When Mourad Lahlou immigrated from Marrakech to the United States at the age of 17 to study for a master’s degree in economics, no one could have predicted that he would be at the helm of the best Moroccan restaurants in San Francisco-Aziza and Mourad-or that he would become a modern Pioneer of Moroccan cuisine.
Missing the food he grew up with—and his mother’s cooking and grandfather’s tour of the markets in Morocco—allowed him to teach himself how to recreate these dishes using California’s abundant, high-quality ingredients. He opened his first restaurant Kasbah in 1996 and Aziza in the Richmond district of San Francisco in 2001 to create a more comprehensive modern California Moroccan cuisine. The longer he lives here, the longer he lives. Has been honed. In 2010, Aziza was the first Moroccan restaurant in the United States to receive a Michelin star. Since opening the more upscale Mourad in 2015, he has won another one. His honors and achievements are many-including winning the Food Network's Iron Chef America in 2009 and writing the recipe, Mourad: New Moroccan. But for me, his restaurant is not just one of our many unique experiences in San Francisco, but Aziza is a formative restaurant. When I moved here in 2001, the year Aziza opened, It makes me have a soft spot for SF.
In a city and region that has pioneered more primary (and secondary) food and beverage trends, even more than the country and the world are beginning to realize.
In 1999, as a fresh-looking and inexperienced girl, I backpacked in Europe alone for three months and traveled halfway through Morocco. The locals and I eat couscous from a large tagine pot with my hands (a taboo in the COVID era, but a long-standing tradition in this magical country). Long-term Moroccan mint tea fascinates me. The carpet and dry goods market tried to attract me, even though I was a penniless backpacker. Yes, I even witnessed a snake charmer draw a snake out of the basket. The aromas of cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, paprika, etc. weave like dreamy clouds in the markets of Tangier and Casablanca. I took a boat from the island of Gibraltar to this wonderland and roamed, reminiscing about One Thousand and One Nights. The old childhood of movie weaning, including, of course, the great Casablanca (not even close to my favorite historical movie, but still a game changer).
Early in Aziza, I found the home of my favorite Moroccan dishes: Bastilla or basteeya, shredded pork, leaf wrapper, savory meat pie with cinnamon powder and powdered sugar. Murad's version is everything. But I also like his bunny, paired with dried cherries and product-oriented cocktails, where bar masters such as Christopher Longoria (now Che Fico) honed their bar skills (I After dining in Aziza restaurant for many years, I wrote this humble early gold nugget in 2008).
This is a modern Moroccan haven. To a certain extent, it brought me back to the formative and young memories of a complex and fascinating country, but Aziza has also reshaped my concept of gastronomy. Mourad (restaurant) became another favorite, and Aziza's three-year closure led to its reopening and rebirth in 2019.
Then came the pandemic. In the first few months, Aziza's takeaway made me through some difficult nights, and I was happy for some small actions, such as their park and finally fully reopened.
On a cozy night in September, I came back with my teenage friends from Los Angeles. They have not returned to San Francisco for a long time, and they have no experience with Moroccan food. To say that they were persuaded is a euphemism. We feasted until we couldn't eat another bite, and while trying new dishes, we relived Murad's perfect favorites over the past two decades.
Those key favorites? The three spreads are "must", largely because the flatbread in the oven tastes like home. The trough changes from time to time, but it is always irresistible. Recently, it is white beans, piquillo and almonds in Vadowan oil, lebni garnished with dill and smoked trout roe. Pure (gourmet) comfort in three mini bowls.
Another Murad staple that he has perfected over the years (in two restaurants) is his salmon. Tonight is a homemade smoked salmon appetizer with leeks, peas, lemon cream and nasturtium leaves. The texture and comfort of Mourad's salmon is not just an "other" salmon dish, but an unforgettable (ingenious) reimagining of ordinary fish.
As previously implied, basteeya is also "must". Watching my SoCal friends revel in the dissolution of the crispy phyllo mixed with cinnamon around the oil-sealed chicken, spiced almonds and onions, it feels like falling in love with this Moroccan classic again.
Aziza's wine list is important, whether we taste the grassy citrus flavor of 2019 Damilano Arneis from the Langhe region of Italy, or the acid balance of 2018 Hanzell'Sebella' Pinot Noir from the nearby Sonoma Coast. Cocktails are also worth trying, first of all the unexpected (and vivid blue) fun, a vodka gin-blanco tequila blend, Combier Le Blue (essentially a blue Curacao), with subtle tropical flavors of banana, lime, coriander, and fennel. Smoke on the Water is also an excellent fragrance, with the layered base notes of Bozal Ensemble Mezcal and Green Chartreuse, softened with coconut water, agave and orange blossom water, to obtain further plant depth from Ancho Verde.
Showcasing new dishes of the season, from the perfect shishito peppers marked by lebni lotion, small anchovies and cultured cream, to za'atar spices and miso-flavored heirloom tomatoes-seasonal ingredients that I can never resist-accompanied by Cucumbers, black olives, stone fruits, feta and mint.
The banquet continues into menu ⅔, and other highlights include the breakfast glory of shakshuka, the classic tomato and pepper stew with chickpeas, pickled beans and poached eggs, and the saffron-scented whole fish with zucchini and beets in Swiss smoked broth.
The sour grapefruit custard with mixed seasonal berries and whipped cream is the perfect finish. It's hard to surpass the decadence and gut-level comfort of Mourad's Harissa Butter Cornbread. Believe me, it will shake your world.
We say hello to Murad and his team, who control the kitchen with elegance and homely comfort in every dish.
My friends walked and tasted a piece of SF through a Moroccan lens, and I marveled at the evolution of the chef and one of the world's first-class cuisines in collaboration with the rich Mediterranean terroir of our affluent San Francisco home region. Aziza and Murad, we are grateful that you are still here.
// 5800 Giri Avenue; https://azizasf.com
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Virginia founded The Perfect Spot in 2007 and is the chairman of the 50 best restaurants in the world, serving as a judge and writer/editor for more than 60 food and beverage publications worldwide
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