for an insipid apple martini at Aziza.
The food that follows brings the same kinds of exciting flavors. For starters, I love Giant Lima Beans in ras-el-hanout tomato puree with French feta, Prather Ranch Kefta Skewers, tiny meatballs skewered with grapes and served with torpedo onion and cucumber salad, and the utterly luscious, pink-centered Grilled Spicy Lamb Sausages with goat yogurt and fromage blanc dip. If you get the tasting menu, which is wildly reasonably priced at $42, you’ll start with soup then move onto a selection of these appetizers served to the table.
Next up is basteeya, a flaky phyllo pie stuffed with saffron braised chicken, almonds and sweet spices. Don’t the powered sugar on top scare you; it heralds an excellent combination of sweet and spicy, soft and crispy.
For an entré e, Aziza offers a number of lamb dishes that are consistently fantastic, as well as plates featuring less common meats. The Paine Farm Squab with forest mushrooms, bitter greens and ras-el-hanout reduction and the Devil’s Gulf Ranch Rabbit with Hungarian paprika and dried bing cherries are both favorites of mine. Any dish featuring the tender, hand rolled couscous would also be an excellent choice. Drizzle the Grilled Lamb Brochettes with couscous and vegetables with harissa and prepare for your mouth to water.
The wine list at Aziza is also notable for how well it matches with this typically alcohol-free cuisine. You’ll notice an abundance of perfumed Rieslings and Gewurztraminers as well as soft, rounded reds, any of which marries with the sweet spices in the food. If you’re lucky enough to get Max as your server, you’re particularly sure to get a wine you’ll love.
The desserts change frequently and frequently feature seasonal fruits. On a recent visit, Tejal and I both had a Fresh Mint Ice Cream Sandwich served on a soft, brownie cookie with warm herbal tisane. The ice cream was bracingly minty, with a green herbal taste that bore little resemblance to the standard peppermint patty.
Even though every time I make it all the way through the tasting menu, I’m so full I’m afraid I’ll need help getting out the door, Stephen and I always come back. We love to bring friends and guests to Aziza, way out in the foggy Richmond in an unassuming building. There’s some very exciting food out here, you just have to know where to look.
5800 Geary Blvd
San Francisco, CA 94121