New Moroccan in San Francisco

The story of self-trained chef Mourad Lahlou, awarded for his Moroccan-American cuisine


Valeria Senigaglia takes us to Mourad in San Francisco, where self-trained chef Mourad Lahlou presents his Moroccan cuisine with Californian influences: New Moroccan, that’s how they call it. And he also has a Michelin star

Once upon a time in America a Moroccan student missed the comfort of his home food. To solve the issue, the student learnt to cook, opened a restaurant in that foreign land and finally... earned a Michelin star. This happy ending for Mourad Lahlou, patron-chef at the homonymous restaurant in San Francisco, started in Marrakech where he spent his first twenty years surrounded by the intoxicating aroma of spices. Mourad arrived in America in 1986 so as to graduate in Economics. However, he found out cooking was more interesting than numbers and started a career as a self-trained chef using friends and colleagues as his first “culinary guinea pigs”. A do-it-yourself chef, but this doesn’t mean he was less talented or less passionate about creating something unique by using techniques and ingredients that escaped the rules of classic cuisine. This, it turned out, was the right weapon to conquest the title of Moroccan-American cuisine pioneer.

The Mourad scenic building

The Mourad scenic building

His first restaurant, Kasbah, is from 1998, but despite the praises received from critics, the chef closed it in 2001, looking for a more sophisticated direction. This is how Aziza was born. It was named after his mother, his true cooking teacher. Here Mourad’s dynamic cuisine got rid of the prejudgements against the flavours of Western Africa. Californian products met the colours of the ancient Medina in his hometown, in a perfect balance of Moroccan flavours and local taste. On its first year, the restaurant received three stars from the San Francisco Chronicle and since then every year it appears among the 100 best restaurants in the Bay Area. In 2010 the most prestigious acknowledgement arrived: Aziza became the first Moroccan restaurant to receive a Michelin star. Not bad for a cook who had never worked in a professional kitchen.

But Mourad wanted more. He wanted a place in which to express his creativity to the highest level. So in 2015 the restaurant named after him was born.

Mourad Lahlou

Mourad Lahlou

Set in a brick Art Deco building, with large windows on the ground floor and tall ceilings, it looks more like Luksus in New York than La Table du Palais in Marrakech. The setting is minimalistic and elegant with contrasts between granite, cement and steel, masterfully paired by designer Olle Lundberg, with a few Persian carpets to add an ethnic touch. The atmosphere is just as elegant but relaxed too. It is a pleasure to enjoy the chef’s dishes while sitting at the elegant marble counter, admiring the remarkable selection of whisky and rum coming from all around the world. The menu recalls Morocco but is not limited to it. There are also some European influences, especially in terms of choice of wine and spirits.

Inside the restaurant

Inside the restaurant

The chefs defines his cuisine as New Moroccan, researched but sensual, paying particular attention to the aesthetics of the presentation and to the combination of typical flavours from Atlantic Africa. We start with the refreshing and light starters, in which fish and vegetables dominate, as in the Aubergine and cucumber carpaccio with quenelle of baba ganoush to be paired with hot focaccia, obviously home made, vaguely recalling Indian naan. While the dish is not strictly Moroccan, it reveals a masterful use of the spices that’s typical of Berber cuisine. The Grilled squid with chickpea purée, harissa and mandarin is as delicious and deserves to be scooped up till it’s finished. The use of spices continues in the dessert too. Here the pairing of cinnamon and pumpkin hints at American autumn cakes while the sorghum gelato and the chicory mousse balance the sweetness of the cake. Even the drink paired with this is the equivalent of a pumpkin pie but with alcohol, “for adults”. At Mourad there are no spherifications, no liquid nitrogen or theatrical dishes. Only real flavours that shine in a genuine cuisine in which technique and genius don’t dominate taste, the real protagonist.

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Valeria Senigaglia

Born in 1985, marine biologist and sustainability and cooking enthusiast. After living in many places, from NY to the Philippines, she returned to Italy and works in communication as a freelance journalist