When I arrived in San Antonio 14 years ago, the thought of not one, but two Moroccan restaurants in the city was wishful thinking at best. Yet with the arrival of Azro Moroccan and Mediterranean Bistro on Northwest Military Highway, we have two fine places where we can enjoy this savory cuisine from the north of Africa. (The other is Moroccan Bites on Evers Road.)
The first thing I noticed when I entered Azro for the first time was how cool and inviting the ambience of the dining room is. It is painted in vibrant colors that diffuse the light, so it feels more intimate and relaxed. The space has housed numerous restaurants over the years, from the sandwich shop Swede’s to the Mexican Huaraches, but never has any of its inhabitants felt quite so much at home.
The attentive waitstaff reinforced that feeling on a number of visits, answering questions as much as they could on the menu. On my first two visits, I had limited time, so I choose several options from the appetizer and salad sections of the menu that wouldn’t take much time. Every salad option is worth investigating because of the freshness of the ingredients used. That includes the Shepherd’s Salad with plenty of cucumbers, red onions and tomato in a lively vinaigrette; the related Mediterranean Salad with is punched up with more greens, such as arugula; and the generous Moroccan salad sampler, heaped high with a great white bean salad, pickled beets, a tangy carrot salad, cheese and a potato salad.
Felafel, fried patties made of garbanzo beans, is a traditional Mediterranean dish, but the recipe can vary from region to region. I don’t know which region Azro’s version comes from, but the menu says that it is seasoned with Moroccan spices, so that might be a clue. I can also say that on the two occasions in which I enjoyed the patties, they were dense and crunchy on the outside and moist inside. A drizzle of something resembling tahini, with an almost spackle-like texture, did not win over a friend of mine, but I liked the contrast.
Best of all was a bowl of harira soup, a Moroccan favorite that combines garbanzo beans, tomato and lentils with the brightness of a touch of olive oil. It a way, it was reminiscent of the Turkish soup mercimek.
Among the entrees, the Seafood Bastilla, also known to some as pastilla, caught my eye with its promise of salmon and shrimp in phyllo dough and served with a lemon cream pastry. The phyllo on top was flaky and crisp, crackling as it broke apart to reveal the beautifully prepared seafood inside. A lively salad, topped with a triangle of cheese, was so large that it threatened to dominate the plate, but it provided just the right contrast, its acidic dressing cutting through the cream sauce while its crunch complemented the silky nature of the salmon. It also had a hominess to it that made you feel as if an old friend were in the kitchen cooking just for you.
No discussion of Moroccan food is complete without mentioning couscous, the country’s unofficial dish. It can exert a mysterious hold, when it is made properly. I can remember it being the centerpiece of a banquet in Tangier about 15 years ago, and we dove in to the communal dish with our hands, which has long been the custom of the country. The pearls of pasta were loaded with a rich, buttery flavor and yet they managed to be light as a feather. We picked up most every piece on the plate.
The version at Azro was not that inspired, but it wasn’t bad, either. It had scant taste of butter. Instead, it picked up the flavors of the foods that had been arranged on top of it in a tagine. So, it tasted of the juices of zucchini and butter as well as some grilled chicken kebab and chopped parsley, all of which went well with a glass of Moroccan Sauvignon Blanc. These items were not cooked together, mind you. But the tagine, with its conical lid, makes for such a dramatic presentation that you can understand why it’s being used that way.
What a pair of nearby customers did have trouble understanding is how the restaurant could be out of eggplant on the evening they were there. That should tell you how good the vegetable in both the restaurant’s baba ghanoush, brightened with garlic, and the Mosaka. If you were thinking that the latter would be like the Greek moussaka, you might be in for some surprise. Instead of being a variation on lasagna slathered with a béchamel sauce, Azro’s version, sampled on another visit, featured the roasted vegetable stuffed with seasoned ground beef and offered pure comfort. Too much cardamom made the beryani rice on the side less than welcome, however.
If you order the Lemon Chicken Tagine, don’t expect a dish with some Day-Glo sauce that’s sweeter than sweet. Instead, expect something savory, enlivened by tart preserved lemons. The chicken is also mixed with potatoes, green olives and garlic. On one visit, this could not hardly have been better, with the briny nature of the olives and plenty of lemon infusing the dish. On another, the lemons were in short supply, and the chicken tasted reheated. The differences suggest that Azro needs to work some on its consistency.
One dish that does not need work is the baklava, made with a light syrup and plenty of crushed pistachios sandwiched between buttered phyllo dough. Each order comes with two pieces, which we didn’t realize when we ordered two helpings. So, when the four squares appeared, we thought it was too much. After one taste, however, no one was complaining. It was enough to make us talk of returning.
Azro Moroccan and Mediterranean Bistro
2211 N.W. Military Hwy.
Lunch and dinner: Monday-Saturday