"Marla Bakery" by Patricia Unterman
Published: October 29, 2014
How can a $6 plate of toast in a bakery/cafe in the depths of the Outer Richmond arouse such universal love? I guess because it is perfect.
At the new brick-and-mortar Marla Bakery, across the street from the Balboa Theater, extravagantly thick slices of ciabatta, sourdough batard and levain are lightly toasted in the wood oven in which they had just been baked. When slathered with sea-salted, house-cultured butter, itself a paragon, and maybe a swath of house-made peach preserves, I guarantee every soft crumb and pliant crust will disappear. It takes two to do it, which brings down the cost to $3.
A caffe latte in a pre-heated oversized cup and saucer will also be perfect, all lush coffee fruitiness underscored by silken, frothless steamed milk, as is pour-over coffee (from Wrecking Ball), for those habituated to the pure and unadulterated. It comes in a smart glass pitcher large enough for two.
You already know I have raved about the pastries, bagels and lunchtime sandwiches made by Amy Brown and Joe Wolf at their Marla community kitchen window on York Street (”What I’m Eating Now,” May, 2014), but this Marla finally allows them full expression.
The new high-ceilinged space is enchanting, decorated with tree branches, dried foliage, wood sculpture and hand-crafted chandeliers. Tiny bouquets on tables made of hunks of recycled wood look as if they had just been foraged in Golden Gate Park. Vintage country music quietly fills the airy room. As we ate toast, we watched bakers pull breads from a monumental-two-level oven built into the middle of the room. Passers-by drifted in to buy buttery breakfast pastries displayed in a sparkling glass and wood- trimmed case. People took these treasures outside on a deck overlooking a flagstoned garden fetchingly landscaped with mostly edible flowers and herbs. I wanted to move right into this poetic place, a personal extension of the Marla owners’ relationship with nature and the garden.
Marla started dinner service with a family-style Sunday supper ($65/$95 with wine). I went to the first one, inspired by Brown’s recent baking excursion to Turkey. (She traveled all the way southeast to the food mecca of Gazientep.)
Guests milled indoors and out, nibbling on clove-scented pickled vegetables, warm Turkish flatbreads called pide and fava bean hummus. Then we sat down at one long table laden with platters of buttery lamb riblets; slices of rare roasted leg of lamb; moist farro and herb salad with shaved raw artichokes lubricated with labneh (super-high-butterfat strained yogurt–my idea of crack); fresh peas and roasted carrots on spiced carrot puree.
Progressively, fino sherry, magnums of a saffron-and-vanilla scented muscadet, and a juicy, dark Provencal red were freely poured and tasty with the dishes. At the end, full as I was, I ate every crumb of a warm, crisp-edged semolina cake, just set in the center, with a tiny scoop of yogurt ice cream and candied dried apricots. It was irresistible.
I recently returned for a regular dinner, served only Thursday through Saturday nights. The menu changes nightly but the overall style is personal, evoking a sophisticated home kitchen rather than restaurant cooking. The freshness of the vegetables, the choice of seasonal fish and local meats, and the made-from-scratch sensibility behind each dish reassure ingredient-obsessed diners like me. I ate unctuous salmon belly crudo, lightly cured with salt and scattered with salty popcorn, minutely diced avocado, tiny wedges of cherry tomato and wispy onion sprouts that added just the right aromatic punch ($12). A thick, pureed potato-leek soup ($10) needed final seasoning, even though garnished with house-cured bacon. But a beet salad ($10) was exemplary, the marinated beets tender and sweet, still with a little firmness to them. Lacy pepper cress seasoned with flakes of salt, plus a drizzle of creme fraiche, tied the salad together.
New York steak ($30) with various accompaniments is always on the small menu, and I’d go to Marla just for that because it’s cooked so well. A slab of beef at least 3 inches thick, charred on the outside, a juice-spurting medium rare on the inside, was served with wild rice pilaf topped with slivered green bean and shallot salad, all moistened with the steak’s jus. The whole thing was destination luscious.
A crispy skin would have improved duck leg confit ($27), whose soft, deeply seasoned flesh seemed to melt into white bean puree. Traditionalist that I am, I wasn’t wild for confit’s match-up with mild mole sauce, undercooked pozole kernels and jarring pickled carrots. I know that the kitchen was reaching for a sweet and sour Mexican version of agrodolce, but it didn’t get there.
Desserts ($8) waft down from heaven. Elegance and clarity of flavor characterize a small raspberry float, served in a narrow glass brimming with the creamiest of vanilla and raspberry ice creams and raspberry-and-verbena infused sparkling water. The buttery buckwheat shortbread cookie on the float’s saucer melts at tongue’s touch. Even after a substantial meal, Marla’s latte cup of buttered bread pudding, somehow light, barely moistened with vanilla-scented Calvados cream and topped with cubed, juicy, crisply caramelized apples, just floored me.
More than just a restaurant or bakery or café, Marla has become an instant cultural institution in a part of the city where there has never been anything like it. Its ambitious dedication to uncompromising quality and providing such a wide range of meals and offerings, will change the neighborhood. Chef/owners Amy Brown and Joe Wolf have put their heart into creating not only exceptional daily sustenance, but a community.