When I hear the word crown, I think of a headpiece instead of a toothache.
Funny, considering that one would assume my penchant for food is superior to my daydream of being a prince. Take to my fashion instagram for shameless princely encounters. But I learned of how to create crowns and jewels in the form of plating at a Moroccan cove tucked in San Francisco.
Moroccan cuisine in San Francisco? I wondered.
For there were far too many lands and oceans between the two to do justice to the regional cuisines. However, Michelin star winning Mourad Lahlou was set to change the geographic proximity theory by abandoning Middle Eastern cliches with a glinting, dark ambiance that embraced us as soon as we entered Aziza. For perched below Aladdin chandeliers was a red lit, almost romantic atmosphere that I was not expecting. Perhaps an omen to my princely ways.
The chef himself, while a resident of the Bay Area since his 20s, was born and raised in ancient Medina of Marrakesh, and true to what one foodie once told me, created his cuisine out of a longing for his roots. He recreated Moroccan dishes with local ingredients and gave them a local Northern Californian twist.
Starting with cocktails, the first was a blood red gimlet, called the red bell pepper. For unlike most kitsch cocktail corners, this one did not give its cocktail pet names but rather highlighted the main herb or ingredient. This one had bonal, cocchi americano and rye, with a very ultra strong whiskey punch that knocked the red daylights out of me. Plus a strong peppery undertone that would render drinkers un-kissable for the night if consumed in isolation.
The kiwi in moscato d’asti was sweeter, perhaps a tad too much. Textured with an abundance of its own seeds, it sipped more like a classic San Francisco area watered down healthy smoothie. But to its credit, the flavor rendered itself on the palette for much after it was swallowed.
We started off with the lentil soup, bringing back fond memories of the Punjab I was missing, myself. Though instead of your Indian curry accompaniments, this one had medjool dates in it which gave it a sweeter undertone, with celery and parsley to offset with a bitter component. Rather mud colored as a result, and being served in a stone bowl, the edible florets were a gentler touch to bring it back to edible nature proportions.
And then the coronation in ways started with a beet salad that arrived looking like a royal crown. Much akin to a former ‘architecture on a plate’ theory formulated in San Francisco. While I naturally saw the deep red of the beets in both raw and sauce format, what made this plating tempting and artistic was the abundance of lavender florets, Serrano peppers, and the interlacing of a honey hued touille. Plus the mellowing of the deep red with a Moroccan yogurt sauce. I had to swoop it up by the spoonful to taste all the components, and while I initially felt a clash of floral lavender with harsh pepper, the beet and yogurt mellowed out the entire bite. The salad, and its crown, was thus gobbled up shamelessly in a matter of minutes. Not what one would anticipate of an empire, I hope!
The next entree was alarmingly Italian sounding, what with ravioli! However on further inspection, its petite proportions, so artfully crafted into three neighboring mountains, showcased more of a Moroccan green than an Italian hue. It was in fact asparagus ravioli, slowly growing to be one of my favorite vegetables. Accompanied with mushroom, Nigella seeds, crushed cashews and shaved cucumber, the entire combination looked too fragile to unravel. A taste of individual components showcased a herbaceous hand in flavoring, with the asparagus paste taking the crown in transforming a fiber into a salacious sauce. Now if only I could have had more of that caterpillar looking asparagus ravioli, I would have been heartened!
And then came the usual trio of desserts – for having a threesome of desserts seems to have become a trend started in New York. And pastry chef Melissa Chou lived up to the expectations. The first was an almond honey semifreddo swimming in a translucent hibiscus gelee with rhubarb soup and a honey touille that enveloped the dessert like a gastronomic disco ball. Or may I say, a vizier’s staff top? I oscillated between party and prince, at this point. The reds and whites were a merry contrast to the eye, and the dessert soup (consomme, they say), while not my immediate choice for a dessert, was alarmingly refreshing. Surprisingly, the center was a rhubarb sorbet, tart and juxtaposed to the sweet semifreddo, which itself sat on an almond cake that absorbed the hibiscus consomme lusciously. Having learned to love hibiscus in San Francisco itself, I found the sweet-and-sour flavor come through in the gelatinous mix, sweetened further with a light rhubarb touch. The semifreddo was light on flavor, with a much needed textural crunch provided by the touille to break the sea of sugar.
And if names could be deceiving, then the black currant and raspberry curd arrived looking like yet another prince’s crown, much to the spectacle of us onlookers. Cheers to the pastry chef on transforming the namesake of a gluttonous blob into a refined visual. The other jewels in this crown included strawberry, puff pastry, cashew, preserved lemon ice cream, vanilla essence, almond hazelnut sable and fennel meringue. To say that my mouth was in party mode would be an understatement. While I had indulged in multiple ingredient desserts in Chicago and Los Angeles and Milan before, this was a crowning achievement: texturally crunchy and syrupy all at once, spiced up with fennel and sweetened with raw strawberries, and cooled with the tang of lemon ice cream. The only regret was that there were too few bites. But that is the way crowning glory goes, after all.
The last dessert was of course one that paid tribute to my love for chocolate. It was a chocolate mousse accompanied by a date cocoa spice chocolate cake (crumbled albeit, similar to a recent Chicago outpost), with yogurt done to taste like a molecular sponge. Reminiscent of a quirky dessert at a recent Beverly Hills escape, this one was perhaps the most ordinary and thus least inventive of the three, falling short of the exotic expectations set by the former. The spicy undertones and sharp date tastes however put it above other chocolate desserts that I had consumed, thus wrapping up the unbalanced meal with a salivating taste.
To wrap up another culinary victory in my favorite foodie city, only Shakespeare’s words come to mind: “My crown is called content, a crown that seldom kings enjoy.”