Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Marlena’s brunch proves why it is Long Beach’s best new restaurant

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Marlena—one of Long Beach’s newest restaurants from newly minted restaurateur Robert Smith, Chef Michael Ryan, hospitality maestro Debra Zelenka, and cocktail connoisseur David Castillo—has quickly garnered a loyal legion of patrons.

And rightfully so: Its blistered pizzas, handmade pastas, and Josper Grill-ed proteins are among some of the best in the city, with its service and cocktails sitting right on par. With their fairly new brunch menu, that alignment with quality and dare I say pure yumminess continues.

Marlena’s brunch cements its place as a staple in Long Beach’s growing food scene

Ryan, an apprentice of Chef Evan Funke for the first six years of his career, flexes on both his wit and creativity when it comes to Marlena’s brunch menu—that sense of amusement likely best reflected in the breakfast pizza he created.

“This wasn’t supposed to work,” Ryan said, happily smiling. “But it did.”

And he is right when it comes to the eggs benedict pie that is featured in the area of the brunch menu many will likely gloss over in favor of the more traditional egg dishes: Cut into squares—the perfectly yolky egg sitting in its center so the surrounding pieces can be used to crush the yolk for dipping—the saturated yellow of the thinned out Hollandaise sauce, bright green leaves of spinach, and hefty chunks of bacon make this savory pizza a rather nice hangover meal.

That post-late-night breakfast need is echoed in the man’s baked egg dish, a shakshuka-meets-eggs fra diavolo concoction where salt bombs like capers and olives cut through the acidity and sweetness of tomatoes and peppers.

With Ryan’s history—enveloping Funke’s often off-the-cuff, let’s-make-something-happen-with-these-ingredients-we-have ideal—there are random specials that popup, like a masterful take on carpaccio: Creating a perfectly pickled giardiniera, frying sage and basil leaves, and slicing some gorgeous heirloom cherry tomatoes, this carpaccio is one of the best in the city. Bright, heavily’n’happily acidic, it needs nothing more than a fork.

And do not think Ryan has left out the sweets: there are lemon ricotta pancakes with a blueberry compote, their famed burnt Basque cheesecake (where they literally sell hundreds of a slices a week)…

But there nearly perfect lies in perhaps one of Ryan’s most dangerously addicting dishes, he brings us the creamy, dreamy world of Bufala ricotta slathered onto top of a thick slice of toast before being douses in a cara cara orange marmalade, a hefty heap of toasted hazelnuts, and a sprinkle of cracked black pepper.

Then there’s the cocktails: cocktail master David Castillo, in a full return to form after vagabonding between spaces across 2023, leans on the light and refreshing with takes that include everything from Prosecco and IPAs to gin and l’aero d’or. And yes, their housemade Bloody Mary mix ranks among the best in Long Beach.

How did Marlena come to be?

Marlena sits in the heart of the Naples neighborhood but just enough off of its 2nd Street main drag that is provides a sense of privacy along with introducing a style of Californian cuisine that is not just refreshing for the neighborhood but the entire city.

Taking over the former Russo’s space (which operated there for some 30 years), Marlena is an entire re-imagining of both the space and the food being offered in Naples: A seamless indoor-outdoor vibe that is shockingly rare for a neighborhood that is literally surrounded by houses on canals and boats, Ryan wants to not reinvent the wheel but offer the quality of food that has become synonymous with places like Republique and Alta.

Ubiquitous throughout the streets of Los Angeles, the California bistro—the one that borrows from cultures around the world but depends Californian ingredients—is still a rare thing in Long Beach: With the closure of Chef Philip Pretty’s Restauration (for which he exchanged in favor of the superior, Michelin-starred, French-focused Heritage), it was solely spaces like Ellie’s in Alamitos Beach and the fairly new Nonna Mercato in Bixby Knolls that have kept the idea of the fresh, seasonal, ever-altering-menu-style of Californian cuisine alive.

Ryan’s pedigree becomes tangible when you have his food: An apprentice of Chef Evan Funke for the first six years of his career—having worked with him on everything from Rustic Canyon to helping him open Felix when Funke’s sous chef broke their arm—he helped open the now closed AR Cocina in Culver City, Win Some in Echo Park, Faith and Flower in DTLA, and most recently, saw the (rightfully applauded) overhaul of the menu at Claire’s, the beachside brunch’n’lunch spot at the Long Beach Museum of Art.

“I’ll still call Evan when something just isn’t working but his influence on my food is clear,” Ryan said. “And that’s precisely what I wanted for this space. When Robert said he wanted something like Californian-gone-Mediterranean, I couldn’t believe how in the pocket it was for me.”

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What this translates into for Marlena’s menu are wood fire-oven pizzas from Bestia and Gjusta alumni Waldo Stout. Salads with slivers of boquerones and doused in Grana Padana. A massive, two-tiered Josper wood grill that will handle proteins ranging from Black Opal and Creekstone steaks to California rockfish and octopus. And it even incorporates the talents of Ryan’s wife, Minnie Choe, who operates a bakery out of Kitchen Terminal in Redondo Beach; she handles the desserts, including an impeccable burnt Basque cheesecake and salted pistachio olive oil cake.

And as for that name, Marlena? It’s important to the restaurant’s story: Smith and his wife, Jen, had to leave their bastion in the Bay Area in order to become the caregiver of his wife’s mother, Marlene.

“Phonetically, it would be pronounced ‘Marlena’ in German, her heritage,” Smith said. “So ‘Marlena’ is both a nod to Jen’s mother and our journey home to Southern California. I had hundreds of names in my phones notes, but Marlena struck a great personal cord and we also love that it’s a beautiful European female name. As I was developing the food direction, I also realized that, when separated, Mar + Leña—the tilde is important—means sea and firewood in Spanish, which captures our kitchen so well.”

Marlena is located at 5854 E. Naples Plaza Dr.

Brian Addison
Brian Addison
Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 25 nominations and three additional wins. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.

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