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

Credit cards Visa, MasterCard · Reservations Accepted

entertainmentFeaturesFood & DrinkFood and Wine

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

Howard Golden places an order with server Dragos Pintlie at John’s Grill as indoor dining resumes on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Food services industry sees significant drop in employment opportunities

San Francisco’s job market has contracted sharply over the past year in… Continue reading

Dr. Vincent Matthews, superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, on Monday said “We truly wish we could return to in-person learning for everyone.” (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
SFUSD reopening plans still leave out most secondary students

SFUSD announces April return to in-person learning after reaching contract deal with teachers

San Francisco Giants catcher Joey Bart (21) swings for a strike against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Oracle Park on August 25, 2020 in San Francisco, California. (Chris Victorio | Special to S.F. Examiner).
Up-and-coming players show glimpses of future greatness at Giants Spring Training

By Nick Zeller-Singh Thousands of baseball players across the nation have one… Continue reading

“Calder-Picasso” juxtaposes sculptures and paintings by 20th century masters Alexander Calder and Pablo Picasso at the de Young Museum. (Courtesy Gary Sexton/2021 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society, New York)
‘Calder-Picasso’ showcases modern masters side-by-side

Artists explore empty space in representational and abstract works

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted changes to The City's streets including Slow Streets closures to increase open space access and the Shared Spaces program, which allows businesses to use public right-of-ways for dining, retail and services. (Examiner illustration)
COVID is reshaping the streets of San Francisco

Walk down Page Street, which is closed to thru-traffic, and you might… Continue reading

Most Read