Darna bistroquet

Lamb ribs

Darna Bistroquet excels with a new head chef

Former Nora Gray and Beba sous-chef Alex Henderson has taken over at the Petite-Patrie bistro.

The Petite-Patrie bistroquet (read: mini-bistro) Darna, which opened in September 2019, has recently taken on a new head chef. Since opening, the position of head chef has changed hands from Billy Galindo, who opened the restaurant with principals Otman Amer and his wife Selma Laroussi, to former Lili Co. chef David Pellizzarri. Recently, Pellizzarri left the position in order to pursue a personal project — passing the reins of the Moroccan-leaning bistro to the current head chef Alex Henderson. While changing chefs three times in less than two years might come across as a bad sign, the charming neighbourhood spot has remained consistent, with each chef adding their own touch to the nuanced menu. This marks the first head chef position for Henderson, who has worked at a number of celebrated restaurants including Nora Gray, where he served as sous-chef for a few years, and a stint at Ari Schor’s Argentinian restaurant Beba. 

Darna Bistroquet
Butter beans with leeks and guanciale (Darna Bistroquet)

A North African influence is prominent in the identity of the restaurant, but under Henderson’s direction, it sets itself apart from the heaping plates of couscous and tagines of iconic Moroccan restaurants in town like les Rites Berbèrs and Au Tarot. That, in part, is because the restaurant doesn’t set out to be a Moroccan restaurant in the traditional sense. Instead, Henderson’s menu reflects an understanding of the important flavours and ingredients of Moroccan cooking and applies, as his predecessors did, his own personal set of techniques. Many years ago, I worked with a Moroccan cook at a Tex-Mex restaurant in the Village. I was 19 and obsessed with learning about food — I asked him to tell me about the cuisine of Morocco. He had trained under French chefs in Moroccan hotels, but “for the best Moroccan food,” he told me, “you’d have to ask my mother.” It’s a typical response, one he quickly admitted to being boilerplate — “every Moroccan will tell you the same thing.” But at the root of statement was the truth: The best Moroccan food isn’t cooked in a restaurant, it’s cooked at home.  

Green cabbage “steak” with tahini (Darna Bistroquet)

It’s fitting then that this microscopic bistro, which Henderson describes as having a submarine kitchen, should be named Darna, the Arabic word for home. That’s how the food tastes at Darna — like it’s cooked with care. For dinner, we ate roasted lamb ribs which, more accurately, were confited in olive oil, resulting in a rich and incredibly tender piece of meat. Served with crunchy slivers of Jerusalem artichokes and a hearty ragu of button mushrooms, the dish is rendered complex by the use of zhug — a Yemeni (or Israeli, depending on who you ask) blend of spices. It’s fragrant, tender and, to me, a perfect example of Henderson’s cooking. One can’t help but notice Beba’s influence on this particular dish — especially by the lack of unnecessary garnish. 

Another fantastic dish was stewed butter beans with some expected flavours of Aleppo pepper and preserved lemon and some unexpected ones like charred leeks and the addition of guanciale, a Roman jowl-bacon. The result is astounding — the beans are soft and delicate without becoming characteristically mushy and are vibrant thanks to a kick of preserved lemon and spice. The guanciale is a welcome addition that adds an extra bit of depth and richness to compensate for the varied vibrant punches. I might be digging too deeply, but in this dish, I see hints of Nora Gray — not only for the use of the Roman salumi but also for the way in which a humble ingredient like the butter bean can be elevated without a hint of pretension. Classic Nora stuff and a testament to Henderson’s understanding of good cooking. 

Berber spiced quail with parsnips (Darna Bistroquet)

A dish of brown butter roasted quail with sweet and sticky parsnips and a Berber spice blend is delicious, if a touch over-saturated (I love butter, but the dish was swimming in it). I also tasted two excellent vegetable dishes: one a very satisfying plate of gently chuffed sweet potatoes topped with a fragrant “crumble” of toasted buckwheat and whole cumin and the other a seared green-cabbage “steak” topped with tahini and pickled veg. The sweet potatoes were simple, as expected, and an excellent side for the lamb ribs. The cabbage leaned on a clever combination of umami-rich tahini, sweet and smokey cabbage and the fresh burst of giardiniera-adjacent pickled veg. An odd-ball dish for sure, but an absolute success. 

For dessert, I ate a lemon and mint pavlova which, to be honest, was only fine. There wasn’t anything wrong with the dessert, per se, it just lacked the complexity and thoughtfulness of the rest of the menu. Darna’s pavlova features a classic French meringue set atop of pool of admittedly delicious lemon curd. Personally, I like my pavlovas filled, rather than sitting in their custard the way an île flottante would. That being said, while the dessert didn’t inspire, it was a nice stand-in for a cup of Moroccan mint tea. 

Lemon and mint pavlova (Darna Bistroquet)

The fairly extensive menu also features some Moroccan classics like a plate of vegetarian couscous or mild merguez with toum (garlic sauce). Overall, this current iteration of Darna is exceptional — the food is refined but retains a feeling of good home cooking. It reminds me of a restaurant in the Marais: Chez Omar. While Chez Omar’s glory days are behind it and it is perhaps best known for its heaping plates of couscous, it was also well known for an excellent steak au poivre. That’s the feeling I get from Darna; it’s not one thing nor the other — it’s simply a very good neighbourhood bistro, or rather bistroquet. ■

For more about Darna Bistroquet, please visit their website.

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