Chef Mourad Lahlou has accomplished an applaudable feat: introduced authentic Morrocan cuisine to San Francisco
When Mourad Lahlou immigrated to the U.S. from Marrakesh at the tender age of 17 to pursue a master’s degree in economics, no one could have predicted he’d helm San Francisco’s best Moroccan restaurants — Aziza and Mourad — or that he’d be a national pioneer of modern Moroccan cuisine.
Missing the cuisine he grew up with — and his mother’s cooking and grandfather taking him on market excursions in Morocco — led him to teach himself how to recreate these dishes using California’s abundance of superb ingredients. Opening his first restaurant, Kasbah, in 1996, he went on to open Aziza in SF’s Richmond District in 2001 to more fully create the modern, Californian Moroccan cuisine he was honing the longer he lived here. In 2010, Aziza was the first Moroccan restaurant in the U.S. to garner a Michelin star, and since opening the more upscale Mourad in 2015, he garnered another. His accolades and achievements are many — including winning Food Network’s Iron Chef America in 2009 and writing the cookbook, Mourad: New Moroccan. But for me, his restaurants are not just one of our many only-in-SF experiences, but Aziza was a formative restaurant that made me fall hard for SF when I moved here in 2001, the same year Aziza opened.
In a city and region that has pioneered more of the major (and minor) food and drink trends than the country and world even begins to realize, it’s no surprise that here, a visionary Moroccan chef would find — and succeed with — his unique perspective.
In 1999, I backpacked around Europe three months solo as a fresh-faced and inexperienced girl, adding on Morocco mid-trip. I communally ate couscous by hand out of large tagines with locals (a COVID-era no-no, but a long-held tradition in this magical country). The long pour of Moroccan mint tea mesmerized me. The rug and dry goods markets tried to draw me in, penniless backpacker though I was. Yes, I even witnessed a snake charmer lure a snake out of a basket. Aromas of cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, paprika, and beyond wove like a dreamy cloud throughout the markets of Tangier and Casablanca, where I roamed after boating from the tiny island of Gibraltar to this wonderland recalling Arabian Nights and my old movie-weaned childhood, including, of course, the great Casablanca (not even close to my favorite historic film but a game-changer, nonetheless).
At Aziza in those early days, I found a home for my favorite Moroccan dish: Bastilla or basteeya, the shredded meat, phyllo-encrusted, cinnamon-and-powdered sugar-dusted savory meat pie. Mourad’s version was everything. But I also took to his rabbit with dried cherries and those produce-driven cocktails where bar greats like Christopher Longoria (now of Che Fico) honed their bar craft (I wrote this humble early nugget in 2008 after years of dining at Aziza).
This was a modern Moroccan haven that, in part, brought me back to those formative, youthful memories of a complex and fascinating country, but Aziza also reinvented my conceptions of the cuisine. Mourad (the restaurant) became another favorite, and a three-year closure of Aziza lead to its reopening and rebirth in 2019.
Then came the pandemic. Aziza takeout got me through some tough nights in those early months, while I rejoiced with little moves back, like their parklet and eventual full reopen.
One cozy September night, I returned with girlhood friends visiting from LA, who hadn’t been back to SF in ages and had little experience with Moroccan food. To say they were won over is putting it mildly. We feasted until we couldn’t eat another bite, revisiting favorites Mourad has perfected over the past two decades while trying out new dishes.
Those crucial favorites? The trio of spreads is a “must,” due in no small part to the warm-out-of-the-oven flatbread that tastes like home. The dips change from time to time but are ever-irresistible. Recently, it was a white bean in vadouvan oil, piquillo, and almond, and lebni dotted with dill and smoked trout roe. Sheer (gourmet) comfort in three mini-bowls.
Another Mourad staple he has perfected (at both restaurants) over the years is his salmon. This night it was a house-smoked salmon starter accented with leeks, snap peas, preserved lemon cream, and nasturtium leaves. The texture and comfort of Mourad’s salmon is not “just” another salmon dish, but an unforgettable (artful) re-envisioning of a common fish.
As previously hinted at, the basteeya is also a “must.” Watching my SoCal friends revel over the cinnamon-laced phyllo crisp dissolving around confit chicken, spiced almonds and onion, felt like falling in love with this Moroccan classic all over again.
Aziza’s wine list is on-point, whether we savored the grassy-citrusy joys of a 2019 Damilano Arneis from Italy’s Langhe region, or the fruit-acid balance of 2018 Hanzell ‘Sebella’ Pinot Noir from nearby Sonoma Coast. Cocktails are also worthwhile, starting with the unexpected (and vivid blue) fun of Below Deck, a vodka-gin-Blanco tequila-rum blend, Combier Le Blue (essentially a blue curacao), subtly tropical and savory with banana, lime, caraway, and fennel. Smoke on the Water was also a standout with a layered base of Bozal Ensemble Mezcal and Green Chartreuse, softened with coconut water, agave, and orange blossom water, gaining further vegetal depth from Ancho Verde.
New-to-me dishes that showcased the season ranged from pitch-perfect shishito peppers marked by a lebni emulsion, tiny anchovies, and cultured cream, to za’atar-spiced, miso-dressed heirloom tomatoes — the seasonal ingredient I can never resist — accompanied by cucumbers, black olives, stone fruit, feta, and mint.
The feasting continued through ⅔ of the menu with other highlights including the breakfast glories of shakshuka, the classic tomato-pepper melange here with stewed chickpeas, pickled beans, and poached egg, as well as saffron-scented whole dorade fish with summer squash and Swiss chard in smoked broth.
A tart yuzu custard graced with mixed seasonal berries and whipped cream is the right finish. And it’s hard to top the decadent, gut-level comfort of Mourad’s skillet cornbread in harissa butter. Trust me when I say, it will rock your world.
We said hello to Mourad and team, holding down the kitchen with grace and the familial comfort they impart in each dish.
My friends walked away tasting a piece of SF through a Moroccan lens, while I marveled at the evolution of a chef and one of the world’s great cuisines partnered with rich, Mediterranean-esque terroir of our bounteous home region of San Francisco. Aziza and Mourad, we’re grateful you’re still here.
// 5800 Geary Boulevard; https://azizasf.com