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Sweet Spot 

If there's a problem with the menu, it's that nearly everything on it looks great.

Wednesday, Dec 12 2001
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To dine at Aziza is to experience a rare brand of luxury that leaves no sense untouched. Step inside and you'll encounter dusky cobalt walls, dramatic arches painted with blue and white stripes, and the soft, twangy lilt of Moroccan music. Someone will offer to take your coat before guiding you to a booth in the front room, where tables set with inlaid wood and mother-of-pearl feel smooth as glass under the fingertips. Or perhaps you'll end up on a cushioned bench in the traditional banquet room, or at a table in the third dining room (Aziza is quite large), a modern-looking space with vivid orange walls and sleek halogen droplights reminiscent of a chic Mission hot spot.

Regardless of where you sit, the surroundings will be opulent, and the service will, in all likelihood, live up to them. Though on a recent visit my friend Petra and I missed the belly dancers (who perform Thursday through Sunday), we were lavished with unnecessary -- but appreciated -- touches. As is customary in Morocco, one eats most dishes at Aziza with the hands, so the meal began with a tidy ritual: Our waiter brought a washbasin, poured water over our hands from a metal pitcher without spilling so much as a drop, then provided linens. He was so good, in fact, that he should teach courses on the nuances of food service. He knew the menu the way astrologers know constellations, and was so hospitable that, had he offered to buff our nails as a parting gesture of good will, I would have been only mildly surprised. As he helped Petra on with her coat, I couldn't help but think, "Man, these guys know how to run a restaurant."

I suppose such refinement shouldn't come as a surprise: Aziza's owners, chef Mourad Lahlou and his brother, Khalid, recently closed their highly rated Kasbah in San Rafael to open this latest venture in the space that once housed Socca. Now at little more than a month old, Aziza shows an attention to detail that rivals that of the city's most polished restaurants. What's more, the food is fantastic. Order the $35 tasting menu, then surrender yourself to course after marvelous course (I counted 10, plus two types of bread) marked by sweet and sweet-sour dishes, a masterfully restrained use of spices and herbs, and what may be the finest couscous in San Francisco.

The 60-bottle wine list ($18-98) spans eight nations -- French sparkling wines, Lebanese cabernet blends, and an unfiltered Spanish rioja are among the choices -- and is a matter of some pride, from what I understand. (On the night we visited, Khalid and a pair of French-speaking gents were sampling vintages at the next table.) We were looking for something different, though, and our waiter's recommendations -- a clean, hoppy Moroccan Casa Blanca lager, a glass of Lebanese arak (a smooth, ouzo-tasting liquor served with water and ice), and slightly sweet mint tea -- were the first of many good suggestions.

If there's a problem with the menu at Aziza, it's that just about everything on it looks great. Consider: lamb braised with coriander sauce, rabbit tagine with paprika, and Cornish game hen with saffron or lavender honey/tangerine sauce. The tasting menu is the best way to go -- you'll try more than half of the appetizers, plus your choice of entree and dessert. Ours started with olives marinated in a delicate blend of thyme, chile flakes, rosemary, and a touch of vinegar, followed by small bowls of harira, a satisfying, lemon-accented tomato-based lentil soup served with a luscious medjool date and wedges of soft, dense, anise-tinged white bread.

Next came an assortment of spreads and salads -- five courses, or six if you count the beautifully textured grilled flatbread we used to scoop up a smoky eggplant mousse and thick, zesty hummus. A salad of diced tomatoes tossed with onion and bell peppers turned up in a lettuce cup, the whole touched with a discreet blend of cumin, ginger, garlic, and paprika. The roasted green peppers were divine, but our favorite taste of this group featured what is normally a humble vegetable -- the carrot -- often the undercooked bane of inferior Thai and Chinese stir-fries or vegetable medleys at places named Joe's. At Aziza, you'll discover the carrot's true potential: Lightly chilled, nibble-sized bits arrived al dente (not crunchy, but still firm), with a haunting note of cumin playing off the natural sweetness.

Though I don't normally like sweet dishes in the middle of a meal (they dull my appetite), only a madman would have objected to our next dish, bastilla. Our waiter brought a crisp, fresh-from-the-oven phyllo pie dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon, which he cut into manageable wedges. Inside, we found distinct layers of saffron-braised chicken and puréed almonds infused with yet another subtle blend of spices.

Our first entree (served with a knife and fork, by necessity) was a bit of a letdown. A smallish, slightly tough braised lamb shank came with an overly sweet honey-kumquat sauce and an assortment of dried fruits, and seemed to lack the restraint of our previous courses. Fortunately, that was the only misfire. Chilean sea bass was baked to a velvety consistency in a sharp, complex blend of diced tomato, spicy, pestolike charmoula sauce, and preserved Meyer lemon. To be thorough, we'd ordered a third entree a la carte, taking our waiter's recommendation for the house specialty, couscous. The resulting dish was so wonderful that I'll need another paragraph to do it justice.

According to Khalid, with whom I've spoken by telephone, couscous at Aziza takes 3 1/2 hours to prepare (it's steamed, soaked in vegetable stock, stirred, and then steamed some more). According to me, the effort is worth it. Bad couscous often takes the form of a leaden, sticky lump. At Aziza, on the other hand, the tiny grains are so light and distinct that you could eat them one at a time if you were so inclined. This couscous is permeated with a buttery hint of saffron, and can be topped with a variety of savories. Choose one or order the free-for-all known as "couscous Aziza," which includes five of the six choices: merguez, a spicy lamb sausage that tastes a bit like a Slim Jim (i.e., not so great); hulking smoky prawns with saffron and tarragon (superb); juicy, grilled chicken breast marinated in thyme and paprika (even more superb); melting stewed lamb; and a mix of firm, perfectly cooked vegetables (zucchini, yellow squash, green beans, and chick peas), plus a few raisins and roasted almonds for good measure.

Given how much food we'd already eaten, desserts had to be excellent or we wouldn't have made it past the first bite. They were. A double chocolate gâteau consisted of a pair of mousses served between discs of phyllo, one light and milky, the other dark, bitter, inflected with orange, and laced with candied nuts. Lovers of the cacao bean take heed: The chef finished the plate with a chocolate crème anglaise to produce one of the most chocolicious desserts in town. Our second choice -- a tangy kasseri yogurt sorbet nestled against a radiant orange granita, served with a waferlike cinnamon cookie -- provided a stunningly clever combination of flavors, richness against citrus against a final, warming hint of spice.

As I said earlier, these Lahlou brothers know how to run a restaurant. Though Aziza is young, it's not hard to imagine the place earning a lasting spot on the city's culinary map.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

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