Marlena Restaurant Masters the Art of Minimalism

Chefs David Fisher and Serena Chow Fisher have arrived in Bernal Heights.

A lone radicchio leaf arrives on the table dusted in black ash. The dish is sculptural, as artfully composed as Boticelli’s scallop shell carrying Venus to the shore. Chef David Fisher cuts the leaf to feature the vein running down the middle.

“Right now, because it’s so in season, radicchio comes in all these different, beautiful colors,” he says. “It’s speckled, with a little bit of purple, red and white.” Although you could describe it dully, Fisher believes that even a salad can be dramatic and beautiful, as well as simply cooked. Flavor, too, isn’t an afterthought. 

Fisher is committed to using seasonal ingredients. “I’ll look at what’s in season this week,” he says. “Then I’ll make the menu off of that. It’s about collecting and resourcing good ingredients, treating them nicely and then putting it on a plate.”

Fisher thought that the acidity of pomegranates would play off of the radicchio’s bitterness. To add sweetness and crunch, the chef candied pistachios. “Sugar pumpkins are one of my favorites and I wanted to feature them,” he explains. He cooked the pumpkin in some hazelnut oil, “to give the dish some nuttiness and creaminess without being overbearing and fatty.” As you cut across the plate, that surprising bite of pumpkin appears from underneath the leaf.   

Meticulous when it comes to plating, Fisher arranged these components together with some mustard ruby streak to add a peppery flavor. But it looked strange to him — until he added some dehydrated burnt leek ash for the visual effect and the notes of allium. Finally, the contrasts settled into the pretty mix of edible elements.

Over the four course, prix fixe menu at Marlena, Fisher and his wife, Serena Chow Fisher, prove that their dishes can be as aesthetically pleasing as they are delicious. Before opening in Bernal Heights earlier this month, the Fishers were acutely aware of the issues a new business would be facing. “So many people have been knocked down this past year, we wanted Marlena to be accessible and affordable,” Serena says. “We also wanted the restaurant to be celebratory.”

There are six tables set up out front. As the nightly winds pick up, a couple of heat lamps diffuse warmth in multiple directions. It’s an ideal spot to break out fall sweaters, scarves, and coats. Inside, the kitchen is bustling. And, despite an empty dining room, the place feels homey. The Fishers have honored the location by recreating a welcoming neighborhood spot. I planted my feet for a lengthy conversation with an old friend and, for a couple of hours, felt that we’d regained a sense of normalcy.

David has a stoic response when asked about opening a restaurant during the year of COVID-19. “One of the challenges is working in a mask. That can be a little stressful sometimes,” he says, adding: “We have to do what we have to do.”

Serena clarifies why a face covering is particularly pesky in their line of work. “It’s so hot, to begin with, in a kitchen,” she says. “And then you add the mask.” 

With the approach of autumn, she also addressed the pandemic-induced problem, or opportunity, of seating diners outdoors. Marlena is situated right behind Twin Peaks in a Bernal Heights microclimate. From 5 to 7 p.m., they’ve noticed that it’ll be windy and cold. “Then when 7:30 hits, it almost becomes warmer,” she says. They’re in the process of building more seating on Folsom Street but the construction process has also been slow-going, figuring out when to schedule contractors around their prepping schedule in the kitchen.

Apart from logistical dilemmas, the Fishers knew that it was never going to be a perfect time to open their first restaurant. When the opportunity to take over a turn-key restaurant (Marlena was previously the Hillside Supper Club) presented itself, however, they didn’t want to let it go. “As we get to know our neighbors, a lot of them have been here for over 20 years,” Serena says. They have a connection to the space itself. “We want to build on that familiarity and continue developing those relationships.”

Their minimalist approach to cooking isn’t an extension of a trend. Before moving to the Bay Area, both chefs had been working at celebrated restaurants in New York City. David’s entrees and Serena’s desserts reflect that experience but don’t entirely define their style. “We’re not using liquid nitrogen,” he says. “I just wanted to cook something that was genuine to myself, to showcase my skills, and make it really, really delicious.” 

To make her phenomenal bread rolls, the Fishers drive up to Petaluma once a month to buy flour at the Central Milling Company. “I fell in love with the bread flour there,” Serena says. She found that it had a good balance of malt and wheat. But the inspiration for them is personal. Growing up, her mom loved both King’s Hawaiian Sweet Rolls and the canned Pillsbury crescent rolls. While her father used to bring home Hokkaido milk bread. The malt and wheat add a complexity to her milk rolls, enhancing the flavor of the cultured butter that comes with it. “I wanted the rolls to just be warm, gooey and a receptacle to eat that delicious butter.” 

Dinner: Thursday to Saturday, 5-9 p.m.; Sunday, 5-8 p.m.
Picnic: Thursday to Sunday, 12-3 p.m.
300 Precita Avenue, San Francisco

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