No matter what you choose, each protein has the makings of a fantastic combo plate ($14.95) that also comes with two sides. Beef meatballs baked in lemon, garlic, and celery sauce proved to be Friday’s big winner. Dense, creamy hummus with tahini and paprika joined thick crumpet-like pita. The finishing touch involved hot, tangy grape leaves with caramelized coats.
2014 marked Darna’s debut in a prime space along Ventura Boulevard. The restaurant is the clear standout in a strip mall that also houses a sports card shop, a nail parlor, and a salon that promises a "hair raising experience."
The former home to Doner King features a glass front, vivid red and orange walls, an open kitchen, and the aforementioned display case, which typically holds side dishes. The name translates from Moroccan as "our home," and customers tend to treat the dining room and patio that way.
That environment is a testament to the hosts: Sam Bendavid and chef/mother Aviva, who originally hail from Marrakesh, Morocco. He previously worked in construction while Aviva ran a catering company in Tel Aviv before the family moved to Los Angeles many years ago. Sam recruited his mother to help spearhead his transition to the culinary world.
Sam described couscous ($16) as "the most Moroccan thing we have." The iconic dish is only available Tuesdays and Fridays, sporting an exceedingly fluffy texture, almost like finely shaved ice, after steaming for two hours. Each plate comes with either chicken or mafrum, a Libyan ground beef delicacy made with either eggplant or potato. Choose eggplant, and the dish resembles a meatloaf sandwich, with the tender nightshade serving as the bread, then blanketed with zucchini, carrot, onion, celery and tomato sauce. Bonus: each order comes with a hearty bowl of chicken vegetable soup stained yellow with turmeric.
Another Moroccan standout is merguez ($15.95), spicy beef sausage made in house with cayenne, paprika, and black pepper, drizzled with tahini sauce. Links are available either hot or mild. Hot sausages are stained red and span about four inches apiece, served as part of a quartet. If you want to jack up the heat level even more, request their spicy green slurry made with jalapeño.
Whole onions and tomatoes hold chicken shawarma ($10.95 to 12.95 for a sandwich, $13.95 for a plate) in place on the spit. Juicy thigh meat touts a mysteriously savory marinade in addition to a crusty edge. Sam remains coy on the secret, saying, "I can’t really advertise what is in the shawarma." Each order is drizzled with nutty tahini and punchy amba, a pickled mango condiment.
For dessert, Darna bakes baklava squares and roll mamoul, walnut-shaped pastries filled with walnuts and dates. Both options are conveniently available for sale by the register for impulse purchases. But your best sweet bet is malabi ($5.50) a jiggly dome of creamy coconut milk pudding dressed with fragrant, bright red rosewater, coconut shreds, and crushed pistachios.
This might be Sam’s first restaurant, but with his construction supervisor’s mind to detail and his accomplished mother in the kitchen, the future bodes well for Darna.
Darna Mediterranean Cuisine, 19737 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills, 818.914.4188, www.darnala.com