Marrakech in the fog
Moroccan chef Mourad Lahlou certainly loves his mother. Not only in his outer Richmond restaurant, Aziza, named after her, but at almost every turn in our conversation he finds a way to mention her fondly. "She didn’t intentionally teach me how to cook," he says, between sips of hot water infused with fresh mint, green tea, rosewater, and sugar. "I just liked hanging out with her and when I was growing up, and the and the only time for me to be with her was when she was working in the kitchen."
Lahlou has parlayed those childhood kitchen hours into minor culinary celebrity here in the Bay Area. As chef and part owner with his brother at Kasbah in Marin for more than a decade, he received rave reviews for his signature California-Moroccan fare. Yet cooking didn’t come immediately to Lahlou. He had to work back to it.
At 18, Lahlou moved an ocean away from Marrakech to earn a Ph.D. in economics at San Francisco State, imagining a future with the World Bank. Once here, however, he discovered he barely knew how to boil water. "I was depressed. I called home everyday." He missed the food: fluffy couscous, warm lamb stews, and sweet Moroccan entrées.
It was difficult at first to get it right, he says. In morocco, chickens are lean from roaming (sort of pre-label "free-range") and it takes two full hours of cooking to get them tender. "The first time I cooked a chicken here, I put everything in a pot, came back later and it was soup! So I called my mom." Soon, his American dinner guests were reveling in their evenings at Lahlou’s.
In 1986, at his brother Khalid’s urging, he dropped out of the doctorate program to open Kasbah. Khalid ran the front and Mourad gradually took over the kitchen. Six weeks into it, the San Francisco Chronicle, blessed Kasbah with three twinkling stars.
But when the brothers lost their lease at Kasbah, they decided to open in the city. A couple months in ? and still awaiting the make-or-break Chronicle review (another three stars, it turned out) ? Lahlou is seated at one of Aziza’s beautiful tika tables, ornately decorated with loops of hand cut wood. Not a chef-whites kind of guy, he sports a blue skullcap, hoop earring, and oversized Adidas shirt.
Lahlou acknowledges that in the world of Moroccan food culture, where tradition is strictly heeded, his cooking could be subject to criticism: his vegetables are crisp-tender rather than long-cooked-soft; his menu includes cheese (Laura Chenel goat cheese crusted in sesame seeds), a virtually nonexistent commodity in Morocco; and he serves desserts, whereas colorful dishes of fruit traditionally end every meal in Morocco.
But Lahlou would never fool with couscous, the national dish. He makes sure its done right, handrolling it three times and steaming it again and again, a process that takes six hours. In the end, the tiny bits of semolina are as light as air.
Tonight at Aziza, he sends out a lamb shank, perfectly braised; it’s draped on the bone, surrounded by divine honey and kumquat sauce with caramelized dried fruits and bits of roasted almonds. Elegantly presented, it looks like a four-star home cooking.
The restaurant’s namesake, Aziza Lahlou, he tells me, may soon be coming to American for the first time ever. "We’ve always gone to Marrakech," he says, grinning at the thought of her puzzled questions: "What’s a cornish hen? Why doesn’t the lamb smell like lamb? What on earth is balsamic drizzle?"
"My mother asked me, 'Why did you 8,000 miles away to cook? What about all those years at school?'" Looking around his restaurant, Lahlou shrugs. Maybe Aziza will understand once she sits down here to eat. Then again, maybe not.