Gossiping Gourmet: Mama Jamila delivers authentic Moroccan at Darna

We love it when our readers send us comments, particularly when they turn us on to a restaurant we might never have discovered on our own. Darna, a Moroccan/Mediterranean restaurant in a strip mall in Fountain Valley, was a delightful surprise.

It certainly wasn't the stereotypical belly-dancing palace that we normally think of as a Moroccan restaurant. In spite of all the gold and red in the décor and the lanterns hanging from the ceiling, the ambiance is casual, the delicious food is more like home cooking, and the proprietress is as warm and gracious as an old friend welcoming you into her home.

Malika Malali wears many hats: hostess, server, manager and part-time chef. Her mother, Jamila, who insists on everything being fresh and house-made in the old-fashioned way, does the bulk of the cooking and baking. Malika told us about dreaded "almond day," when in order to make fresh almond paste (as opposed to the packaged kind, flavored with almond extract, which Jamila refuses to use), they boil and peel 10 pounds of hot almonds.

The restaurant is halal and serves no alcohol, but there is a lovely pot of hot, slightly sweetened, fragrant mint tea to accompany your meal.

This attention to detail was obvious in everything we ate, beginning with a dish of addictive garlicky and spicy house-cured cracked olives, followed by excellent creamy hummus and warm pita. Their baba ghannouj is also exceptional. The smoky eggplant/tahineh puree is smoothed out by the unusual addition of yogurt, which gives it a lovely texture and mellow flavor.

Next in the progression of our appetizer feast was falafel. As dark and dense as these fried chickpea balls appeared on the outside, they were lighter and more delicate than any we've ever tasted, redolent of cumin and mint. They were served with a gentle tahineh dipping sauce. Only the rice-stuffed grape leaves were boring, with lemon the only obvious flavor.

Skipping the traditional harira soup of spicy thickened chickpea and lentil, we opted for the simpler red lentil soup because Malika recommended it. This soup was also a puree, and once again, the subtle hand of Mama Jamila produced a lovely, addictive potage. The very first taste seemed a bit too mild, but by the second, we were spooning away to the finish.

Both of us consider bastila to be one of the world's great dishes. We have each made it at home and eaten it in restaurants in Morocco, France and the United States, but never has it been as good as at Darna. Typically, it is made with filo dough as a shortcut, but the authentic pastry dough is called warka, and it is as thin as pastry can be, making it a laborious process to create. No short cuts for Mama! Although, filo is listed on the menu to prevent customer confusion.

The incredibly crispy sheath was wrapped around sweetened, finely chopped, roasted almonds, layered on top of chicken pieces in a marvelous, complex, savory egg sauce flavored with onions, cilantro, parsley, ginger, garlic and saffron. They also offer a seafood bastila with white fish, shrimp and vermicelli noodles.

Tajines are Moroccan stews, most often made with chicken or lamb, typically cooked in a ceramic dish with a conical lid. Chicken tajines are cooked in a sauce of preserved lemon rind and green olives, and a medley of spices, giving them their unique flavor. The sauce is always the highlight of this classic, but there was very little of this tasty liquid in Darna's version, and the small half chicken was seriously overcooked.

The two desserts are also house-made. The semolina cake was sold out, but we were certainly not disappointed with the butter cookie crescents filled with the above-mentioned laboriously crafted almond paste. They were just delectable.

At lunchtime, Darna features an all-you-can-eat buffet for $9.99, and first-time guests get a 10% discount.

ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at m_markowitz@cox.net.


Where: 16076 Harbor Blvd., Fountain Valley

When: noon to 9 p.m. Monday through Wednesday; noon to 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday


Appetizers: $4 to $8

Entrees: $8 to $20

Desserts: $4 to $5

Information: (714) 775-7000 or http://www.darnacuisine.com

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