Tam Putnam

February 1, 2002

Although Aziza offers a few visual clues to Morocco ? blue-and-white-striped Moorish arches and dangling colored-glass lanterns ? it leaves the travelogue mostly to your imagination. The same could be said of the food. The chef, Mourad Lahlou, has re-envisioned the recipes of his homeland with the sensibility and produce of a Californian. Aziza doesn’t push an exotic midnight-at-the-oasis Morocco, but does embroider dinner with a few artful Berber details. After you slide into one of the booths tucked within the striped arches, a lavishly mustachioed waiter arrives with an incised silvery teapot-and-basin contraption and trickles warm water over your hands. A bowl of olives appears on the inlaid wood table. A belly dancer steps into the dining room, sword balanced on her head, and shimmies over to anyone who eyes her, um, jingling spangles.

Otherwise, you’re on your own with Lahlou’s down-home yet refined cooking. He gravitates to deep flavors. Grilled prawns ($19) come with a vibrant vegetable tagine ? a stew of eggplant, bell peppers, carrots and Moroccan pink olives that gets its sunniness from preserved Meyer lemons. Charmoula sauce (made with tomatoes and cilantro) is a bright match for the smoky baritone of the charred prawns.

Lahlou’s grill turns out plenty of juicy, elemental food redolent of the fire. Skewers of rosemary-cumin-marinated lamb, red onions and bell peppers ($16) are simple and wonderful. Neatly coiled like a turban, slices of stewed lamb and smoky grilled eggplant ($15) make a soulful pair. A little twist of sun-dried tomatoes and mint waves on top of the turban, and musky ginger-saffron sauce is pooled around it.

Next to these from-the-fire delights, couscous with stewed vegetables ($12) presents a distinctly pallid face. On top of the hill of couscous perches one cube of grilled eggplant, a cruel reminder of what you’re missing with the rest of the vegetables and chickpeas and raisins. The waiter offers harissa ? a paste of red peppers, garlic and cumin ? and this after-the-fact seasoning seems too much, too late.

But bestilla ($6) doesn’t need any grilling to be good. Layers of chicken, egg and cinnamon-spiced chopped almonds are wrapped in crackly phyllo and dusted with confectioners’ sugar. It’s a delectably dense and crunchy pillow, with the sweetness pointing to a rich, almost gamy quality to the chicken. Lahlou’s long-baked poultry even approaches the stronger flavor of pigeon, which bestilla traditionally calls for.

A shot of sweetness animates other dishes as well. Earthy harira ($6), a lentil-tomato soup, is garnished with a date. But with braised lamb shank ($17), the taste of the meat vanishes into overly honeyed kumquat sauce, its teeth-curling sweetness hardly necessary on top of the sumptuous harem of plump dried apricots and prunes all around.

Three vivid spreads ($7) are served as a starter with grilled flatbread: tapenade, hummus that’s more paprika-spicy than legumy, and smoky eggplant dip with a subtle undercurrent of sweetness. On a small plate of merguez ($6), the spicy lamb sausages ? a little oily and heavy ? are arrayed around a fruity roasted-tomato dip.

Aziza’s eclectic wine list focuses on Europe. Organized not by region but by style (“spicy/racy,” “light/plush,” and so on), it offers a range of prices and a good selection of bottles under $30. The reds tend to be young and are suited to the assertive flavors on the menu.

Lahlou’s culinary training took place in his mother’s kitchen, in Marrakesh; when he moved to San Francisco to study economics, he cooked to cure his homesickness. Between 1996 and 2001, he was chef at Casbah in San Rafael, which he had opened with his brother, Khalid Lahlou. In November, they opened Aziza, where Khalid is manager.

The staff, whose blue coveralls seem lifted from a mechanic’s shop, is unfailingly alert ? to humble dining needs and also to whether diners are ready for a primer on Moroccan foods or would prefer to be left to themselves.

After the main course, a waiter performs another table-side hand wash ? this one with rosewater ? and then brings mint tea. One scent layers over another intoxicatingly, especially when an order of “Moroccan spiced” oranges ($6) is set on the table. Topped by a tangle of candied zest, the sliced fruit was bright and wintry, though the delicate phyllo cylinders with it are chunky with too-big almond bits. Orange granita and vanilla sorbet ($6) made of lebne, a thick, rich yogurt, are a delicious, uncomplicated end to a festive meal.

Food: A
Ambiance/service: A+