Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Dinner @ Aziza

I've been feeling a tiny bit burnt out on eating so much of the same sort of food (lots of French, American, Californian), and was looking for somewhere to go with a vegetarian friend, so tonight we decided to try something totally different: Moroccan!  But of course, Michelin starred Moroccan :)  Aziza has been on my list of places to try for a couple years now, but somehow I just had never managed to drag myself there before.

I'd heard great things about the appetizers and desserts here in particular, so we went heavy on those items.  We ordered everything that people rave about: the flatbreads and spreads, the basteeya, and the farro risotto, plus some other things that the waitress recommended, or that sounded good.  Nothing was standout.  I can't pinpoint any direct reason why - ingredients seemed quality, no execution issues, spicing was fine ... it just wasn't particularly good.  I really don't understand why they've had a Michelin star for so many years in a row, or why the SF Michelin inspector just tweeted today about how good it was, naming dishes we had in particular.  Hmm.  Our entire group thought that everything was mediocre and certainly not worth the price or journey.  I won't be going back, unless someone really wanted to (the tasting menu sounded amazing, really really appealing dishes, but we weren't up for that this evening ... I might be convinced to try it sometime).  The biggest disappointment for me is that the dishes I was most excited about from the online menu (foie gras mousse, walnut tart with black sesame ice cream) were no longer available :(  I really wish places would keep their online menus more up to date!  I know it isn't always practical for places that change menu items constantly, and we are in spring transition mode right now, but I get so excited for a certain dish that it can be pretty heartbreaking for it to not be there.

I don't have much to say about the restaurant or service either.  Like the food, forgettable.  Decorated nicely enough, friendly enough staff, nothing really interesting to note.

Spreads: chickpea, yogurt-dill, piquillo-almond, flatbread.  $11.
This is, without a doubt, the most raved about dish on the menu  Basically every single review you read mentions this dish.  The amusing thing to me is that everyone disagrees on which of the trio of spreads is the best, but everyone says you must get this!

The flatbread comes fresh off the grill, really nice and warm.  They get bonus points for that.  And once you are about halfway through the bread, they offer to bring more, and start it grilling then, so that you always have perfectly fresh, warm, grilled bread. More bonus points for that.

The flatbread was pretty good, for flatbread I guess.  Oiled and spiced, with obvious grill marks.  I wasn't crazy over this, maybe I just don't love flatbread?

The piquillo-almond spread was very, very smokey.  It was a fairly thick consistency and had intense flavor.  I thought I'd love this one, but it didn't really do anything for me.  I love smokey flavor, and this was sorta just too much, not balanced enough.

The yogurt-dill dip was light and refreshing.  Our entire table thought it was the best of the three.  The piquillo-almond spread was improved if you mixed some of this with it, to balance out the smokey intense flavor.

The chickpea was basically a really smooth hummus with some garlic in it.  I didn't think it was particularly flavorful or good.  I've had much better hummus.

I probably wouldn't order this again.  I was very surprised to not like this much, since soooo many people have raved about it, and I do like spreads and dips quite a bit (my favorite part of going to the farmer's market is sampling all of the mediterranean dips!  Bring on the assorted hummus, aubourgine, babaganoush, yogurt spreads, etc!)  It looked like a pretty measly portion, and I was originally worried that with a group of four we wouldn't each get nearly enough and was ready to order a second one immediately, but it turned out, no one even wanted to finish this.  Sorta small portion for the price, particularly when so many places include some sort of bread as a complimentary starter to your meal.
Sweetbread, bone marrow, romaine, lily bulb. $16.
I was curious what this list of ingredients would arrive looking like.  The waitress did warn us that the bone marrow would be in the sauce, that we wouldn't be receiving a bone.  It was ... four assorted chunks of sweetbreads, battered, fried, tossed in a little sauce, and garnished with four baby romain leafs and four tiny slices of fried lily bulb.

I didn't pick up on the bone marrow flavor at all. In fact, the sauce was pretty tasteless.

I have no idea why there were little romain leafs on here, they were too tiny to add anything, but kinda large for a garnish.

The fried lily bulb was tasty little crispy bits, but absolutely tiny and lost.

The sweetbreads were decently done, well fried, not too greasy, but they kinda just tasted like chicken.

I wouldn't order this again, bland and uninteresting.  Portion a little small for price.
Ocean trout, avocado, radish, pearl onion. $14.
Recommendation from the waitress and by far the best thing of the night.  Perhaps the only dish I actually would say I liked.

The trout was really quite good.  The texture was perfect, slightly firm, but still soft and enjoyable to eat.  It was lightly cured, just enough to give it some complexity but still allowing the pure flavor of the fish to come through.  There were six round chunks in here (the round shape was a little strange, but whatever), which seemed like a good portion for the cost.  The trout was also topped with a tiny bit of black salt.  It was the prefect amount, as it was really intense, and any more would have been way too much, but the tiny bit accenting the fish really nicely.

The radish slices and leafs added a fresh springtime feel to the dish.

I only had a tiny chunk of the avocado since I'm allergic, but it seemed fresh and complimented the trout well.

The pearl onions were a complete surprise - they were pickled! They had a great flavor to them.  I can't say they paired with the trout all that well, but with the radish they were fantastic.  I'd love them on a salad.

I'd get this again.
Geoduck, fennel, rhubarb, ginger, shiso.  $16.
I had geoduck for my first time just a couple months ago at Quince, where it was served as a side to a main dish.  I'd heard of it before, but it is a fairly rare ingredient, and one I just hadn't really had the chance to have before.  I fell in love with it on the spot.  So amazingly good.  That was a cooked preparation.  When I saw geoduck on the menu, and my fellow dining companions were interested in having it too, I was very excited!

After I ordered it, the waitress asked if we knew what geoduck was.  Then she sorta stopped herself, saying "well, you knew how to pronounce it, so you must know!", but proceeded to warn us that it was a raw preparation.  This was a theme of the evening: I'd order the dish, and the waitress would warn us about it.  I wonder if they have a lot of problems with people expecting different things than they receive, which I could easily see, given the vagueness on the menu.

Anyway, there were some slices of raw geoduck, a few chunks of fennel, some compressed rhubarb, and a foam of some sort.  None of the components in this dish really seemed to go together whatsoever.

The geoduck wasn't very good.  Slightly chewy as you'd expect, but had a very strong ocean taste to it.

The fennel was inedible.  Impossible to cut even with a knife.

The rhubarb was nice, compressed into some little logs, providing a sorta sweet yet tart component to the dish.  The only bite I liked in this dish.

I have no idea where the ginger or shiso were, I didn't see nor taste them.  I'm not sure what the foam was, it didn't have any flavor either.

Would not order again.  No one wanted to finish this dish either.  Price a little high for the amount of geoduck, as the most significant thing on the plate was the fennel.
Duck confit basteeya,   raisin, almond. $22. 
This is their signature dish.  Spiced duck confit, raisins, almonds, wrapped in filo dough, topped with powdered sugar.

This arrives as one giant duck pie, but they cut it up for you and serve it.  I found this annoying, since we had one vegetarian and had to explain not to give him any, and then they gave me a far bigger piece than I wanted, etc, but once we tried to cut the remaining piece ourselves later, I understood why.  Our knives just butchered it, causing the whole thing to fall apart.

Anyway.  This was another dish that everyone talks about.  Apparently a few years ago it used to be a more traditional version with chicken, but they switched it to duck confit somewhere along the way.  The restaurant clearly considers it their signature item, the waitress recommended it, and like I said, all of the reviews talk about it.  None of us were particularly excited about duck confit, but figured we HAD to try this.

In concept, I could see liking this.  From reading the reviews, I knew it would be fairly sweet.  Meat pie?  Check!  Filo dough?  Check!

But, I just didn't like it much.  The filling was well spiced, and the mix of savory duck and sweetness from the raisins did work.  The filo dough was crisp and buttery, but I felt like there wasn't nearly enough, it was mostly just the filling.  The powdered sugar went well with the filo dough, but it is funny to see powdered sugar not on dessert or brunch!

I wouldn't order again.  And $22?  It was big, but not that big (it was an appetizer).  Again, a dish that no one particularly wanted to finish.
Green farro, scallop, himalayan truffle, carrot.  $22.
This was a risotto style dish.  Again, as I ordered, the waitress gave a warning that the scallops would be chopped up and integrated into the dish.  If I hadn't already read about this, I could easily see expecting a seared or grilled scallop atop some farro, with carrots on the side or something.

This was the most highly recommended entree I saw in reviews, and the waitress said it was one of the best.  And I love scallops, farro, and truffles, so it seemed like a clear winner.

The scallops, as the waitress said, were diced and mixed in.  They were totally lost.  No flavor whatsoever.  The only thing they did was add a little different texture from the farro grains.  Extremely disappointing since I love scallops.

The carrot was a surprise: lightly pickled, in tiny little cubes, and raw!  They provided a great crunch and flavor.

The himalayan truffles were generous, with a very strong earthy, woodsy flavor.  They added the only real good flavors to the dish.  Note: these aren't anything like french truffles, much more similar in flavor to just any old wild mushrooms, which was a good thing since we had a truffle hater amongst us.

The farro was overcooked in my opinion.  Definitely more mushy that I like it, no where near al dente.  And green?  I don't get it.  The sauce was just kinda oily and heavy and didn't have any flavor.

This was just really disappointing.  There wasn't any flavor to the majority of this dish, it was like a mushy, flavorless porridge that was somehow made of farro and scallops, but you'd never know it.  The carrot and mushroom were actually pretty tasty, but they couldn't save this dish.  We didn't come remotely close to finishing this.  (I took it home to eat the next night, and the flavors had developed a little bit more, but the sauce got even more oily and kinda nasty).
Brassicas , couscous, almond, castelvetrano, harissa. $19. 
I didn't have this, but our vegetarian dining companion seemed to enjoy it enough.
Tisane, herbal, fresh mint. $5.
Well, shame on me for expecting just mint tea.  I guess I knew that Moroccan tea is usually sweet, but I wasn't expecting it.  I just wanted a nice cup of warm mint tea, and this was crazy sweet and not at all what I wanted.  My dining companions took this off my hands and seemed to enjoy it.
Chocolate brioche french toast, green cardamom, coffee, hazelnut. $10.
We were there just a day or two after one person's birthday, so I mentioned this to the waitress.  They wrote Happy Birthday on one of the desserts we ordered and included a candle.  Thanks, but most Michelin starred places do much more for birthdays!

Anyway.  I wouldn't really call this chocolate brioche french toast.  It was more like a small moist chocolate cake.  It was served warm, which was nice, but it wasn't particularly interesting.

It was served atop a bunch of coffee soil, a decent pairing, but there was far more of the soil than of the "french toast" itself.

And then there was a huge pile of cardamom flavored cream.  I think we all expected it to be ice cream, or something more custardy, given how much there was (bigger than the cake part itself), so we all took big spoonfuls of it, but it was just a cream.  A spoonful of it was pretty awful on its own, a little with the cake was ok, but the cardamom didn't really go well with the chocolate.  There was way too much proportion-wise for the dish.

There were also a couple dots of some foam and a hazelnut flavored candy.

Overall, nothing really good going on here.
Strawberry parfait, beet sorbet, rhubarb, kumquat, pistachio.  $10.
The birthday boy liked this one, so that was good.  I can't say it really came together for me though.

The beet sorbet was indeed a beet sorbet.  Very strong beet flavor.  I like beets, I like sorbet, I like creative desserts like this ... but beets and strawberries?  It didn't really work for me, at all.  I think the beet sorbet would have been really fun as a palette cleanser paired with something like a crème fraîche sorbet.  Mmm, yeah, I could see that really working.  But with this dessert?  Not at all.

The kumquat came as candied peel, just a few tiny pieces on the plate.  Just standard candied kumquat, but I find that quite delicious.  I wish there was more of it!  Went great with the rhubarb and strawberry flavors.

The rhubarb was in the sauce.  Kinda sweet and cloying to eat on its own, but it went ok with the mousse part.

The strawberry was in the sheets of fruit candy, which were like a fancy version of fruit leather.  Sweet, nice flavor, enjoyable enough, although awkward to eat.

The pistachio crumble got soggy really quickly from the sauce, and seemed too bitter for the dish.

The mousse was fairly light and fluffy and I didn't find it all that flavorful.  I think it was strawberry?

Overall, I couldn't really find any bites that made sense, no combination of the ingredients that worked together well.  I liked the kumquat and strawberry candy, but those do not a successful dessert make.
Lavender panna cotta, malted vanilla ice cream, walnut cake, rye.  $10.
This was my favorite of the desserts.  I ate pretty much this entire thing myself.  It wasn't worth ordering again though, just better than the others.

The panna cotta was decent, well set, good consistency.  It had a strong lavender flavor that I didn't particularly care for, but was as advertised.  It was atop a crunchy, sweet, filo dough? base, that was delicious.  I'd have preferred this to be a different flavor, but it was done well for what it was.

The walnut cake was just ... cake.  I didn't taste walnut.  It wasn't particularly moist or flavorful or anything.  Just ... cake.  Just there.

There was some stewed fruit on here as well, we think it was prune?  Not really sure why it was there, it went ok with the boring cake.

The malted vanilla ice cream was delicious.  Creamy, good flavor.  Yum!  I really enjoyed it with the crumble on the plate.

Speaking of the crumble, perhaps that was where the rye was?  I'm not sure.  Whatever it was, it was tasty, and I'm glad there was so much of it.  It went well with the panna cotta, although it was a little hard to cut off a chunk of the panna cotta and try to get some crumble with it.  But as I said, it went really well with the ice cream.

I don't really understand why a panna cotta would come with a side of ice cream though.  I'm glad it did, as I genuinely enjoyed my spoonfuls of ice cream and crumble.  They were the highlight of the meal actually.  But panna cotta with cake?  Panna cotta with ice cream?  Hmm.
Mignardises: raspberry gelee, "nutter butter", caramel chocolate crunch.
And ... moar dessert.  Yes, as usual, I had a lot of dessert.

The raspberry gelee wasn't very good.  I wouldn't have been able to identify what flavor it was if we weren't told.

The "nutter butter" was just two tiny, thin, crispy, peanut butter cookies with some pb filling inside, but it tasted exactly like a nutter butter.  Or, at least, what I remember nutter butters tasting like.  It has been years since I've had one, but I used to eat them all the time, as my grandmother always had her cookie jar full of them :)  Brought back so many memories!

The caramel chocolate crunch was a soft caramel layer with crispy rice puffs in it, topped with chocolate.  The caramel wasn't that great, the chocolate was just a forgettable milk chocolate, meh.
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