by Andrew Chalk
Darna (“Our House” in Arabic) has multiple identities. It is a well-stocked bar with a serious happy hour 3-6pm daily where you can cool off with a cocktail or almaza Lebanese beer. A coffee bar focused on Turkish coffee, a potent line in the sand style of coffee for serious javaphiles. A salad bar that offers a variety of eastern Mediterranean salad styles. A sandwich bar for a quick takeout, and a marketplace of Mediterranean food items to take home. It is also, and this is the focus of this review, the best Mediterranean restaurant in town.
It reminded me of EATALY, but with a regional focus traversing the Levant, rather than just one country. It is the brainchild of Yaser Khalaf, the most experienced Dallas restaurateur that you have never heard of. Arriving from Kuwait, he has spent over 25 years in the Dallas restaurant scene, including founding Souk in Trinity Groves, Medina in Victory Park, and Baboush in Uptown Dallas. Darna is a major step up in size and scope. Adding the identities together, the menu is vast. Responsibility for innovating and implementing that falls on corporate chef Ameer Jordan. Few chefs can have as much international experience as he, having worked in his native Jordan, Egypt, the Maldives, Thailand, Malaysia, and India. It was staying close to his kids that brought him to the Dallas area. He addresses his broad portfolio cheerfully with a staff of nine and a penchant for constantly tweaking recipes.
At a media event we were served a broad selection of dishes from the massive menu. It was an overwhelming but supremely satisfying occasion that will send us back to try more.
First, was a selection of meze: traditional Jerusalem-style Hummus ($8) attractively whipped into a torus and lubricated with EVOO, chickpeas, and lemon. Muhammara ($12) a glorious Syrian spread of red pepper punctuated with ground walnuts, lubricated by pomegranate molasses and accentuated by pomegranate seeds. This became a new must have of mine.
Warm Greek Feta Fondue ($12) made from feta cheese, pickled and charred baby bell peppers, tapenade, candied walnuts, and gremolata.
Spiced Lamb Phyllo ‘Cigar’ ($14), my favorite appetizer, and not just because you can pick it up with your fingers and bite off an inch at a time, but because of the intense flavor of the lamb, ground and spiced, and its flavor contrast with the gossamer-thin phyllo pastry. An indication of chef Jordan’s penchant to innovate was the Falafel ($14). It was stuffed with melted mozzarella cheese!
Finally, Scallops and Prawns ($18) was served on mega-lucent saffron labne and accompanied by a pomegranate salad. Coating the scallops with the labne was the way to go here, then let the flavors suffuse for a bit in the mouth. Sublime.
The wine list features a small selection of Lebanese wines. Those unfamiliar with Lebanese wine (roughly 100% of humanity) should not dismiss them. The country is home to one of the most respected wineries in the world, Château Musar, which revealed the near perfect grape-growing conditions in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon’s breadbasket. I started with a 2020 white blend ($14 glass/$50 bottle) of sauvignon blanc and viognier from Makmel called Cuvée Peter. Grapefruit was prominent on the palate, where a detectable fruit sweetness offset the crispness of a monovarietal sauvignon blanc.
With the scallops I chose a 2020 rosé ($14/$50) from ana Beirut, a winery with roots in the devastating port blast of August 2020. The blend was 70% syrah, 20% tempranillo, and 10% cabernet sauvignon. It was the ideal wine for summer, being light and easily engaging. Wines & Spirits magazine scored it 90 points out of 100 (equivalent to ‘very good’).
That rosé also paired amiably with the Mushroom Risotto ($21) from the Pasta & Risotto section of the menu. Truffle oil wafted across the table as this dish was served, but it concealed the umami flavors of the mushrooms not-a-whit.
There comes a point in the meal at any full-service restaurant where your stomach tells you ‘they’ve won’. You just cannot move with the grace and verve you had when you walked in. Getting up to go to the bathroom feels like launching a dirigible. Time to be wheeled out? This was it for us as chef Jordan produced a table, no less, to fit on top of our table that was packed solid with lamb chops, chunks of spit-roasted beef, humility-inducing harissa chicken, intense, complicated lamb kofta, pickles, and vegetables. On the side, a large bowl of al dente saffron basmati rice. This was the (soon to be) famous Darna Live Wood Kebab Board ($95 for two).
It would feed the sixth fleet, so do not fear ordering it. Darna will provide you with a U-Haul to take the doggy bags home. Don’t think for a minute that I’m saying “never mind the quality, feel the width”. This was a really good barbecue potpourri. Try the lamb with a side of tzatziki for a seance of sharp tang with umami. Coat the harissa chicken pieces with hummus that you kept from the meze selection. Gustatorial synergy from the Levant. ana Beirut provided their 2018 Red Blend ($14/$50) for this course and the 30% cabernet sauvignon, 30% syrah, 20% carignan, and 20% cinsault full-bodied wine, still fruity at 5, stood up well under the onslaught.
Do save room for dessert. Darna has something that I would not be surprised to reach legend status in town. The Kinafa Cheesecake ($15) is a coconut-flecked delicacy in dayglo orange (above top) that sells itself by arresting the attention of all the diners around the table that orders it. As we got up to leave, I remarked ‘you have good taste’ to a couple at an adjacent table as theirs arrived. ‘Oh, we got it when we saw you had it’ they said. The Baklava Cheesecake ($14) is almost overshadowed, but is so clever, replacing a Graham cracker crust with Baklava. If you really love your desserts, a Chef’s Dessert Platter ($25) is a sampler put together by an art student with a sense of composition.
If dinner is not possible, there is lunch or brunch (on weekends).
Darna is a nice place to sit, as well as eat. Flowers adorn one wall and clean modern lines demark the different serving stations. Tables and chairs are comfortable, encouraging lingering and chatting. You do have to come inside to fully appreciate all the stations as a patio, while providing an excellent place to contemplate purchasing a Lucid Air from the adjacent showroom, does not give a good sightline to the sandwich or salad bar, butcher or produce market. I have heard rumors of a redesign and maybe that will move those sections to the front and leave a clear pathway to the restaurant in the rear.
The crucial thing is that you don’t let this affect your decision to get in right away. What is going on at Darna is fabulous.