OK, Marlena is technically not in the Mission. Like, at all. Should that matter to you? No. It’s Mission-adjacent, right across the street from the very delightful Precita Park in our sister neighborhood, Bernal Heights. It’s close enough, and thank goodness for that. This is a haven for refined comfort food, brought to you by Michelin-star-pedigreed, husband-and-wife Chefs David Fisher and Serena Chow Fisher.
Front of house is helmed by the charming, incredibly knowledgeable and attentive Ramsey, who made us feel like personal guests. While both chefs earned their accolades in New York working at fine dining spots, Pastry Chef Chow originally hails from the Bay Area, as does Ramsey. So it was a natural move to open their first restaurant together on the West Coast. The space is gorgeous, light and airy, and all the staff, I noted, were POC (yes, they get extra points for that), and very welcoming.
Marlena opened in the latter part of the pandemic, at first serving its neighbors with elaborate picnic lunches to take to the park. They’ve now evolved into a four-course, prix-fixe menu ($65) that changes seasonally but, according to Ramsey, can easily change daily, depending on the whims of the chefs and the farmers market. The menu offers two choices per course, with an additional supplement of wagyu steak available for $45.
There is a bread course, and what a way to start. Parker House rolls were just coming out of the oven when we walked in, and it smelled like the idyllic childhood of your dreams.
Perfect golden, yeasty pillows topped with crunchy salt, served with a fat curl of cultured butter. We gobbled down our first roll each, and Ramsey was quick to serve us two more, but after that, we said, “enough!” I easily could have eaten a half-dozen and ruined my dinner.
We both opted for the Hokkaido scallop starter.
The pearly scallop was served with a pristine strawberry, thinly sliced jalapeno, a lacy squid ink tuille, and pickled Persian cucumber. Such a delicate bite, the scallop was exuberantly fresh, with the tuille providing a subtle, underlying sea note.
Corn bisque was up next for the second course, with a nutritional yeast cracker and pickled gypsy peppers.
Another delicate “wow,” it was creamy and silky, with a deep, rich corn flavor. Tangerine lace microgreens gave the broth a bit of citrus burst.
The other second-course option was house-made ravioli with mushrooms, topped with hazelnuts and wild mushrooms, in a buttery sherry vinegar sauce.
Like walking through the forest! And see those little green circles? Tiny, perfectly sliced chives. This attention to detail made the dish more than just a woodsy and delicious comfort dish.
Third course: Sakura pork loin roasted on the bone, then sliced and resting in a pool of its own jus.
The pork was incredibly juicy, with a proprietary bbq spice that tied the elements together. Accompaniments were a pluot marmalade, pickled mustard seeds, cranberry beans and, maybe the star of the show for me, that piece of cabbage: first sauteed, and then smoked in a Japanese table-top grill over binchotan charcoal. Fantastic, smoky flavor without a lot of charring nor change to the texture of the cabbage. Wonderful. Again, this attention to detail for me is what makes a meal special: when a chunk of cabbage can blow you away.
Also third course: Crispy-skinned, buttery ling cod with white and green haricot verts, fresh peas and favas and squash blossoms, in a beurre blanc with ikura. A light, sprightly dish, very Spring-like. The ikura gave the dish a briny zing.
First dessert: Brown butter cake with peach preserves, white nectarine, peach, yogurt mousse, and some kind of crumble.
For me, this was the only dish that wasn’t 1000 percent, as the browned butter wasn’t very evident, so the cake was merely sweet instead of indulging in a play between salty and sweet. This is not to say it wasn’t delicious, because it was.
Second dessert: The Double Chocolate, it consisted of a very dark, fudgy cake, semifreddo, and a chocolate crumbly thing, with cultured coconut cream that had a hint of lime, toasted almonds, and fresh thyme. The standout of this dish for me were the raspberries: super sweet with just a hint of tang, and filled with a raspberry cream. Incredible.
Ramsey helped me pick out a dry-but-full-bodied chardonnay brut from the short yet interesting wine list, and generally was our attentive guide throughout the meal whenever we beckoned him.
There was a chalkboard over the kitchen, and I meant to ask if specials would someday be posted there. Marlena can accommodate a vegetarian tasting menu, too. They also have a pop-up: Jack & Remy ice cream, packed daily for pick-up, with some outstanding-sounding flavors.
Marlena’s offers indoor and outdoor dining. We chose to eat indoors before the recent surge, and the dining room felt quite safe with its high ceilings, open doors and tall, open windows. When we were there (early July), the staff was unmasked, and I was told that it was a concession to customers who felt more comfortable not having to wear masks indoors while dining, and that the owners would honor requests to go back to everyone wearing them if desired. Since we’re back to a mask-wearing mandate in California, this is now a moot point. But at no time did I feel compromised.
With food this innovative, delicious, and visually stunning, I plan to make it a habit to visit each season.
300 Precita Ave.