I took a long cab ride into the Richmond district of San Francisco to have dinner at the Michelin star rated Aziza. It has an unassuming storefront and after you open the curtain inside the front door and enter the restaurant, you are transformed into a Moroccan casbah with a variety of tables and booths scattered throughout. I was there with a large group and they were kind enough to wave the need for a set menu since it was later and night and the kitchen could accommodate. Another thing I was impressed with was the huge cocktail list. Almost two dozen libations were on the menu, each highlighting a fruit, vegetable or herb. It was more difficult choosing my drink that it was my meal. Throughout the night I had three; grapefruit (absinthe, peychaud’s, bourbon), thyme (thyme, cayenne, dry vermouth, blanco tequila) and celery (sage, agave nectar, gin). I can’t say I had a favorite but they were all among some of the better drinks I’ve had this year. They were frightfully addictive and beautifully represented their respective eponym. My colleague ordered the concord grape (concord grape, elderflower, peat smoke, laphroaig scotch). I had a sip and it was memorable, complex and aggressive version of the equally assertive grape.
Unlike other places (including most Michelin star restaurants), the menu is not written in hieroglyphics, Gaelic or some other language that gives food critics erections. I will admit, my ego makes me a little reluctant to ask for clarification around a dish or try and pronounce something which would make my transient menu dyslexia apparent. Instead, Aziza uses terms like olive, short rib, beet and sturgeon to describe their dishes. Having said this, there is no compromise on the creativity of their fare. Take the amuse bouche for example. A trio of dip including hummus, yogurt-dill and piquillo almond were served with flatbread. The dish managed to hit the mouth with some authentic Moroccan flavours while teasing the tongue with hints of Greece and Spain.
For an appetizer, I ordered a dish which was simply called cucumber. It had all the components of deconstructed deviled egg. A soft yolked fried duck egg was served with was cucumber two ways; charred and carpaccio style. Spring onions and vadouvan (similar to masala) mustard completed the dish. I must say this is the first time I’ve had charred cucumber and I was surprisingly impressed. As a whole,the dish was a punchy interpretation of the picnic favorite and at $14, I thought it might have been the coveted golden egg.
I was pleased to see that the market fish of the evening was John Dory (not to be mistaken with John Tory who may be the man who will finally oust the large and in charge, arrogant, homophobic and obnoxious Rob Ford from the Mayor’s office in October). It’s not the prettiest fish, but it sure is tasty and there are many suggestions of the origin of its name. My favorite is a possible reference to the novel “An Antarctic Mystery” by Jules Verne. “The legendary etymology of this piscatorial designation is Janitore, the ‘door-keeper,’ in allusion to St. Peter, who brought a fish said to be of that species, to Jesus at his command.” (St. Peter is said to be keeper of the gates of Heaven, in Spanish it is known as “gallo” hence “door-keeper”.) So while I was able to feast on a fish rooted in religion, it came with all the sacred symbols of food-a-ism…artichokes, ramps, favas, fiddleheads and raspberries. The tithe was a pricey $29. The fish was delicate and moist and keep the overwhelming earthiness of the condiments at bay. The raspberries added some sweet and sour bite and some ruby red colour to the plate.
One of the reasons I chose Aziza was the reputation of multiple James Beard pastry chef nominee Melissa Chou. I chose the Vanilla Semifreddo with apricot sorbet, matcha and almond ($10). The crust was like buttery toffee crack. Don’t get me wrong, the rest of the dish was delicious but that crust will stay in my lingual memory for some time to come.
I ended the meal with a delicious spot of mint tea. Let me point out this was not a stagnant tea bag floating around a warm pot of water. It was a hot, steaming pot of real mint tea which went nicely with dark chocolates served at the end of the meal.
Moroccan food is a little mysterious. The flavours are a bit African, a bit middle eastern and a bit European. Most of my experience with this type of food has come from a recipe book and my red Le Creuset tagine, so I was excited to experience it in Michelin star style. Although I can’t verify the authenticity of the use of fiddlehead ferns or ramps in Northwest Africa, the dishes were diverse and delicious. The cocktails were creative and nectarous. There was an irony in eating a fish which is also named after one of Jesus’ disciples in a restaurant whose country of inspiration is 99% Muslim. As for dessert, it definitely rocked the casbah. Much like the 1982 song by the Clash with the same name which calmed Middle-Eastern tension (at least according to the video), I think the crust on the semifreddo alone could extend the ceasefire in the Gaza war. Ok, maybe that’s a stretch, but I’m just a believer that a good meal can fix anything.