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VICTORIA DINING: MARILENA Cafe & Raw Bar: big city style in the Capital

sushi chef behind the Raw Bar at Marilena restaurant in Victoria
The raw bar at Marilena in Victoria



It’s not hyperbole to say that Marilena is Victoria’s most hotly anticipated new restaurant in recent memory.

Originally set to launch in 2020, but pushed back by the pandemic, the upscale dining room finally opened this summer. And it’s clear that all of that extra lead time was carefully spent, burnishing every detail to the fine luster that brings a restaurant star status.

It’s hard to know where to start because Marilena seems to have it all, from the soft arc of a leather banquette and a soaring back bar displaying hundreds of the best bottles, to glass-enclosed red and white wine rooms, a dedicated raw/sushi bar, and a massive open kitchen where Chef Kristian Eligh and his team turn out their creative, seafood-forward menu.

Chef Kristian Eligh heads the kitchen at Marilena Cafe and Raw Bar in Victoria

“We are definitely a seafood-focussed restaurant, local first, but also imported sustainable seafood,” says Eligh, who is relying on 15 suppliers to source a wide variety of fresh fish for Marilena’s large menu, with twice weekly deliveries to the island. Beyond BC sockeye for the Oshi Aburi and Hecate Strait Halibut in lemongrass broth, there’s Japanese fish for the raw bar, fresh Hawaiian Kampachi Crudo, Crispy Skin Striped Bass served with cured pork XO and whole grilled Mediterranean branzino.

Stylish curved banquettes, art and open kitchen add to the ambiance at Marilena (Allison Kuhl photo)

New York artist Fernando Mastrangelo’s Salt Mirrors, back-lit sculptural artwork wrought in salt and glass, lend an ethereal note to the space, while an ocean blue, custom-designed Hestan Cooking Suite from California dominates the large open kitchen, a spot to linger and watch the chefs at work. Even the bathrooms are impressive — enter your personal powder room where a heated toilet automatically opens to greet you.

It’s all part of a stylish dining experience that’s centred around a globally-inspired menu, which marries exclusive with accessible.

Burrata & tomato salad at Marilena

“We are surrounded by this beautiful, beautiful space and have an opportunity to cook in this stunning open kitchen, but we really want to make sure that the hospitality and the food are approachable,” says Eligh of his menu that includes elevated but familiar dishes, whether Italian burrata and heirloom tomato salad, wild mushroom soup, crispy fish tacos or addictive Parmesan crusted fried chicken. There are both small plates for sharing and larger plates, plus a sushi selection from chef Clark Park’s dedicated raw bar.

At the high end, there’s Hida wagyu beef imported from Japan ($64 per 2-ounce portion), a $165 signature seafood tower featuring Nova Scotia lobster, oysters and yellowfin tuna tartare, or a choice of caviar, the rare beluga ringing in at $399 for 50 g.

And it’s all resonating with diners who are filling the room nightly.

“The reception we have received from this city and from people travelling here to eat is incredible,” says Eligh. “There’s definitely an ambiance and a vibe that we’re seeing here that is tough to parallel anywhere else in the city — there’s not a room like it — and that might be part of it.”

All of this largesse is thanks to the restaurant’s Vancouver owners, the Aquilini Group, a company with many diversified sectors, from real estate development and construction, to blueberry, cranberry and sablefish farming, restaurants and hotels. Marilena joins other notable restaurants under their Toptable Group umbrella, including Vancouver’s Bluewater Café and Elisa, Araxi, Il Caminetto and Bar Oso in Whistler, and the newly opened Carlotto in NYC.

Francesco Aquilini also famously the owns both Rogers Arena and the Vancouver Canucks — so we may see some NHL stars dining here when the team arrives in the capital for its training camp.

Eligh says the goal is “to be the best restaurant in Victoria,” and Marilena is off to a spectacular start.

Craft gins, whisky and torched aburi sushi are all specialties at Marilena


 This story originally appeared in EAT Magazine



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