Aziza – We’re here with friends outside wine geek circles (though they’re hardly non-foodies), and so in for a slightly quieter night. Or so we think. Ivan picks us up in his shiny new black BMW (a present to himself for years of hard work in the tech industry), and he and his girlfriend Cristen (a long-ago coworker of Theresa’s who we’ve kept in touch with ever since) drive us down the long streets of San Francisco into the Richmond District. Though it’s on a corner, Aziza presents a very restrained, almost hidden aspect to the street…very different from the lush, richly-colored interior of this Moroccan paradise.
From the beginning, they treat us extremely well; at one point, I begin to wonder if they’ve been encouraged to do so. Mark Ellenbogen (see above) also does the wine list here, so when free food arrives (the signature basteeya, a mélange of savory ingredient and sweet spices in a phyllo pie that shows incredible aromatic and palate delicacy for such a dense-looking dish), we wonder if there’s been a phone call. Or maybe they just recognize that we’re enjoying their food, which is across-the-board terrific; my appetizer-sized wild mushroom phyllo “ravioli” (with just the right accent of manouri cheese) redefines the potential of the local fungi, while couscous “Aziza” is a perfectly-scented blend of round morsels of starchy pleasure and rich, earthy meats and prawns. And the tea at the end of the night – Moroccan mint, and from a special recipe developed by the chef and learned by some of the staff (including our waiter) – is beyond extraordinary. With beautiful décor, great food, flawless service, and an Ellenbogen wine list, what’s not to love?
More on that in a moment…
(wine notes excised)
So here’s what’s not to love: moments after the arrival of our main courses, the waiter stoops next to Ivan. “Did you valet your car, sir?”
“Could I see the ticket, please?”
Ivan produces the ticket.
“I’m very sorry to tell you this, sir, but there’s been an accident…”
The gist is that there’s been some sort of road-rage incident on busy Geary Boulevard – the details are convoluted, but involve a baseball bat, a rather messed-up young man with three knocked-out teeth and a lot of blood, and an attempt to escape from said beating – that has crushed our friend’s no-longer-so-shiny new black BMW and the cars next to it into each other and up onto the curb. Luckily, bystanders have gotten the plate number of the primary offenders (who have fled the scene), but all the chaos, police reports, and the noisy minuet of tow trucks obviously puts quite the damper on dinner.
And how does Aziza handle this potential disaster? They cook another main course for our friend, so that it’s hot when he finally re-enters the restaurant about a half-hour later, box up the previous version and the leftovers of the current one for him to take home, and comp the entire meal (for us and the other affected parties). We protest that it’s not their fault and they shouldn’t have to suffer the loss, but they insist. So as not to bring down the wrath of the IRS on our wonderful server, I ask him to at least charge us for the tea so I can leave him an appropriately huge gratuity. It’s a textbook lesson in disaster-management and customer service, and achieves its intended effect of leaving us with nothing but affectionate feelings towards the restaurant. We will definitely be back.
Well done, Aziza. (4/05)
Aziza – This Richmond District Moroccan is always a lot of fun. We’d resolved to come back after our somewhat disastrous last experience…which wasn’t the fault of the restaurant, but rather of some sort of epic road rage incident on Geary Avenue that resulted in our dining companions’ new BMW being totaled while we noshed on lamb shanks.
Determined to do better, we arrive to a cheery staff who immediately appears to recognize us. Whether or not we’re unusually memorable, I can’t say, but it’s soon obvious that they all recall last year’s incident. The restaurant is packed and noisy (it is, after all, a Saturday night), but we’re put in as remote a corner as can be had, and this helps quiet the din somewhat. Food highlights include pistachio-encrusted goat cheese on a tomato/citrus jam with zaatar croutons, seafood phyllo triangles delicately laced with saffron, and a selection of wild mushroom with Manouri cheese (also on phyllo), but the star of the evening is presented as a special: a carrot soup with an utterly seductive mélange of spices and a flawlessly silky texture. After that exciting array of appetizers, the main courses are a bit less exciting, no thanks to a somewhat bland vegetarian couscous with tragically mild harissa. A terrific black cod claypot dish and a bit of the signature basteeya improve matters once more, to the point where we are simply incapable of eating another bite.
Inevitably, they bring us a selection of (comped) desserts: a piercing rhubarb tart, a strangely prosaic chocolate concoction that draws initial indifference but improves with each bite, and a fascinating reinvention of pistachios.
As for wine, I’m eager to sample from the always-enticing list, but our companions have brought their own , and who am I to look a gift bottle in the mouth? (4/06)
Copyright © Thor Iverson