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Darna

633 Second Ave., nr. 35th St. 212-213-9095

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My culinary guerrilla pals spotted co-owner Mourad El-Hebil one day on the sidewalk of Second Avenue, trolling for customers to try his brand-new Darna. They sounded an alert after tasting chef Lahcen Ksyier’s savory eggplant salade berbère—best of the starters—and the tall pile of couscous royale crowned with spicy merguez sausages. So here we are sampling ribbons of grilled squid, sardine tajine, and crisp little briwates—pastry triangles sprinkled with sugar in imitation of Morocco’s beloved bastilla. Splendidly dense whole-wheat bread, missing only a hit of anise, is baked to El-Hebil’s specifications by an Italian baker in Astoria. The simmering summer evening calls for refreshingly superior sangría by the pitcher. Early on, the kitchen is still finding its strength. Chicken baked with green olives and lemon confit in a terra-cotta tajine ought to be moister, and lamb shank classically paired with prunes tastes overcooked, too. But poached pear chunks with lemon sorbet or vanilla ice cream in a martini glass is an inspired ending. El-Hebil, a longtime factotum of the Moroccan tourist office here, braved this venture because he missed the authentic tastes of his native land. He promises veal feet and chickpeas in winter, and lamb mechoui (barbecued till the crusty meat falls from the bones). New York still lacks that great Moroccan restaurant—but until it arrives, Darna, with its modest Casbah accents and passion to please, will do.


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