California Moroccan and Sardinian Sardinian
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It's hard to decide whether to call Aziza a Moroccan restaurant. Many of the dishes are Moroccan or Moroccan-influenced, but some are more properly described as new American. The restaurant and its Marrakech-born chef Mourad Lahlou have received rave reviews, and they're no doubt generally well deserved, but there were a few things that annoyed me about the place, excellent food notwithstanding.
I'm glad that Aziza supports local, sustainable agriculture, but do I really need to know what farm every damn ingredient in every damn dish comes from? Too much information. All right, not every ingredient, and granted, it is nice to know that your meat comes from farms where the animals are treated humanely before they're killed for your dining pleasure.
And the waiter annoyed me. He had that certain trendy-restaurant waiter attitude: helpful yet pushy, friendly yet snotty. Actually, he gave me the creeps, though I did appreciate his resoluteness when asked for suggestions among dishes. Some of his answers, however, made me suspect that the kitchen isn't always so subtle in its execution. "Do you REALLY like green olives?" he replied when asked about one dish, and when asked about another said, "do you REALLY like eggplant?"
But the food is, for the most part, very good. An appetizer of grilled spicy lamb sausage (I have no idea why they don't call it merguez on the menu) worked quite well with its accompanying goat yogurt-fromage blanc. And the basteeya (usually spelled bastilla), a "phyllo pie with a filling of saffron braised chicken & almonds, powdered sugar and cinnamon," which we all shared, was fantastic.
My main course was excellent too, though there really wasn't anything North African about it (not that there's anything wrong with that). It was "seared Hokkaido sea scallops, warm Brentwood corn salad, beet reduction vinaigrette, Marash pepper." The menu neglected to mention that it was topped with arugula, a nice touch.
I tasted the dishes of a couple of fellow diners, and was happier with my choice. The couscous Aziza, which came with a combination of meats and shrimp, paled by comparison with a good traditional couscous royale. I think here they were trying too hard to avoid the traditional. The dish was served dry; they'd have been better off putting some innovation into an accompanying broth. The Prather Ranch lamb shank with Earl Grey-infused dried prunes and cranberry-cinnamon barley was, as I feared, too sweet.
My dessert, cornmeal orange crepes with lemon-basil ice cream and blackberry coulis was good, but it sounded better on paper. The crepes were surprisingly flavorless.
Overall, Aziza does a generally admirable spin on Moroccan cuisine, but at times the chef tries too hard with his innovations, and the room and service felt too artificial for comfort.
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La Ciccia, on the other hand, is thoroughly traditional Sardinian, the room is comfortable despite the tight quarters, and the service is delightfully unpretentious. As Michael Bauer wrote in his San Francisco Chronicle review, "San Franciscans are always willing to trade glamor for good food." Personally, I'm willing to trade glamor for decent food.
La Ciccia opened a little more than a year ago on a quiet street in Noe Valley. Throughout the evening, the charming chef-owner, Massimiliano Conti, makes the rounds of the tables to tell the diners what's in their food and about Sardinian cuisine in general. The menu is heavily oriented toward the seafood cuisine of coastal Sardinia (as opposed to New York's Assenzio, which specializes in the hearty game dishes of the interior).
The food at La Ciccia is a delight. An appetizer of baby calamari and clams was served in a delicious Vermentino wine broth that was great for a ritual bread bath. The traditional Sardinian flatbread baked with olive oil and sea salt had a wonderfully nutty flavor and a perfect crunch, though I felt that $6 was a little steep for an order.
For my main course I chose a special of the day, maccheroni di Bosa, a doughy knitting-needle-shaped pasta served with a thick fish ragu of orata (sea bream), trout, white fennel, herbs and tomato. The ragu tasted so fresh I was almost transported to the Sardinian seaside.
Also spectacular was my dessert, a pistachio-almond semifreddo (best described as something between a mousse and a gelato). The flavors were intense, the texture sensual, and the icing on the cake, as it were, was a little square of what I assume was pistachio-flavored white chocolate.
If I lived in San Francisco I'd be a La Ciccia regular.