You know what I find most exciting about dining out? It’s not the dressing up, or chatting with industry folk, or even laughing with close friends. It’s the unknown. Whether it’s not knowing what’s on the menu before walking in the door, ordering a tasting menu dotted with unexpected treats, or flying blind and leaving my meal in the hands of the chef, the things that take me by surprise are the things that stand out the most. So, rather being a regular at certain restaurants because of one or two particular dishes that keep them coming back for more, I keep going back to my favorite restaurants because I have no idea what will be on the menu next – they all constantly evolve, and there is no better example of evolution than Aziza.
Anyone who has dined at Aziza in recent years knows that, other than its location, the restaurant has undergone some radical changes. The menu moved away from being tied to traditional Moroccan food to one which embraced California cuisine from a Moroccan angle. What that means, in less generic language, is that less emphasis was put on staying true to the exact ingredients necessary to create traditional Moroccan flavors and more was put into building a Moroccan flavor profile using local, seasonal ingredients. Little by little, this shift in philosophy transformed the restaurant’s cuisine into what I fell in love with (and wrote about) back in April of last year. Now, over one year later, I’m compelled to write again because, after 10 years, the evolution is still happening: portions are more refined, the proportion of each ingredient on the plate is more balanced, the presentation is, well, exquisite, and the food itself? Let me tell you, it’s only getting better.
After a year of ordering a la carte, I finally stopped screwing around and ordered the complete tasting menu. All 13 courses…plus an additional dish from the menu…plus an extra dessert. Yeah, okay, so I pigged out! I don’t care because at only $95 per person, it’s beyond just a good deal. Because of my familiarity with the restaurant, I was expecting it to be amazing. But, I didn’t think it would be so good that it would make me cry. Damnit Aziza! You made me cry! And no, I wasn’t drunkenly gushing. No no, instead I kept my dignity and opted for a silent tear, maybe two, that not only encapsulated how incredible the food was that evening, but also how incredible the food has been every time I’ve gone. Rather than go through every single dish represented in those tiny drops of water, I want to focus on the recent highlights.
The first four courses alone make ordering the tasting menu a no-brainer. Starting with, oh sweet Jesus, the chilled Asparagus Soup with Peas and Lemon Verbena! I wish that instead of two bites I could’ve ordered two gallons to bring home and eat until I turned green – and even then I don’t think I’d ever get sick of it. A silky smooth asparagus puree poured over a base of some of the most succulent peas you’ve ever seen, which were resting beneath a lemon verbena foam. When mixed together, the texture of the puree and foam became as airy as a cloud – a magical, spring vegetable cloud whose lightness was broken up by the juicy pop of peas! Easily the best soup of this past spring.
The Quail Egg, Chicken Crackling, and radish that followed was fatty, in that melt-in-your-mouth bacon fat kinda way, but salty, fresh, crunchy, soft, and squishy all in a single bite. Whenever I think about it, all that I hear in my head is, “Now That’s how you do cracklin’.”
My taste buds were further intrigued by the third appetizer, the Coconut Panna Cotta with caviar, chive blossom, and shaved brown truffle. The tropical notes of the coconut paired with delicate hints of onion from the chive blossom, which was then mixed with the earthiness of truffle, created a taste that I’ve never experienced before. It actually left me feeling confused. Despite questions of “huh?” or “Wait, hang on…what?!”, I knew that I liked it, and I knew that I wanted more. Also…what? there’s such a thing as a brown truffle? Apparently so. And when shaved it resembles the texture of coconut? Good to know…
Okay, enough already. Let’s talk Game Birds.
I am not using hyperbole when I say that Aziza consistently does poultry, specifically quail and squab, better than any other restaurant out there. I tend to avoid these birds because 95% of the time they’re so overcooked that they’re difficult to swallow – a feeling that I’ve never liked or grown accustomed to. Before Aziza I thought a succulent piece of quail was just a myth, a thing of legend that’s rumored to surface every 200 years, but only for so brief a moment that no living soul has ever been fortunate enough to trap it and eat it. But, thanks to Aziza, I know that the existence of such a creature is no myth! The meat on these tiny birds is served so red, so moist, and so tender that I can’t help but be baffled by how many kitchens get it wrong. People, it’s real, and I make a point of selecting an entree that features one of my delicious feathered friends every time I dine at Aziza.
Finally, I know this article is long, but I hope you’ve saved room for Dessert because, it doesn’t just deserve your attention, it deserves a standing ovation. I had no problem saying it a year ago and I’ll say it again, right now Melissa Chou is one of the country’s greatest talents in the world of pastry. And as of this year, she can back that statement up with her nomination as one of five James Beard finalists for her category. Watch out for her people – she’s young, talented, getting noticed, and when it comes down to it, just kickin ass and takin names.
Alright, jeez Kelsey, enough sucking up already! Let me explain why I’m on Team Chou. I find that my favorite desserts, the ones that really make you sit back in your chair and just smirk while you chew, are those where there is an incredible amount of attention placed on texture. I thought I could describe texture pretty intelligently before meeting Melissa – let’s see there’s soft in an ice cream sort of way, crunchy like a wafer, airy like a foam, squishy like a marshmallow, etc…But Melissa can take the word “creamy” and identify all of the sub-categories of textures found in “creamy.” For example, she could better describe “creamy” as “milky, buttery, soft, smooth, velvety” on one hand, and “light, fluffy, cottony, feathered, silky, and spongey” on the other. Thinking in such minute terms allows her to incorporate a myriad of textural elements in her dessert, which go beyond cliches and delight your palate. Or if you’re like me, you may see broken pieces of graham cracker-like chocolate, topped with some kind of chocolate shavings, all nestled underneath a giant a mound of toasted meringue and move from delight to fond nostalgia thinking, “Wow! This is just like certain levels of Dinosaur Land in Super Mario Brothers!”
She also looks out of the box when choosing ingredients, taking advantage of anything in season, or even sometimes out of season, that can provide a balance of sweet, tart, and salty. Her extensive use of green strawberries (picked out of season before they ripen and become too sweet) is one way she puts a bit of pucker on the plate. Or finding inspiration in common summer ingredients like corn and stone fruit to make a corn Bavarian balanced beautifully with an apricot sorbet and caramel. Her innovative desserts embody the restaurant’s philosophy of picking the best local, seasonal ingredients available at the time and making them into something familiar, yet completely out of the box. So, no matter how full you may be after hours of gluttony, you must, and I mean MUST order dessert – even if its just for one bite.
With all of the amazing things I can say about Aziza, this “essay” could easily become a 20 page report. So, rather than drowning you with more detail, I’ll conclude on this note: I’m head over heels in love with Aziza, and I know that once you make that first reservation, you will be too.
5800 Geary Boulevard
San Francisco, CA 94121