The sublime experience of couscous

A plain bowl of Aziza’s couscous, hand rolled into tiny grains, steamed and fluffed no less than four times, garnished with almonds, is one of San Francisco’s great dishes. One cook devotes himself to making it every day from 7 a.m. through dinner. The lucky eater feels each miniscule grain against the teeth; the nutty semolina flavor explodes on the tongue. This couscous is not a starch; it’s an experience. You won’t find it anywhere else outside of a Moroccan home.

Chef/owner Mourad Lahlou takes similar pains with every facet of Aziza.

He haunts the farmers’ markets and forages for meats and poultry raised on small farms. He bakes his own anise-scented breads and thin flatbreads. The bar uses fresh fruits and herbs; the wine list spans the world to offer bottles that enhance his dishes.

Desserts from superstar pastry chef Janet Rikala Dalton reflect local market purchases while gently evoking the flavors of the souk. Best of all, Lahlou himself works behind the stoves every night. As he told me late one evening after an impromptu visit, “I learn by making a dish 50 times.”

Aziza has provided him an avenue to explore an evolving cultural identity that began in his mother’s kitchen in Morocco. Along the way he opened a traditional Moroccan restaurant in San Rafael called Kasbah, where I grew addicted to his tajine of little meatballs, paprika-laced rabbit tajine and lush Moroccan salads served family-style around low brass tables in a carpeted and pillowed dining room. Even then the menu trumpeted the provenance of his ingredients and a hip wine list broke new ground.

When he opened Aziza six years ago, I went expecting the traditional and found fusion, what seemed to me an awkward meeting of North Africa and California without the pure pleasure of either. I didn’t return until last week.

Had I changed? Had he? All I know is that his current dishes radiate assurance and beauty. They successfully integrate two strong cooking styles.

At Aziza, my beloved tiny meatballs now come skewered with grapes on a pile of tahini-dressed cucumber noodles ($9). The flavors talked to one another and pulled me into the juicy conversation.

On my initial return visit, I chose what seemed like the most traditional dishes: three intense “Mediterranean” spreads with heavenly grilled flatbread ($9), fabulous; baked giant lima beans in a spice-laced tomato sauce with melting feta ($8), divine; a Niman Ranch lamb shank, falling off the bone tender, with prunes and couscous ($22), a marvel of sweet and savory.

On another visit, I delved into the new world: a pretty arugulasalad with persimmons drizzled with creme fraiche ($10); a perfect Gwen avocado, sliced, fanned and accompanied with a puff of curly cress and grapefruit segments ($8). These refreshing salads set up the palate for a lemony, spice-infused vegetable stew topped with a poached egg ($16); or a root vegetable couscous ($16). Vegetarians have a home at Aziza.

Desserts are some of the most enchanting in town. Something as simple as swooningly creamy buttermilk sorbet with candied lemon peel threads; or a bowl of caramel ice cream sprinkled with sea salt ($8), refresh. Yet, a persimmon cake alive with aromatic spices and honey syrup will awaken anyone’s appetite.

Lahlou’s Moroccan/Californian universe is so original and so pulled together, I regret all the meals there I have missed.

You can subscribe to “Unterman-on-Food,” a printed, bi-monthly newsletter, by e-mailing pattiu@concentric.net

AZIZA

Location 5800 Geary Blvd. (at 22nd Avenue), San Francisco

Contact (415) 752-2222, www.aziza-sf.com

Hours Wednesday through Monday from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Tuesday

Price range Starters $8 to $11, main courses $16 to $24

Recommended dishes All couscous dishes, baked limas, Mediterranean spreads; kefta and grape skewers; black cod in claypot; lamb shank wih prunes

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