To restaurant critics, sluggish, sloppy service can be a reassuring sign that our anonymity is uncompromised and we're not being singled out for special treatment. But 30-plus minutes of futile signaling and waiting for the check the other night at Azza, while the host chatted with friends at the next table, was a little too much reassurance.
The gold-leafed, ornately carpeted Moroccan restaurant has the expensive detailing and ponderous bass rhythm of a lounge and indeed, the basement offers such amenities as a pool table and a DJ but that laid-back sensibility creeps upstairs to the crowded dining room a little too often. Chef Steven Ferdinand brings plenty of experience to the straightforward Moroccan menu, but enjoying it can be a challenge amid hurdles such as awkward low-slung seats, glacial waits, and a general sense that the entire staff, except for one outstandingly sharp and helpful busboy, would rather be relaxing with a hookah.
Meze and liquor are handled well, as part of the lounge aesthetic. Cocktail options (all $14) include cloying concoctions of vanilla vodka and caramel, or rum and Midori, as well as more intriguing offerings containing fig and pomegranate. The dozen or so smallplate starters have much more delicacy than what comes after. Three tiny slices of seared tuna ($12) may be a little dry, but the spicy, complex harissa chili sauce helps elevate them, and a little side salad of cress and lemon finishes the job. Miniature burgers of ground lamb ($12) have a good, moist chew and just a bit of spice. A variety of cooked vegetable meze carrots, beets, yam fries make tasty sides as well as starters, and a quartet of tart white anchovies ($9), laid on a caper-and-pepper relish, piques the appetite excellently.
A handful of proper, larger starters includes two versions of pastilla, the sugared but savory pastry. One is filled with chicken ($12), the other with darker, tenderer squab ($18), but it doesn't have the enveloping fragrance and savor that the best pastillas release when their pastry shells are cracked.
The best of the main courses is the dramatic couscous royal ($34), which comes to the table in several parts. A steaming covered tagine contains a wedge of white-meat chicken, a segment of wildly delicious, delicate lamb on the bone as well as oniony lamb meatballs and spicy lengths of merguez lamb sausage. Next to it, a bowl of vegetables carrots, limas, zucchini bathe in a stew of tomato and lemon. Either or both can be spooned, with their seasoned sauces, over the mound of couscous on the central plate. A little tray of accompaniments rounds out the dish: harissa, stewed raisins, chick peas. It's a comprehensive, substantial meal, and piecing it together oneself is a pleasure.
I can't remember the last time a restaurant allowed me to slice my own duck breast; Azza's, like the rest, is pre-sliced into a fan of seared medallions ($28), and paired with a woodsy heap of fresh beans and duck confit. The breast's sauceless appearance is unpromising, but the meat has tremendous, memorable juicy flavor. It's hard to predict when and where the chef's triumphs will pop up. The duck is one, and the butter-rich lamb in a lamb tagine ($31) is another, soaking in savory gravy. But the seasoning of the tagine itself is flat and wan, without the complexity and harmony that would do justice to the meat.
Looking past the cocktail page, one finds a small list offering some $10,000 worth of champagne, and then a somewhat cursory wine spread, with a gratuitous Cheval Blanc for the big spenders, a handful of marked-up Moroccan, Algerian, Lebanese, and Israeli bottles, and some interesting Europeans to round out the list.
A basket of hot, sugared doughnuts, with syrup for dipping, is the popular favorite among the desserts (all $9), but the subtle tang of a sorbet made with citrus and sparkling wine, and topped with glazed and toasted grapefruit segments, has a refreshing appeal, too. Panna cotta made with buttermilk has a thrilling tartness, but on one of the two occasions I ordered it, the custard had failed to set and was just a pale, embarrassing puddle on the plate.
The ultimate impression at Azza is that serving dinner is not the establishment's raison d'etre, but just an uncomfortable burden to shoulder as an accessory to the lounge which, incidentally, was nearly empty each time I peeked. The skill of the chef shines through unexpectedly sometimes, but not often enough: In those moments when the restaurant experience succeeds, it feels almost accidental.
Azza (137 E. 55th St., between Lexington and Third avenues, 212-755-7055).