It was supposed to be a festive meal that promised exotic flavors in a beautiful setting, invoking the lavish dining culture of Morroco.
It turned out to be a wet turd in a rotten potato bag.
A number of years ago, I came to Darna with a large party of people visiting from my home community. I remember giant bowls of pillowy couscous which, when excavated, revealed perfectly cook chunks of lamb with impeccably seasoned, tender vegetables. A wide array of salatim sat on a lazy susan and were constantly being refilled. For reasons unknown, Darna has taken a steep dive from a once famed Jerusalem culinary destination to a sad backwater of Mid-Eastern kitsch and a menu which lacks both integrity and refinement.
My dining companion and I arrived early on a Thursday night, hopeful to beat a potentially overwhelming tourist rush. The place was as I remember it–an amazing brightly colored interior offset by low lighting, Moroccan folk music in the background, and large, comfortable seating arrangements both inside and in the outside courtyard. To our astonishment, there was only one other couple dining in the whole place, and we were awkwardly seated next to them. After deciding to find a more private corner, we were presented with the menu.
I had first noticed something off when we took a few minutes to review the menu, though we had taken some time to look over the restaurant’s website and knew what we were going to get beforehand. The server was very polite, though the famed forespice of various dips and salads never appeared. As she took our orders, we were also presented with a bottle of water which we happily received since there was nothing else with which to whet our appetites.
Both my companion and I ordered from the ‘Darna Traditional Menu’, which promised a starter, a main, and a dessert served with mint tea. After ordering, we sat in our small corner for more than fifteen minutes, patiently waiting for anything to eat while many servers decided to loudly review the menu in English just a few feet from us while the restaurant remained empty.
Our starters arrived just as I began to start chewing on my napkin. We both ordered a pastilla, hers vegetarian and mine the fassia, which promised to be filled with Cornish hen. Regarded as the national dish of Morocco, the pastilla is traditionally a savory/sweet meat pie encased in phyllo and covered with sugar and spices. Our pastillas came out on very small plates, and ravenous at this point, we hurriedly cut into them. My pastilla was neatly decorated with fine perpendicular lines of powdered sugar and cinnamon. Searing hot, the phyllo was crispy and sweet, though the filling was entirely unimpressive. Indistinguishable from regular chicken, the Cornish hen seemed to have been cooked in an unseasoned broth and did not contain the traditional ground almond layer. Except for the wonderfully crunchy exterior, there was nothing that elevated this dish– no subtleties in spicing, herbage, or texture.
To call my companion’s vegetarian version a disaster would be an understatement. The only memorable vegetable in the mix was zucchini, but their was an almost rancid flavor that permeated the entire thing. It was as if there was a rotten box of vegetables in the back and the chef decided that instead of taking a loss, the kitchen would wrap it in enough phyllo dough and sugar that no one would ever know they were eating compost. Well Mr. or Mrs. Chef, we knew. We knew.
The experience with our starters basically colored the rest of the meal. The next course was the real reason I was excited about coming to Darna: the tajine. In America, the tajine is kind of entering into haute cuisine by retailers such as Sur La Table and William Sonoma. At Darna, it is supposed to be the main event. I was going to order the lamb tajine with vegetables, but my server recommended the lamb with fruit and I happily accepted her advice. There was no fanfare when the conical vessel arrived, but I was excited when that big puff of steam rose from the still bubbling base of meat and fruit.
Then I ate it. Immediately noticeable was the strange ratio of meat to fruit. The three “lamb cuts on the bone” took a back seat to the handfuls of raisins, dates, apricots, and blanched almonds. The meat was hot and flavorful, and as you may have read on this blog elsewhere, I am a huge sucker for lamb fat. Another displeasing feature of the dish became quickly apparent: everything had been covered in a thick syrup which began to completely coat the inside of my mouth and teeth and once cool, it made the dish unappetizing and inedible. Before I stopped eating it, though, I was given the gift of several date and apricot pits…the first one took me by surprise and I was afraid I had chipped a tooth. When I alerted the server about this (for which I believe would get you kicked off of Top Chef), she said “Oh, I should have told you. Sorry.”
My companion’s main dish is hardly worth mentioning at this point, except to make it clear that the experience with our starters coupled with the dissatisfaction from our mains began to result in what Ira Glass would consider a ‘fiasco‘. The lack of any dips and bread, even with the uninteresting pastilla and the fact that our water glasses were never filled after we polished off the expensive bottle of water, would have been forgivable had my tajine and her couscous been exceptional. Instead, misstep after misstep negated any principle of charity we could allot to a kitchen with very few orders coming in while we were dining and a lofty reputation to uphold. We now expected whatever came out of the kitchen to be a disaster and we wanted blood.
The kitchen did not disappoint. Our dessert course was the ‘toukbal delight’, sweet phyllo layers in cinnamon and almond milk and Moroccan pastry platter. The toukbal delight brought us back to the beginning, the poor pastilla, now covered with a thick and unappetizing cream which quickly saturated the phyllo and looked like a dirty Mexican pizza from Taco Bell. The Moroccan pastries put the fiasco into high gear. Having a strong dislike for rosewater and the fact that ever pastry was covered in it, I actually spit food into my napkin and left it on the table. Happy that it was finally over, we paid the bill, said goodnight and walked home, disgusted and dissatisfied, knowing we could have had a better meal at a fraction of the cost at Maoz down the street.
It pains me to write the following words, but this may be the worst meal I have paid for in very long time. I wanted to enjoy Darna so much. I wanted a simple, delicious meal from a cuisine that I do not have much experience with in my own kitchen, and was let down. The experience of going out to eat is essentially an exercise in trust; I, the diner, promise not to do anything but sit here politely and accept that you will serve me food with a high retail mark up, but it will ultimately (hopefully) enrapture me. For someone who likes to cook high-quality food at home, the stakes are even higher. A restaurant needs to convince me that I can’t do what they do (ambiance notwithstanding) in my own kitchen. Darna failed miserably at this.