Aziza’s changes prove appetizing

Michael Bauer, Chronicle Restaurant Critic

October 4, 2002

Aziza has continued to expand and improve, even in these tough times. Although some of the changes were forced ? the two brothers who owned Kasbah in San Rafael and then opened Aziza about a year ago have parted ways ? most of the recent additions have helped improve the product.

Owner Mourad Lahlou continues to build on his already outstanding repertoire of dishes. There’s no denying his Moroccan origins on the plate or in the decor, but he’s approached everything with a California sensibility. The food is lighter, fresher and much brighter than you’d expect. Even the long-cooked vegetable stews have a toothsome crunch and vivid flavors.

The best way to enjoy the evening ? which includes a sexy, somewhat exotic environment complete with belly dancing throughout the night ? is to order the chef’s five-course tasting menu ($39). You’ll get a huge platter of appetizers, which includes a vibrant marinated salad with cumin-dusted carrots, roasted bell peppers and honeyed beets and some Mediterranean spreads ? an almost frothy eggplant mousse, sun-dried-tomato hummus and tapenade with grilled pita bread.

The menu then segues into the soup course, either a lemon-lightened green lentil soup or a soup of the day. The bastilla, an intricate puff pastry pie dusted with powdered sugar and filled with a ground chicken mixture, is another exceptional course.

Diners have a choice of a dozen or more main courses (from $12 to $20 a la carte). Lahlou is a master at cooking couscous; it’s so light it seems as if each tiny grain has been pumped with air. It’s served with many of the meat items or as a vegetarian main course with vegetables.

His signature dish is a saffron Cornish hen, infused with the flavor of preserved Meyer lemon in a saffron sauce with pink olives and bright orbs of cherry tomatoes. The play of flavors is extraordinary, as it is in the braised lamb shank with a honey-kumquat sauce with caramelized dried fruits, roasted almonds and cinnamon-cranberry couscous. With so many elements, it could become muddled or overly sweet, but the chef really knows how to balance flavors.

The braised rabbit tagine is filled with tender meat glistening in a paprika sauce. It’s served over a parsnip mash and dotted with yellow pear tomatoes and olives, which provide bursts of pungent saltiness.

The desserts have the same light flair: a cream brulee with lemon verbena, or meringue profiteroles with apricot sorbet and a garnish of melon and mint syrup. The chocolate raspberry truffle cake is made even more intense by a vibrant blackberry-Cabernet Sauvignon sorbet and fresh raspberries.

Further enhancing the experience is Mark Ellenbogen’s innovative wine list, which is perfectly matched with the food and includes a number of fine Rieslings and spicy reds, and very few Chardonnays and Cabernets.

With the departure of Khalid Lahlou, the front of the house is being run by Farnoush Deylamian, who has added a sophisticated charm and grace to the service. The waiters are well trained, and know the menu and wine list.

One exciting thing about Aziza is that each time you go, there may be something new to look at. Now watermelon-colored mosaic glass candle holders light each of the hand-carved Moroccan tables and add dramatic, warm light to the corners of the room. In the next few months, the waiters will get new uniforms and the interior will be further dressed up to showcase the best of modern design without the kitsch often seen in ethnic-inspired restaurants.

Every change that’s come to Aziza has worked to improve it. It all points to a restaurant that is at the top of its game and wants to stay there.

Address: 5800 Geary Blvd. (at 22nd Avenue), San Francisco
Phone: (415) 752-2222
Hours: Dinner 5:30-10:30 p.m. Wednesday- Monday.
Full bar. Reservations and credit cards accepted.
Valet parking $6.

Food: ***
Service: ***
Atmosphere: ***


FOUR STARS: Extraordinary
THREE STARS: Excellent
(box): Poor

$ Inexpensive: entrees under $10
$$ Moderate: $10-$17
$$$ Expensive: $18-$24
$$$$ Very Expensive: more than $25
Prices based on main courses. When entrees fall between these categories, the prices of appetizers help determine the dollar ratings.

ONE BELL: Pleasantly quiet (under 65 decibels)
TWO BELLS: Can talk easily (65-70)
THREE BELLS: Talking normally gets difficult (70-75)
FOUR BELLS: Can only talk in raised voices (75-80)
BOMB: Too noisy for normal conversation (80+)