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Gossiping Gourmet: Mama Jamila delivers authentic Moroccan at Darna

May 25, 2011|By Elle Harrow and Terry Markowitz
  • The chicken bastila topped with a sprinkling of powder sugar at Darna in Fountain Valley.
The chicken bastila topped with a sprinkling of powder… (Don Leach, unknown )

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.

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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.

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