Bernal Heights has village restaurants and bars running up Mission and down Cortland, but the sunny North Slope, filled with family homes radiating out from Precita Park, lost its back-pocket restaurant when Hillside Supper Club served its last chicken pot pie in April. Now, Tablehopper reports that a Michelin-starred power couple is stepping into the space, giving the micro neighborhood a new gem. The married, first-time chef-owners will open a restaurant called Marlena mid-August, starting with park-friendly picnic baskets and rolling into an affordable prix fixe on the weekend.
Both come out of fine dining in New York: Chef David Fisher came through Pearl and Ash, and most recently Bird Dog in Palo Alto and Sorrel in SF (one Michelin star). Pastry chef Serena Chow came through Eleven Madison Park (three Michelin stars), and most recently Bird Dog and Backhaus in San Mateo. (Pastry fans: Her chef mentor at Eleven Madison Park was in fact Angela Pinkerton of Che Fico and Pie Society dessert fame.)
Fisher grew up in upstate New York, where his parents owned a mom-and-pop breakfast-and-lunch spot, and the restaurant is named in honor of his late mother. Chow grew up in San Mateo, hence the move across the country, making this new venture a meaningful family affair. “We’ve always wanted to open our own restaurant, it was a matter of when the opportunity happened. It just kind of happened during the pandemic,” says Fisher. “It’s not the best circumstance, but it’s a chance for us to do our food and live our dream.”
Hanging out with friends in the park, they happened to spot the corner of their soon-to-be restaurant, a hundred year old building filled with bay windows and natural light. “It’s just a very quintessential San Francisco building. If we want to truly embrace upscale California-influenced cuisine, what better place to do it,” Chow says.
It was “this epic location, with everything that we could have asked for: The neighborhood is amazing, the park is amazing, the building itself has such a great structure.” “It’s always sunny over there,” Fisher adds. “It’s like the sunniest part of San Francisco,” Chow laughs.
The menu is still in the works, but the chefs plan to start with picnic baskets, meal kits, and pantry staples to go. When they can, they’ll add outdoor dining with a la carte options during the week, sliding into an affordable prix fixe at the weekend, starting at only $40 before wine and add ons. It sounds like an appealing array of options for families in Bernal, who might appreciate a picnic basket to load onto a stroller and roll to the park, but still want to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and special occasions.
For the dishes, Fisher doesn’t like the term “new American,” and describes his personal style as a mix of old methods and new tools. “I like food that takes a long time,” the savory chef says. “I like fermentation, dry aging, smoking, and preservation. But also purees, the use of gelatin, and foams and textures.… I try to make cohesive, delicious, and beautiful plates.” The first course is an option of Hokkaido scallops with crispy radishes or sweet corn velouté with spot prawns, while the second course is bone-in lamb belly with eggplant puree, dry-aged duck breast with pickled cherries, or salt-baked celery root with morels, layered with lots of different elements.
For dessert, Chow plays with different creamy and crunchy textures and warm and cool temperatures, and is currently crushing on ice cream sundaes and summer hand pies. “It’s food that’s in some ways nostalgic, but also reimagined as playful and textural,” she says. Sounds almost like an upscale Californian vision of a mom and pop. Let’s hope the neighborhood is ready for those truffle and caviar add ons.
The restaurant is planning to open in the next two weeks, gradually rolling out the various menu options. Stay tuned for updates.