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A Star in the West

Aziza chef Mourad Lahlou is not resting on his laurels, despite his restaurant's ongoing success since its debut more than seven years ago. Lahlou continues to evolve and refine the notion of Cal-Moroccan food to new heights, and his efforts have been rewarded with a Michelin Guide star for 2010.

From the outside, Aziza's modified Victorian exterior in a nondescript stretch of Geary Boulevard does little to convey a sense of exoticism. But once through the door, the restaurant's blue-tinted windows and Jeannie-bottle dÚcor transport you to places at once foreign and friendly. Rich colors and banquettes adorned with arabesque cushions stay safely on the side of cozy rather than kitsch. The earthy Heath stoneware dishes help to reinforce the familial vibe.

Aziza's bar has been turning out innovative culinary cocktails (all $10) for years, leveraging seasonal fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices as flavoring agents. A combination of cachaša, tarragon, and cardamom started with a bright anise note, mellowing into a haunting spicy tone; persimmon and maple complemented rye for a warming, autumnal tipple. A summertime visit netted a fresh, zingy cocktail of muddled watermelon with jalape˝o.

Aziza has recently retooled its menu, organizing dishes into more recognizable groupings of shareable small plates and larger main dishes. The restaurant still offers a five-course tasting menu at $62 per person (wine pairing $20-$40, additional); a bargain considering the quantity of the food.

Lahlou's talent combines impeccably prepared foods with ingredients that take them outside the realm of predictability. A starter of mild goat cheese served atop a tangy tomato jam with pistachios and argan oil ($10) balanced richness, sweetness, and earthiness beautifully. Rich charmoula provided a base for a poached hen's egg nested in a bowl of creamy beans with intriguingly crispy skins ($12). Everyone in our group adored the Humboldt squid cooked sous vide and then seared ($12), but a plate of pumpkin, turnip, and hon shimeji mushrooms ($11) got a more mixed reception due to the squash's slightly al dente texture.

Perhaps the restaurant's one nod to straight-up traditional fare is its signature basteeya ($18), a classic Moroccan dish of chicken cooked with almonds and spices in a phyllo shell, and served with powdered sugar. For first-time tasters, it can be a revelation of the interplay of savory and sweet.

Aziza is also committed to using local, ethical and sustainably produced and harvested foods. And you won't leave hungry; the main dishes' portions are remarkably generous. A braised lamb shank with prunes, barley, cranberry and scallion ($25) fell away from the bone with the lightest touch. They've eschewed the traditional tagine presentation for a more elegant plating of couscous with chicken, prawn, merguez sausage, and vegetables ($24); a vegetarian version is also available ($18).

Do save room for dessert, as pastry chef Melissa Chou's creations are among the best you'll find in the city. A beguiling mix of hibiscus granita atop a rose-flavored parfait topped with a shatteringly frail citrus tuile delivered a complex mix of textures, flavors, temperatures, and aromas. A chewy hazelnut dacquoise, a meringue laden with ground nuts, played nicely with pear in a satisfyingly autumnal dish.

The service at Aziza is formal without being overly stuffy. The servers are knowledgeable but soft-spoken, helping to maintain a sense of intimacy at the table. We'd like to see that level of refinement trained down to the bussers as well. If anyone can break the trend of diners being asked brusque questions such as, "You finished?" it should be our few Michelin-starred spots. Still, it's a minor quibble.

Aziza's prices keep it from being an everyday restaurant, but its food is too special to be eaten without consideration. By delivering innovative food in a romantic and intimate setting, Aziza has duly earned its culinary accolades.