- 140 New Montgomery St #1, San Francisco, CA
- 5 January, 2019
One of the greatest things about San Francisco (really the Bay Area in general) is that it is probably the greatest food region in North America. Move over, NYC. This is, of course, partly because of the agriculture that flourishes in California, and also the magnificent seafood in the area, so that chefs can source locally for wonderful, local, and fresh cuisine. It’s hard for me to keep up with the restaurant scene in SF––it grows and changes so quickly and dramatically that every time I visit there’s two dozen new and wonderful places to try, and about a hundred standbys I haven't yet checked off the list. Additionally, the range of cuisines is absolutely staggering in SF. You can enjoy mouthwatering dim sum at a hole-in-the-wall one night and blow half a paycheck at a Michelin 3-star restaurant the next. I’ve also probably explored this city’s food scene more than anywhere else save for Salt Lake City and Austin, and it keeps me coming back.
That’s why when it came time to pick Los Angeles or San Francisco for my departure city for my China trip, which were the two options for the error fare I magically discovered, I immediately chose SF and started doing my research on the latest and greatest places to eat (also, Los Angeles is… well… Los Angeles). I still have a wealth of places in SF to visit on my list, but I found myself compelled by a spot I’d not heard of in SoMa––a Moroccan influenced Californian joint called Mourad. Its namesake chef, Mourad Lahlou, emigrated from his native Marrakech nearly 20 years ago to pursue a PhD in Economics. Homesick, Lahlou found a sense of place with cooking, so much so that he eventually abandoned his studies to open a restaurant in San Mateo. That restaurant (and his subsequent establishment) have since closed so that Lahlou could open his dream establishment in the heart of San Francisco’s buzzing financial district, an expression of his deep connection to his home country and his love for the beautiful ingredients that California offers.
In 2019, Mourad holds one Michelin star, along with countless other accolades and sterling reviews. Since I’d had almost all of the standard cuisines in the city, I thought a Moroccan twist would be an excellent choice for something different!
The space is HUGE, and beautifully appointed. But... HUGE. I was seated on the upper level above the kitchen, a more intimate space adorned with a warm woven (Moroccan?) rug. I was seated just above the (HUGE) kitchen with windows looking down, so I got the opportunity to enjoy the show at the (HUUGE) pass from above, which was exciting for a dweeb like me.
Mourad offers an 8-course tasting menu and an a la carte menu consisting of individual a la carte and family-style Moroccan-inspired plates. I opted for the tasting menu, since I was dining alone, which fused the ingredients of California with Moroccan (and a hint of Japanese, of course) influence. A beverage pairing was offered with the tasting menu, which I went for, but first settled in with a cocktail from the impressive, if complex, list.
The wait staff talked up the bar staff many... ahem, many times, and I enjoyed my pre-dinner cocktail, called "Cabin in the Snow," which featured cachaça, sake, chili vodka, Douglas fir brandy, lemon, egg white, and smoked salt. The presentation was a veritable fucking alpine forest (like someone could have come skiing out of it and I would not have been surprised), but actually really helpful for the flavor of the cocktail––the rosemary and fir sprigs had an "alpine" aroma that contributed to the intent of the beverage. It was a nice and refreshing drink, but I missed much of what looked like nuanced flavors in the spirits on the menu; e.g., I didn't taste chili, sake, or fir (without the scent). The scent of the evergreens saved what would have been a bit of a muddled, but tasty, cocktail.
A delicious aperitif was served as part of the beverage pairing before the amuse bouche course, although I got two different stories of what it was. I combined the descriptions and my limited knowledge of aperitifs to produce what I believe was a drink of Lillet, Angelina amaro, house-made lemon bitters, and orange peel. It was REALLY tasty.
The amuse bouche courses came after the drink: a smoked salmon fried... thing?... with yuzu gel, which I neglected to take a photo of (which should tell you in advance how much of an impression it made); a goat cheese gougère (flaky, hollow pastry) crusted in harissa, and a Kusshi oyster with compressed green apple and chive. The salmon was disappointingly forgettable for a restaurant of this caliber, and just kinda tasted like any other basic smoked salmon I've had, and the yuzu was not present enough to make it interesting. I liked what I had of the gougère, but I proceeded to take a bite and have the goat cheese inside went splat all over the table in front of me. Well played, Steven! The Kusshi, one of my favorite types of oysters, was delicious, and there was some sort of edible blossom on top that actually added a nice herbaceous component.
The meal was a bit disheartening to start, so I was a bit concerned about the progress of things to come, but the next course upended that worry. I was served a Lallier "Grande Réserve" Champagne to accompany the caviar course, which had a nice body but a SEARING amount of green apple acidity that overwhelmed much of the palate. The course, however, counteracted nicely. A dollop of Osetra caviar was served within a purée of parnsip and saffron with saffron threads and chive oil. It was DAMN good, and the creamy purée worked well in counteracting the overwhelming acidity of the champagne and balancing everything. You've heard of 1+1=3; this was 1+4=3.
The second course set the meal firmly in the right direction––a Japanese squid "shaved" like fettuccine noodles with Moroccan almond milk, sweet potato purée spiced with baharat (Mediterranean spice mix), crushed peppercorns, and dill. This was excellent; easily my favorite course of the night. I had to ask what made an almond milk Moroccan; the answer was the spice that was included––a combination of Japanese vinegar and seaweed, as well as Egyptian baking spices. The only criticism I have of this dish is the need for a hint more acidity, but otherwise it was killer. The sake that was paired was also interesting––they choose a less-milled sake to add more depth to match the complexity of the dish, and the purity of the snowmelt-based water in the prefecture allows less-milled sake to exhibit the same purity as a daiginjo while maintaining depth and body.
They poured next a glass of Bourgogne blanc from various 2016 vintage Grand Cru sites in and near Meursault (not allowing the grapes to be labeled specifically by appellation––France is touchy about their wines), which had a sprightly, mineral-driven youth to it with the subtle heft I'd expect from a chardonnay of the region. I could drink Burgundian chardonnay 'till the cows come home, and this was a lovely expression, if a bit overhyped by the staff.
The next course was the thing I had read and been told most about when researching this place (and if a Moroccan inspired place fucks this up, what kind of Moroccan place is it?): couscous. This preparation was done with brown butter and honeynut squash, topped with Hokkaido uni, which had a few dollops of yuzu gel on each piece, and a side helping of smoked trout roe. They decidedly did not fuck (most of) this up. Savory, buttery, and subtly sweet, it was delicious. The accompaniments were also good, with the roe adding an occasional smoke and briny saltiness (although there was way too much of it), and the uni was, of course, delicious, with the sweetness and delicacy I can expect from Hokkaido sea urchin. I was more than slightly offended, however, by the addition of the yuzu gel on the uni! While my most consistent complaint about many dishes is often lack of acidity, placing citrus directly on top of the urchin really tainted the unique potential of the uni's flavor. Having said that, this was minor compared to the effect of the dish as a whole, especially with the Burgundy, and I was certainly impressed. Bless brown butter.
Squab was to follow, and the pairings proceeded in the vein of cool-climate Burgundian grapes to the Alexander Valley of Sonoma in northern CA. Despite the server initially contradicting the menu in front of me and saying it was a Tasmanian wine (which would have continued had I not expressed my confusion), this Baxter "Black Label" Pinot Noir from 2015 was beautiful, with a medium body that had a nice, velvety, somewhat darker fruit profile. The Alexander Valley, as one of the increasingly rare cooler climates in the US, produces wines right up my alley, and I have been intending to explore this region for a while––this pinot was an encouraging push!
The squab was aged for ten days and presented with a couple presentations of celery root (puréed, and diced with mustard seed) and a foie gras mousse crusted in candied sesame seeds. The sauce in the middle was a huckleberry sauce with urfa, a Turkish pepper. The sauce was absurd, and the bird perfectly cooked. The foie at first seemed misplaced, but I came to love it, with the sweet candied sesame working well with the richness of the liver and the spicy tang of the sauce, and when combined with the squab it reminded me of a Moroccan twist on a Robuchon classic. I love celery root, but it almost seemed a bit of an afterthought here, with the purée having a nice richness but lacking the vegetal tang of the root's essence, and the diced root even less interesting. Overall, however, I found this dish, especially the sauce, to be rather interesting and quite exceptional, if a touch heavy-handed.
I will never refuse Barolo, but when I saw "2014" on the menu, I was initially slightly alarmed by the youth of the wine. To explain, Barolo comes from Nebbiolo grapes grown in a particular sub-region of the Piedmont in northern Italy. Nebbiolo is magnificent, but tends to produce wines that have a great deal of grip and tannin (the thing that makes some red wines dry your mouth out), and famously need a lot of time in the bottle to settle down. The sommelier almost anticipated my concern, and talked about how these grapes were specifically targeted for less tannin, this vintage was particularly cool and less tannic, and bottled with a vibrant fruit-forward brightness. Tasty af.
The Barolo was served with a decadent short rib that they cooked for 72 hours and accompanied with baharat sweet potato purée, crushed pepitas, and a cabbage salad. The dish was finished with a bouillon of black garlic and anchovy. Finally, they added veal sweetbreads to the side of the short rib. The beef was cooked beautifully, and was delicious, tender, and perfectly seasoned, and the pepitas added a nice crunch, the sweet potatoes the Moroccan "essence" (although why serve the literal same ingredient and preparation twice in one tasting menu?), and the cabbage salad the acidity. The salinity and umami of the broth added a nice funk without being too rich so as to aggressively augment the heft of the short rib, although I didn't really detect the characteristic flavor of the black garlic. The veal was really an outlier here––I was perplexed by what it was meant to add to the dish, and it distracted from what was an outstanding preparation of short rib on its own.
It was at this point that I realized I'd left my wallet in my coat and decided to retrieve it and explore a bit. I was impressed by the foyer, with an elevated glass wine cellar opposite the bar and a wood feature making up the wall as you enter. The bathrooms, however, were TERRIFYING. All of the stalls were locking one-holers, and when you entered, there was a room-long mirror to your left. I jumped when I entered, and proceeded to avert my eyes, because who wants to watch themselves pee? Dessert was to follow my seeing (and peeing) double, with a tisane (tea) made of mint and verbena. Nice palate cleanser. An extra splash of Barolo had found its way into my glass during my brief journey to house of urinary mirrors, which was a nice touch.
A muscat from the Rhône was served as the next wine pairing, which had the same sweetness and expressive floral components of a moscato d'Asti, but with a pretty cool funk and no effervescence to speak of. The sorbet that was paired with it consisted of a refreshing combo of ginger and lime, and was dotted with rose "caviar," which suited the muscat nicely.
Madeira, which would be the last wine pairing, is my absolute favorite wine story––modern Madeira originated as an accident during the age of European exploration of the new world, when these cheap fortified wines would be placed in the hulls of frigates crossing the Atlantic from the Portuguese Madeira Islands to be consumed by the crew. One fateful day, a barrel was returned unconsumed after its journey to the new world and back, and in his curiosity, the winemaker tasted it to see the effect the heat had on the wine. A star was born, and while we don't send Madeira across the sea in wooden ships anymore (although how dope would that be?), the heating process has been replicated in attics to create a truly unique wine.
Madeira is delightful because it has the heft and caramel richness to stand up to chocolate dishes, but also a magnificent and unexpected acidity. This "Rainwater" Madeira was a lighter style, meant to replicate yet another Madeira accident, when rainwater made its way into this winemaker's barrels and the resulting wine had a nice subtlety. This was a fine Madeira, but maybe I'm a little old school, since I found it to be fairly dilute, and definitely prefer my Madeira with more heft.
The chocolate-walnut cake was tasty, served alongside a thin square of phyllo dough and a dollop of date sauce, with preserved lemon gel on top. A really great way to end the meal, and a classic pairing with Madeira. A few little dessert bites followed, including a passion fruit pâte de fruit that was so tasty that I posted something about how much I adore passion fruit on Facebook (at this point I was a lil drunk).
So what is my verdict on this place? Hm...
I am still struggling with it a few days after the meal. Besides the little amuses at the beginning, the food was overall excellent, despite perhaps wanting a tweak or two from time to time (to my taste, at least, but what the hell do I know). The Moroccan influence was so interesting and unusual for a restaurant like this, too, and I really enjoyed a different take.
My issue is that I just don't know what this restaurant is trying to be. It's way too big to feel like a special and intimate experience, and the three-ish different potential approaches (tasting menu, a la carte, and family style) to experiencing Mourad's food result in a bit of a what can be a confused clusterfuck.
It almost feels like this place should be three restaurants rather than one. You need no more evidence of the triple personalities of the menu than the sometimes really confused, but professional, eager, and well-intentioned waitstaff. There were more than three or four occasions where one member of the staff described something I was served completely differently than another (see: aperitif), and describing a completely different wine than the one I'm being served is a pretty baffling mistake and indicates that this menu is way too big and multifaceted for the (clearly passionate and competent) staff to learn properly. The som was even confused when she poured the Barolo and described the way the wine would compliment the "cured cauliflower and porcini mushroom" on the short rib dish, neither of which made an appearance on the paired course. Perhaps it was on a different short rib preparation also offered that night? Wouldn't surprise me.
The view of the pass I had was the place where shared dishes were prepared, and they looked even better than the tasting menu. If I go back again, I will definitely try to bring people and go for the family style stuff.
Is this place just trying to play too many hands at once? I get the sense that the split personality results from a sorta capitalist effort to cater to the tech-crypto-douchebag-new money-ex frat bro crowd that has taken over this part of the city, and also food afficionados simultaneously. The clientele would seem to suggest that this is an accurate observation––many of the folks in the place, which I was AMAZED to see completely full by 7PM, fit the exact bill of the San Francisco nouveau-crypto-ex frat-riche. And hell, I certainly get the desire to cater to that! That's where the big money is in this town these days.
The most consistent restaurants that serve food of this caliber do one thing and they do it damn well. Mourad is doing three things, and although they're doing them (or at least what I had) well, there are finesse issues with the tasting menu that would be resolved with focus and precision. If your waitstaff is confused, your diners will be. Unless they're the members of the aforementioned Broseph squad, in which case they only care how much money they get to flash at glitzy restaurants. If that's what Mourad wants to be, they've got it made in the shade. I just hope they don't sink to becoming another beautiful thing that sold out, much like a good portion of the city of San Francisco has become.