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Aziza

Cozy Moroccan in the Richmond

In 2001, Brothers Khalid and Mourad Lahlou phased out their wildly popular San Rafael operation, Kasbah, to open a comfortable neighborhood destination in San Francisco. Showcasing Mourad's Moroccan cuisine and the pastry skills of Kokkari alum Eric Hollis, Aziza features three mid-sized dining rooms with circular booths of various sizes, cushy, low banquette seating, banquet tables, and an 8 to 10-seat bar. Hand-carved tables from the Moroccan town of Essouira date back to the 1930s and 40s, offering a warm contrast to the rich Italian fabrics and Mediterranean blue and white-striped Moorish arches which define the space.

While many restaurants have trouble accommodating larger parties, Aziza is actually best suited for gatherings. The larger booths can easily hold six to ten people, while smaller booths work well for dates or small parties. One banquet room holds thirty, while another, smaller room offers an even more intimate setting. Regardless, it's impossible not to enjoy an epic feast with the help of the knowledgeable staff and eloquent maitre'd Khalid.

The $35 tasting menu is a good idea, since its soup, plate of Mediterranean spreads and vegetables, Bastilla, entrée and dessert are a survey of some of the chef's best offerings. The tomato-based, lentil-laden Harira soup ($6 a la carte) is smooth and formidable; the spread plate's smoky eggplant mousse, hummus, olive tapenade and grilled flat bread are a light meal on their own ($7). The chicken Bastilla, a phyllo pastry filled with minced, braised saffron chicken, spiced almonds, and powdered sugar ($6 per person, minimum 2 orders), makes a terrific brunch treat the morning after, so definitely ask for a to-go box (Khalid's recommendation).

Entrees maintain a consistent usage of honey, dried fruits, almonds, olives and lemon. Two recent favorites include a braised rabbit tagine in paprika sauce with yellow pear tomatoes and Moroccan pink olives ($18), as well as a braised lamb shank with honey and kumquat sauce, caramelized dried fruits, roasted almonds and cous cous ($17). Finished with a gorgeous orange granita with Kasseri yogurt sorbet (the texture of which has been painstakingly perfected, according to Khalid — $6), the meal is quite the journey.

The wine list, studded with obscure producers from Alsace, Austria, Germany, Spain, Lebanon and the U.S., smoothes the experience; make sure to ask Khalid's advice in choosing something for each course. The list is divided into character categories like "crisp dry," "soft floral," "spicy racy," and "robust lavish," a tactic which we found to be helpful and unpretentious.

All in all, Aziza is solid. Thematically, the food and décor are consistent; service is terrific, and there is even the occasional belly dancer wafting through the space accepting folded dollar bills from patrons. It's the perfect spot for an intimate but spirited bridal shower, dinner party, rehearsal dinner, graduation meal, birthday or anniversary. Although Aziza offers all of the comforts of a fine San Francisco neighborhood restaurant, it rings in ahead of the generic bistros with its North African décor, high-end cuisine, welcoming feel, and unobtrusive entertainment.