Think beyond the hummus
Hummus dominates the world of dip. In recent years, it’s surged in popularity to overshadow classic dips such as spinach and onion, thanks to its healthy appeal. It hogs more and more space on supermarket shelves and comes in flavors as varied as cilantro, roasted red pepper and edamame.
But there is another, more humble dip that deserves our attention. A dip that’s not shouting from every corner of Trader Joe’s, but still entices with a subtle, smoky appeal: baba ghanoush.
Darna, a new Palestinian restaurant on the K Street Mall, serves the best baba ghanoush I’ve ever had. Rather than being blended into a smooth paste, this dip is chunky and studded with eggplant seeds, and the smoky, deep flavor is balanced out by a lemony brightness. It’s good on the somewhat flabby pita bread with which it’s served, but it’s even better on the house-made za’atar bread. Za’atar is a Middle Eastern spice mix that contains thyme, oregano, marjoram and toasted sesame seeds. It thickly coats the warm flatbread, which is even more pizzalike covered in akkawi cheese. The cheese is browned and satisfyingly salty with the squeaky texture of cheese curds.
These are the highs, but there are some middles and lows.
Darna occupies a very large space, which makes the dining room feel empty even if there are a few couples in the place. There are attractive inlays on one wall that mimic stained-glass patterns, but there is also a huge flat-screen TV in front of the buffet that, while we dined there, played CNN with the sound off.
Time and again I tried to concentrate on my food or conversation only to be distracted by the TV’s news-ticker text, which informed me that Toronto’s crack-smoking mayor was defiantly refusing to step down, or that a child had been found chained to a porch.
The lighting is also too bright, at least for dinner service, and on our first visit, our server appeared visibly nervous and even asked me if I knew what hummus was.
Is there anyone left in America who does not know what hummus is? See paragraph one.
The white, long-grained rice served with the kebab plates is firm and buttery, and the mixed vegetables on the side, although a boring combination of zucchini, peppers and tomato, are prepared perfectly and seasoned with herbs. The kefta kebab is still rare inside, but lacks salt, and the rather pricy plate arrives with only one skewer.
The chicken-breast kebabs are not particularly flavorful but have some char from the grill.
Both sandwiches I tried—the falafel and the chicken shawarma—arrived thinly filled and overwhelmed by a bland lavash wrap: Each bite is half bread. If there had been more of the cuminy chicken and creamy tahini sauce with cucumber in the shawarma, this would be a solid winner.
The falafel, on the other hand, would be unremarkable even with more filling—why is it so damned hard to get this seemingly simple dish right?
The sandwiches are served with steak fries, or diners may substitute a tabbouleh salad for $2. The tabbouleh is pretty to look at—bright-green chopped parsley studded with white grains of bulgur—and tastes refreshing. It’s not watery like so many other versions are.
Darna serves a lunch buffet and also features a Jordanian lamb dish on Friday nights that I plan to go and try.
And how is the hummus? Quite good—the flavors of tahini, olive oil and lemon are all in balance with the earthy bean taste.
But it’s no baba ghanoush.