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THE DARNA INITIATIVE 

Little is lost in translation of Morrocan cuisine for Midwestern palates

You don't have to know a single thing about Moroccan cuisine to fall for Darna. From the exceedingly comfortable space to the alluring and delicious food, the operation seems to be designed around exceeding diners' expectations.

Granted, those expectations are probably nil considering that we Clevelanders have had very limited exposure to Moroccan cooking. Our most recent experience with the cuisine came courtesy of Moha Orchid, a Moroccan-born chef who operated the delightful, yet maddeningly unpredictable, Venezia in Lakewood. Even there, the occasional exotic dish served merely as a garnish for the chef's stellar Italian cooking.

At Darna too, the foreign is wisely tweaked and tempered for Midwestern palates. The result is an intriguing anthology of plates that offer glimpses into another land without entirely abandoning the diner in an unfamiliar place. By judiciously employing uncommon techniques, ingredients and spice mixtures, Darna adeptly straddles the line between interesting and unnerving.

The Shaker Square space that for so long was home to Luchita's Mexican Restaurant has been reworked into a warmly decorated representation of a Marrakesh abode. Rich cayenne-colored walls are softly illuminated by candlelight, while gauzy linens break up the space into cozy nooks. Mirrors, Oriental rugs and tasteful North African accessories complete the design. A soft seating area near the front of the restaurant serves as an American substitute for the customary floor seating.

That lounge area, assembled around a gas-log fireplace, is an ideal roost for friends to meet up over a glass of wine and a plate of hummus ($8). Darna may serve one of the best renditions in town, no doubt owing to the warm, airy, melt-in-your-mouth pita wedges that accompany it. Scattered atop the smooth chick-pea puree are olives, French feta, preserved lemon and olive oil, making each bite different from the last.

Preserved lemon, made by pickling the citrus whole or in part, is the secret ingredient to many Moroccan dishes. The result is an intensely lemony, but not sour, flavor that offers an unexpected pick-me-up to salads, soups and stews. It livens up a thick and satisfying split-pea soup ($7), pairing beautifully with the starter's faint fennel notes. And it brightens an already vivid Moroccan salad ($8), a veritable rainbow of diced tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers and feta.

A whisper of mysterious spice — cinnamon and cumin, perhaps? — infuses a trio of crisp Moroccan "cigars" ($9) with an earthy, homey essence. Resembling Asian spring rolls, these slender and addictive treats are stuffed with seasoned ground beef and served with greens and tahini dipping sauce. Bastilla is an elaborate and celebratory meat pie that customarily blends the sweet and savory. Darna shrinks the dish down to appetizer size ($9) while retaining the classic elements. Tender duck confit is bundled inside a crisp phyllo satchel that is dusted with cinnamon, powdered sugar and almonds.

Darna's traditional couscous entrée ($19) has everything going for it but the meat. We sidestep the dry, tough white meat chicken in favor of the flavorful vegetable stew and sauce-washed couscous. There are lamb ($23) and vegetarian ($16) varieties of couscous as well. Quail lovers will go nuts over the version served here ($25), which features a pair of gorgeous chestnut-colored birds propped atop a veggie ragout. The partially boned-out game is stuffed with golden raisins and carrots and boasts still-moist breast meat. A honey glaze bronzes the skin while adding a beguiling sweetness, a nice counter to the fiery harissa sauce that garnishes the plate.

Cleveland's meat-and-potato crowd is served well by Darna's grilled lamb chops ($25). Dusted with a flattering spice mixture and plopped onto a bed of smooth mashed potatoes, the entree acts as a pleasing halfway point between foreign and familiar. I can't say the same for the grilled jumbo prawns ($22), a particularly underwhelming dish. Unless "jumbo" means something else in Arabic, the restaurant is being a tad hyperbolic. The petite shrimp are seasoned, grilled and presented on fluffy rice pilaf.

As with the starters and mains, Darna's desserts strike a tasteful balance between here and there. Who doesn't appreciate a warm, sweet and gooey bread pudding? This rendition ($7) benefits from ripe peaches and crunchy almonds. In a twist on the Moroccan cigar appetizer, another dessert ($8) swaps the meat filling for cream cheese, gilding the dish with a drizzle of wildflower honey.

With the addition of Darna, which opened last winter, Shaker Square may just be the most diverse restaurant row in Ohio. By my recollection, the grouping includes Japanese, Hungarian, Italian, American, Brazilian and now Moroccan. Culinary exploration has never been so easy.

dining@clevescene.com

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