After almost two years of darkness, chef Mourad Lahlou will reopen the doors to his restaurant in the Outer Richmond. But this time, it won’t be Aziza — Lahlou has new plans for a restaurant in that space, one unearthing the influences of the Moors on Mexican cuisine. It will be called Amara — a Spanish reference to Moors— instead of Aziza, though Lahlou considers it an evolution of the restaurant that started his ascent to San Francisco culinary stardom in 2001.
The decision not to reopen Aziza was surprisingly easy, once Lahlou realized that bringing his first love back could be a fraught endeavor. Restaurant patrons’ relationship with Aziza was so strong that simply reprising it would open Pandora’s box. “I struggled with bringing Aziza back,” said Lahlou. “Can I do it justice, can I please everyone with what needs to done to it, will they accept the space and feel?”
Then, deep into the process of reopening the restaurant, Lahlou had an epiphany. He and former Aziza chef de cuisine Louis Maldonado had long had a running discussion about whose cuisine has come up with which aspects of Moroccan or Mexican dishes. Maldonado’s Mexican heritage versus Mourad’s Moroccan heritage made for some very excellent connections, it turned out. “It became abundantly clear that there’s a huge connection between the two cuisines,” said Lahlou. Once the decision was made, Lahlou says “I went from so fearful about things about Aziza to super happy and excited.”
Maldonado, who most recently has been culinary director at Mugniani Imports in Healdsburg, will return to SF to lead the kitchen at Amara, exploring the shared techniques and flavors of North African and Mexican cuisine. The food will be recognizably Mexican, but showcase some of the techniques and flavors that disseminated from the Spanish conquistadors, who’d been influenced by hundreds of years of Moorish reign in Spain. “It’s almost two pieces of a puzzle that I’d never thought about mixing together,” says Lahou. “But if you put them together, they work.”
That will include dishes marrying flavors like the North African chili paste harissa with lime, on a marinated beef skewer with root vegetable escabeche and arugula, or a take on an Aziza classic: cumin lamb shank braised in chilis and prunes, smoked lamb salsa, and wilted greens with cilantro and lime. In a smaller plate, avocados and tomatillos pair with za’atar, cucumber, and yogurt. Desserts from pastry chef Annemarie Catrambone will be likewise influenced, with Mexican ice cream and Moroccan-French pastries on the sweet side.
Drinks will follow suit, with cocktails including spices and ingredients shared by the two cuisines, with a focus on mezcal and tequila. Tara Patrick, wine director at Mourad, will curate a global wine list with an eye towards affordability — bottles will range from $40 to $80.
“I think it will be a cool addition to the city. Hopefully we’re gonna do it justice by giving it a lot of dignity. I don’t want to start slopping things together from Mexican and Moroccan food: I want to dig really deep into understanding the techniques and seeing where there is synergy.”
Lahlou also says the menu will be constantly and dramatically changing at first, as he and Maldonado continue to dig into the two cuisines. “It’s nice to go to a restaurant where you know what you’re going to have, but it’s fun to go a restaurant where things are constantly changing.”
But while Amara provides a new opportunity for Lahlou and Maldonado to experiment, it’s not a replacement for Aziza. Lahlou says that he plans to open Aziza in a new location in a year or two. Meanwhile at Amara, the bones of Aziza will remain, with improvements: The bar will move, the ceiling will get higher, more windows will let in more light, and new tile (might) adorn the uneven floors. The bones are what drew Lahlou to the space in the first place, leftover from the Mexican restaurant that occupied the space for 47 years, El Sombrero.
“One of the reasons I fell in love with it when I walked in, it had tons of tile that I loved,” said Lahlou. “The tile at Aziza was not put in by me, it was put in as Mexican restaurant. All these arches and tiles; I never put it together before, but it is all coming full circle.”
Right now Lahlou says late December or January of 2018 is the goal for opening. It’ll serve dinner seven days a week, and eventually brunch, to a neighborhood that’s sorely missed the presence of Aziza, and the charismatic Lahlou.