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For as many super-sized, ultra successful restaurants as there are in this city, there are at least ten times as many underdogs—struggling under-the-radar spots that open and quickly close, mostly unnoticed, often with years left on their leases and no more than a few hundred meals served. These are spots you don’t read about in the glossies, the Old Gray Lady, or even more democratic columns like $25 and Under or Sietsema in the Voice. These are the places that keep the mortality rate of the restaurants business so high. In many cases, their fate is sealed from the beginning. Often times affordable rent often means a locale with poor street traffic. Passionate chefs often have big dreams without the experience to back them up, or a budget for more than a green management team. And certainly there’s no cash left over for PR, or even more basic things like stylish décor.Review By: Andrea Strong
This week, I came upon a snug and charming restaurant that is an underdog. But it’s an underdog that should survive. Because this particular little Underdog can fly. I speak of a jewel-toned Moroccan bistro called Darna, located on an unappealing Chinese-and-pizza-joint stretch of Second Avenue between 34th and 35th Street. While the street is unimpressive, what lies beyond the tall French doors of Darna’s façade, is.
Darna is owned by a charming man named Mourad El-Hebil, who used to work for the Moroccan office of tourism. Mourad is a formal gentleman. He can be found at his restaurant every night, smartly dressed in a well-fitted dark suit. He welcomes every guest personally and his mission seems to be as simple as spreading joy and happiness through tagines and couscous. Helping him along in his endeavor is his chef Lahcen Ksyier, a native of Morocco who offers transporting flavors that take you to Fez, that leave you in the Casbah, and that drop you into the hustle of the Medina in Marrakech.
I happened upon Darna with my friends Karen and Andrew, prolific culinarians and authors whose opinions on matters of food I trust implicitly. We settled in on a frigid night last week and were quickly welcomed by Mourad (in a great dark suit) and seated at a cozy pillowed banquette opposite a dark-wooded bar lit from above by Moroccan lanterns. With Darna, Mourad has created an oasis-like ode to his native land. The restaurant is a small and simple stage, but it is also beautiful, with walls washed in soft dappled shades of orange and sienna. The room is lit with a twinkling almost magical glow from a series of old authentic imported Moroccan lanterns that leave walls dancing with light. Tables are heavy solid dark wood matched with curved plush armchairs.
While we caught up on the past few months (Karen and Andrew were on a book tour promoting their latest book, What to Drink with What You Eat), we swiped slices of dense wheat bread through bowls of bracing tapenade, and popped olives the size of small plums into our mouths. Well, Andrew and I did. Karen used a knife and fork. We had to make fun of her. Soon, she was using her hands. (Peer pressure is always an effective tool.) The olives were quite juicy and meaty and brined in heavenly spice mix, topped with fresh herbs, a gloss of olive oil and bright yellow peppers. With the help of those olives, we were well into our first bottle of wine (a Rosé), before we even decided on our first course.
The mezze list is quite lengthy and includes some dishes that don’t quite match the authentic Moroccan menu, but that I imagine Mourad added to appeal to a wider audience. Forget that. People come to a Moroccan restaurant to delve into the wonders of Moroccan food, not to nibble on a mundane (but pretty) cheese plate with grapes and apples ($9.50), a warm baked brie with honey and grapes ($7.50), a tuna steak salad with endive, beets and roasted bell peppers ($17.95), or even steak au poivre ($23.95). Indeed, what do you want with warm brie when you can feast on gorgeous Moroccan cigars? The ones Mourad serves are the size of egg rolls and are swollen with spicy shrimp, crab, calamari and rice vermicelli slicked with spice, and wrapped tightly in crispy phyllo ($8.50). Brie who?
For a full Moroccan experience, it’s best to head to Darna with at least a few friends so that you can order at least one tagine, one couscous, one pastilla, and perhaps even a few brochettes (merguez, lamb, or chicken served with cucumber couscous and raisin salad). It really would be a shame to exclude any of these dishes from your dinner plans.
Of the couscous offered on the menu (lamb, chicken, vegetarian), we ordered the Royale ($19.95) served in a terra cotta tagine filled up with moist, delicate, and well-seasoned couscous that was rampant with links of merguez, hunks of braised lamb, pieces of hot, tender roasted chicken, those briny olives (pitted), and a load of vegetables. To spoon over your couscous, Mourad offers a saucy sweet-spiced tomato and chickpea broth (served in a beautiful painted terra cotta bowl with a wooden ladle), and a pot of harissa on the side, if you like it a bit hotter. We didn’t need it, though. We thought the seasoning was spot on.
As far as the tagines, the house signature is one made from roasted Cornish hen with luscious figs glazed in honey ($18.95), but I had my heart set on the braised lamb shank—a spectacular French-boned shank with hunks of melting meat that fell from the bone with the slightest nudge of my fork. The shank comes in a dark, rich braising jus sprinkled with toasted almonds and stocked with sticky sweet prunes and tangles of caramelized onions that can all be spooned over the accompanying bowl of fresh, fluffy cinnamon couscous. We could not stop eating this shank, and continued picking at the bone until it was bare.
The pastilla ($16.50), a classic powdered sugar-dusted phyllo cake, was flaky and crisp and nicely stuffed with savory minced chicken, onions, and almonds. It can be a bit sweet if you are not expecting it, but I love the contrast of sugared shell with the hot savory meat filling. We sliced it into wedges to share, and then continued to nibble at the couscous and lamb tagine, as we drained bottle of wine number two.
Desserts ($7) at Darna were not as impressive as main courses. An apple tart tatin was topped with nice caramelized apples but they should have been sliced thinner, and the pastry dough was too thin and soggy. A poached pear was cold and lacked any sort of flavor. I am not sure what it was poached in, but if it was anything stronger than water I would be surprised. A pastilla au lait, a classic Moroccan dessert that Karen described perfectly as a riff on corn flakes with strawberries and milk, was the best of the lot. It consists of triangular sheets of crisp flaky dough (that taste sort of like more elegant cornflakes), layered with rosewater cream and topped with powdered sugar and strawberries. But the dessert seemed a bit too summery for the season. While it was a refreshing end to the meal, I honestly could have done with just a pot of tea, which Mourad serves in lovely silver pot-bellied teapots.
Now, I’ll be honest here. I loved my dinner at Darna even though this is a restaurant that has some issues. The kitchen can be a bit slow, so I’d concentrate on the timing of dishes, and I’d work on the desserts. The menu is needlessly padded with items that belong more at a Bennigan’s than at an authentic Moroccan restaurant. I’d add some meat-filled cigars, and perhaps some briwates, and maybe a family-size platter of classic Moroccan mezze in place of the dishes that were taken off. Looking at some smaller details, I’d serve everything on the menu on those beautiful hand-painted terra cotta plates and tagines and leave the random white diner plate in the back for staff meals. In this cold weather, I’d warm up the front with one of those outdoor tee-pees. I’d turn down the ringer on the phone, which is blaring and disruptive to the mood. I’d add a few more pillows to the banquettes so that there’s a little more back support. Oh, and I’d fix the lock on the (lovely) restroom.
But other than these little details, which are really quite small, I’d keep Darna exactly the same as it is now. Mourad has created a beautiful little place with a lot of heart, and some of the best Moroccan food in the city. It is soulful food that warms you from the inside out. Darna is an underdog. But sometimes Underdogs fly, and live happily ever after with Sweet Polly Purebred, or in this case, with a full restaurant on Second Avenue.
Neighborhood: Murray Hill
Entree Price: $15-20
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