Taste Infusion

Nothing is better than discovering a restaurant that makes you feel comfortable before you are even shown your seat. That is exactly what you get when you enter the tiny Darna Fine Moroccan Cuisine.

Beautiful Oriental carpets, apricot-colored walls and cozy corner seats accented with plush pillows transport you from bustling Shaker Square to what feels like someone’s extra-large dining room. So it’s no surprise that when the hostess greets us at the door with a “Welcome to Darna,” the Moroccan translation is really “Welcome to our home.”

Late last year, owners Benny and Inna Malul closed their retail clothing stores, Posh in Beachwood and Jump in Richmond Heights, to switch careers. A change in careers is a transition that normally wouldn’t raise eyebrows, but the Maluls planned to leave the competitive garment industry for the cutthroat restaurant business — a move akin to jumping from the frying pan straight into the fire.

But Benny, the youngest of 12, grew up surrounded by chefs. As a child he would follow his caterer mother, a native of Tel Aviv, around the kitchen. When he was older, one of his brothers owned a restaurant where he hung around doing chores. Soon he was cooking in the kitchen and working the front of the house, unknowingly training for this very career path.

Before opening Darna, the Maluls found a good chef in Cesar Mugaburu, formerly of XO Prime Steaks. Before that, the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute graduate worked at restaurants in Europe and South America. Well versed in ethnic cuisine, Mugaburu created a menu offering a range of traditional Moroccan fare.

Cleveland hasn’t exactly opened its arms to the handful of Moroccan restaurants that have tried to make a go of it here. Marrakech Express and Casablanca in the late ’90s and Venezia three years ago had short tenures, even though the food was generally good.

With Cleveland taste buds in mind (paired with the typical what-is-that? response Inna received when she said they were opening a North African restaurant), Benny and Cesar decided to add a little French and Spanish flair to the food. In doing so, they found a way to make seafood-loving Clevelanders more comfortable with the dishes. So a fillet of salmon gets a rub of Moroccan spices. A Berbere stew is loaded with shrimp, scallops and mussels, but the rest of the dish is traditional.

With those small yet significant changes, Darna’s menu takes a little turn from full-blown Moroccan to Moroccan fusion, becoming more cutting edge without damaging the roots of the cuisine.

For example, crisp-skinned grilled sardines ($8) were a nice opener, tasting of the sea in a good way. And a flavorful, zesty sauce made the salad trio of roasted purple beets, eggplant and carrots ($8) sing. I could eat this amazing set of simple and healthful salads every day.

Grilled merguez sausages on a bed of couscous ($11) was pretty good, but the dish could have benefited from a little harissa, the spicy paste used so often in Moroccan cuisine. The folks at Darna should consider bottling the rub used on the roasted Bay of Fundy salmon ($19). The treatment coats the mild-flavored fish in the spices of North Africa, giving the salmon so many more flavor dimensions. The only drawback to this dish, which easily could have been avoided, was the considerable amount of oil soaking the vegetables.

The Casablanca chicken ($20) with lemon-infused potatoes and an onion-olive sauce was fine, and the potatoes did not disappoint. I was thinking these would be potato wedges roasted in lemon juice, but they were a creamy, mashed variation mixed with lemon juice instead. It is a side dish that will be a regular item at home.

On another visit, we sampled a traditional Moroccan chicken and sourtani couscous dish ($19) nearly buried under a generous helping of vegetables and raisins. All of it was delicious, so it was fine by me.

The portions at Darna are sensible, with an abundance of fresh vegetables accompanying most dishes. It is a smart, healthful path that more restaurants would be wise to follow, rather than overloading plates with a lot of starches and carbs.

In fact, the Maluls get their fresh veggies from the Shaker Square farmers market when produce is in season; otherwise, they buy them from the Cleveland Food Terminal.

One of the best dishes we had at Darna was a special of seafood and myriad vegetables atop a bed of couscous ($24). Large prawns and jumbo scallops were perfectly prepared, and the vegetables seemed garden-fresh. It’s a simple dish that made a big impression.

We ended our meal with the white chocolate, peach and toasted-almond bread pudding ($7) — the standout from several desserts at Darna. It was as good as it sounds. The classic combination of peaches and almonds always works, while the white chocolate does not interfere with those flavors.

This was one of the best meals I have had in some time. And with so many interesting flavors coming out of Mugaburu’s kitchen, it would be difficult to get bored eating here. In a town that relishes ethnic food, here’s to hoping that Darna succeeds where most of its predecessors didn’t.

Darna Moroccan Restaurant, 13114 Shaker Square, Cleveland, (216) 862-2910. Open nightly 5 p.m. - 2 a.m.
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