By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, May 5, 2002

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema's monthly report from the road.

Dish for dish, no American city is more interesting than food-obsessed San Francisco. Here are three restaurants to put on your to-do list:

AZIZA (5800 Geary Blvd., 415-752-2222)

An evening in this leisurely paced Moroccan restaurant starts with the ritual hand-washing at the table, moves on to some belly dancing, and concludes with mint tea, poured from several feet above your glass. In between, visitors can feast on sweetly spiced vegetables and phyllo-wrapped chicken and almonds -- meals meant to be eaten by hand. Named after the owners' mother, Aziza also appeals to the eye, with carved tables, ornate walls and Moroccan lanterns. Dinner entrees $12-$20.

HOME (2100 Market St., 415-503-0333)

What happens when you take a top chef and put him on a budget? In the case of Lance Dean Velasquez, diners get treated to stylish takes on such American ideals as braised pot roast (teased with horseradish cream) and a few Italian dishes (think potato gnocchi with ham). In a nod to Home's theme, there's the Back Yard, an enclosed patio dressed up with a bar and fireplace -- just the spot to ease into a $5 martini. Dinner entrees $7.95-$12.95.

MERENDA (1809 Union St., 415-346-7373)

Keith Luce once toiled at the White House as sous chef. These days, he's master of his own domain, turning out lovely two-, three- and four-course meals in an intimate storefront watched over by his wife, Raney. The flavors are seasonal and pure, from the ricotta crostini with fava leaves and prosciutto to the flat iron steak jazzed up with fresh artichokes and bearnaise. Mirrors here, arches there, and a small bar in the room's center trick us into thinking the place bigger than its 30 seats. Three-course dinner $38.

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