Dining — To The Hilt — At Mourad
Whenever visitors from out of town query me about where to eat, one restaurant in particular always merits a high recommendation.
And that is Mourad in San Francisco.
Because chances are wherever they hail from, they do not have a restaurant in their vicinity that serves modern Moroccan cuisine. At least not anything as elevated and imaginative yet still stirringly soulful as this.
So, when I recently gathered to catch up with family in San Francisco last weekend and discovered they had never eaten here, I knew it was high-time they were introduced to Chef-Owner Mourad Lahlou’s singular cooking.
We perused the menu, ordered, and paid our tab — but had no idea that Lahlou would end up sending out nearly three-fourths of the menu to our table on the house. To say that we each needed a wheelbarrow to cart us out afterward would be putting it mildly. It proved a feast in every sense and for every sense.
As a native San Franciscan, I’ve enjoyed Lahlou’s cooking since he opened his first restaurant, Aziza, way back in 1999 that is still going strong. He now owns four restaurants: the two in San Francisco; plus Waicoco on Maui and Miro on Oahu in conjunction with one of his former San Francisco chefs, Chris Kajioka. Later this year, he will add a fifth, Moro Napa in the Oxbow Public Market, which will start construction this week.
Cocktails are always a strong point at the upscale and stylish Mourad because they reflect the seasons so well. The Goddess ($21) — and yes, it’s green — is a bracing, complex lime and floral-forward sip that blends Hangar One Makrut Lime Vodka with fresh basil, Oaxacan Alma Tepec Pasilla Liqueur for a whisper of smoky warmth, St. Germain, Genepy Le Chamois made with 30 herbs, tropical Velvet Falernum, and lime in a shaker. It’s served over crushed ice in a tall glass.
Admittedly, I rarely order nuts and olives on a menu, preferring to save room for what’s to come. But when the candied harissa pecans ($9) and warm, rosemary and citrus olives ($11) showed up on the table, it took all our combined restraint not to devour each and every one.
The pecans are sweet and spicy, and have that lovely bitter caramel note that you get when you boil sugar right to the edge. The olives enticed with their beauty alone — green, glossy, and plump, and adorned with Marcona almonds and pretty flower petals. A warm olive is a simple yet wondrous thing — oily, rich, briny, and so seductive.
Lobes of Hokkaido uni ($34) arrived nestled on a plate with a dollop of whipped green chickpea hummus and confetti-cut chives. They were accompanied by golden, fried batons of brioche. Use the mother of pearl spoon to dollop some uni, hummus, et al on a buttery brioche with its unexpected tangy-fruity glaze of pomegranate brushed on for a luxurious and perky taste.
More decadence arrives with a tin of caviar on ice ($135). The Kaluga, made in conjunction with the Caviar Company in San Francisco, are teeny olive-green eggs with a buttery taste. Dollop some atop the soft, semolina honeycomb pancakes along with cultured creme fraiche and maple gel, and fold up taco-style to enjoy. Well, at least, that’s the way I liked to do it.
Lahlou doesn’t serve his lamb tartare ($26) with crackers or bread. Instead, the layered tower of finely chopped lamb, radicchio, and dates is designed to stand on its own. The crowning touch of delicious crunchy fried lentils all over the top adds the textural contrast that crackers would. With smoked oysters and Aleppo pepper seasoning everything, the dish takes on a powerful smokiness and staggering depth of umami.
Raw squid ($34) comes to the table looking for all the world like a pile of pasta, cut into thin strands at the center of a spiral of squiggles of leek and sorrel sauce, and nutty tasting argan oil. It’s supple, chewy, and so green tasting.
Egg lovers will rejoice over the eggshuka ($15), which is surely the most elegant version of a shakshuka. A blanket of creaminess envelopes an oozy hen yolk that hides underneath. It eats almost like a savory sabayon.
If there’s homemade bread on a menu, it’s a good bet I will order it. And the milk bread ($16) here is worth getting, not just for the tender, squishy, glossy little rolls but for the three types of butter alongside: preserved lemon, pomegranate, and chile-honey. It’s hard to pick a favorite, and you will enjoy every bite as you try to pick the one.
The kitchen also sent out puffy, griddled Moroccan flatbreads adorned with sesame seeds that have a soft, chewy texture almost like focaccia.
Then, it was on to butter-poached lobster ($48), with a sunshine-y curry buerre blanc poured over at the table. Accents of harissa and preserved lemon gave a lightness to this rich dish that made lobster lovers out of two at our table who normally aren’t big fans of the crustacean.
Whenever we enjoy the salmon ($28) here, my husband knows that I will invariably turn to him and ask why his salmon can’t taste like this one. With an anchovy broth, it is delectably smoky to be sure from applewood smoke, but also extraordinarily succulent unlike some smoked salmon preparations that can border on dry. This one is so moist that it truly does melt in your mouth. Pickled green strawberries and mustard seeds add a piquant touch.
The basteeya ($30) is another favorite. It’s evolved over the years, getting more refined. This one resembles a royal pillow with its precious treasure trove of sprouts, shoots, and yellow flowers. The crispy pastry shatters as the blade of a knife cuts through it to reveal tender duck mixed with almonds. It’s savory with just a hint of sweetness.
For entrees, we shared the lamb trio ($55), which consisted of crispy belly bits that were like bacon, tender lamb leg, and a rack chop with its bone so completely Frenched clean that it was a marvel to behold. Fresh English peas and a vibrant green za’taar completed the dish.
If you’re dining with four or more, the family-style entrees are the way to go. The short rib ($165) marries Korean and Moroccan flavors harmoniously in one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes. It’s a laborious process to make these impossibly tender short ribs that get seared, then sous vide in a melange of spices and ras el hanout butter for three days, then grilled and lacquered with gochujang tahini bone marrow sauce. They are every bit as ridiculously good as that sounds, too.
These large format plates used to come with sides, but owing I’m sure to rising food costs and the need to eliminate waste, those are now a la carte. It’s worth enjoying one or two (they are $12 each), especially the kale with its smoky, sweet-sour taste, and the couscous, the best you’ll ever have because it’s made with brown butter.
Even after that impressive procession of dishes, there’s always room for dessert. For something light and invigorating, you can’t beat the “Mint & Lime” ($16) which is reminiscent in taste of Hawaiian shave ice. It is icy, sharp with citrus, sweet and milky with coconut, and floral from lemon verbena. Shards of crisp meringue add an airy crunch.
Even the puffs ($16) are remarkably light. Seven come to an order, so there’s plenty to share. Crispy and darkly golden on the outside with a sprinkle of fresh orange zest, these choux donuts are almost hollow inside making them little fried clouds of heaven. There’s warm honey and chocolate-caraway sauces for the ultimate dunking.
Bite after dreamy bite, it all adds up to a must-visit San Francisco restaurant.
More: A Visit to Waicoco