Throw a dart in San Francisco and it would hit a restaurant with a seasonal menu. Think Rich Table, Routier, or State Bird Provisions - restaurants where menus change depending on what’s at the farmers market. This concept has become so quintessentially SF that it’s almost a rarity to find a spot that doesn’t pride itself on using hyper-local ingredients.
Marlena in Bernal Heights is another one of those seasonal restaurants with a four-course, prix-fixe menu that completely changes every few weeks. But theirs makes us excited to come back, time and time again.
Marlena’s dining room, with its muted blue color scheme and open kitchen, resembles practically every other “California cuisine” spot in town. And even though the food - from deconstructed pasta to pork collar with cauliflower foam - feels like it might have been dropped onto your table from some stuffy, big-deal fine dining restaurant, Marlena isn’t as pretentious as it could be. It’s run by a husband-and-wife duo, who you might see putting finishing touches on dishes at the pass or dropping off shiny, still-warm milk bread rolls at your table. By the end of your first visit, you’ll already feel like a regular.
The main attraction here, rightfully so, is the incredible prix-fixe menu (it’s also your only option). At $65 per person, the price for the tasting menu is on the lower end of what you’ll see at other SF restaurants. It’s four courses, with two options at every turn. Some dishes are tweaked almost daily, and the whole menu changes out every few weeks - so no two meals will ever be the same, no matter how many times you come in. You might end up with a Brentwood corn bisque poured tableside that’s so silky and rich it might inspire you to name your firstborn “Corn.” Or a soft Hokkaido scallop topped with tangy pickled strawberries and a lacy squid ink tuile that shatters when you bite into it. It’s almost sad to finish each plate, because you know that you might not ever be able to eat the same one again.
Once you’ve worked your way through the starters, smaller dishes, and heartier entrées (usually a fish and a pork dish, but there are vegetarian options if you ask), you’ll arrive at the desserts. This is the section on the menu where the seasonality shines the most. You might get a refreshing peach crumble in the summer, or an earthy pumpkin cake artfully dotted with pepitas and pomegranate seeds in the fall. Every bite feels like a sweet ode to the current season, and the perfect note to end your meal on.
Since there are two options per course, our favorite way to do a meal at Marlena is to come with one other person, order the entire menu, and split everything. Throughout the night, turtleneck-wearing Bernal Heights couples on weeknight dates or small groups of friends celebrating a milestone birthday will slide into their tables and fill the dining room with a relaxed, warm buzz. And even before your first course has been cleared from the table, you’ll be plotting the next time you can make a reservation here.
The food menu at Marlena changes every few weeks depending on what’s in season, but here’s an idea of what you can expect.
Hiding underneath the pile of little gems is a cluster of pickled huckleberries that feel like a pleasant, juicy surprise. This won’t be the most revolutionary salad you’ve ever had, but it’s still great.
SF restaurants love scallops like the city loves well-groomed poodle mixes. But chances are high that this one will stick out from the rest. The super fresh scallop isn’t outshined by the thinly-sliced turnip or airy rice chips on top, and you’ll end up drinking the rest of the soy dashi broth like it’s soup.
A deeply golden-brown crust and dense, buttery quality make these rolls a fantastic way to start off your meal here. They’re an add-on at $2.50 per person, but you should definitely order some for the table.
These plump, light balls of ricotta arrive swimming in a shallow pool of brown butter broth with a crackly piece of braised kohlrabi on top. Taking a bite of one is like sinking your teeth into a cheesy, pillowy cloud.
Our favorite part about this dish was the parmesan fonduta, a thick dollop of intensely parmesan-y cream. The smoked onion and pioppini mushrooms added a nice earthy flavor, too.
There’s always a fish on the menu as one of the larger entrée options - and every time we’ve visited, it’s been cooked to perfection. This version is topped with trout roe and served with sous vide leeks, which is the only way we will eat leeks from now on.
We’ve had a couple of pork loin dishes here, but the pork collar on our most recent visit was our favorite by far. It’s so soft you don’t need a knife to cut through it, and is glazed with a thick mustard seed jus. And yes, there’s cauliflower foam involved here, which would feel more ridiculous if it wasn’t so damn good.
The desserts at Marlena are fabulous, no matter what’s on the menu - but we really fell in love with this date cake. It’s not too sweet, and comes sitting on top of a cranberry toffee sauce that we practically licked off the plate.
A ring of rich chocolate pudding and pumpkin cake gets bursts of texture from crunchy chocolate balls, pomegranate seeds, and pepitas. It tastes like fall in a spoon.