The story of Aziza almost follows the classic hero’s journey: A call to adventure, challenges, a low point, transformation, and rebirth.
Back in 1999, founder Mourad Lahlou poured everything he had into opening his restaurant, which he named after his mother. The hard work paid off: Aziza earned a Michelin star and was at the forefront of Californian-Moroccan food, until 2016, when a two-month renovation turned into three years.
The prolonged closure was unexpected. A myriad of reasons — a falling out with his mother, increasingly costly renovation requirements — made Lahlou’s aspirations to keep Aziza alive harder and harder to meet.
But as Lahlou told Eater, there was “no fucking way” he wasn’t bringing Aziza back.
And he finally accomplished it. After three years of uncertainty, Aziza re-opened in October 2019 with a brand new look and some beloved classic menu items. The new Aziza interior feels cinematic. Dark wood arches hover over a glowing bar decorated with deep blue tiles. One room boasts lime-green backed seating and a dark palm leaf printed wallpaper. In the main room, wicker lights drop from the ceiling to softly illuminate the pale plaster, plum seats, and blue Moroccan tiling. This new visualization of Aziza was three years in the making.
When you get to Aziza, start your dinner off by ordering the spreads and flatbread. Each round of flatbread is coated with visible grains of salt, and the spreads served with them — butterbean merguez, piquillo-almond, and dill-lebni-roe — are, as my plus-one pointed out, dynamic with texture in a way many spreads are not. A favorite, the piquillo-almond, is almost pastelike in its sweet creamy thickness, serving up a comforting mealiness with a layer of pine nuts. That’s what’s so delightful about the food Aziza serves: Everything has multiple dimensions to it. It’s food you can sit with, and continue sitting with, and still be thinking about.
That’s a standard you can hold to their cocktails as well. The High Atlas ($12), I was warned, would be spicy, and it actually was. Not overwhelmingly so, but the combination of Lunazul Reposado tequila and elderflower liqueur thrived with the Ancho Reyes chile liqueur. Basil Eau de Vie lent the Scarlet Fever ($13) a welcome complexity too.
Aziza 2.0 brings back some classics, like the braised lamb shank, which
rests on a bed of whole grain porridge and a sauce that pairs well with an extra order of Aziza’s fluffy, hand-rolled couscous with aged butter. Layers of flaky phyllo dough enwrap the chicken basteeya, studded through with chopped almonds. While a lot of attention has been given to the larger plates on Aziza’s menu, the grilled quail, an item off the smaller plates section, deserves some spotlight too: Juicy and slightly gamey, the quail falls apart under your fork.
The dessert menu at Aziza boasts a new, promising addition: a date cake with a thick, decadent butterscotch sauce. But the item that caught and held my attention was the cheapest and most simple thing on the menu: a whole pear, cut into small slices and arranged with toasted almonds and medjool dates on a blank plate. There’s nothing flashy about this dessert — it just looks like an abstract art piece, and the pears act as a pleasant palette cleanser after a big meal. The orange blossom panna cotta also operated similarly: another simple dessert, this dish used the honey’s aromatics to its advantage. It’s a good reminder that while Aziza may have had a rough history, its extraordinary menu and attention to the basics will always keep it as a favorite in San Francisco’s memory, and hopefully, in its future.
Aziza, 5800 Geary Blvd.
Grace Li covers arts, culture, and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at email@example.com