Party On At Lazy Bear
Chef David Barzelay can get by on little sleep. Sometimes only two to four hours per night.
But that’s a good thing when one is essentially throwing a dinner party five nights a week.
His Michelin two-starred Lazy Bear in San Francisco touts itself as a “modern American dinner party in the Mission District.”
There is definitely an air of that, as I experienced when I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant recently. Dinner is $199 to $221, and must be reserved and paid for ahead of time in the form on online tickets. Wine or non-alcoholic pairings are extra.
You feel a little like you’ve been invited to a surreptitious dinner party, especially because the dark-fronted building doesn’t have a typical sign — just a small one painted with a black and red buffalo plaid pattern.
Walk inside and you’re escorted up the stairs to the dimly-lighted, cozy lounge, where your jackets will be whisked away, and you’ll be handed crystal glasses of pear-rum punch from a real punch bowl. Yes, when’s the last time you experienced that?
Lazy Bear immediately transports you to another time and place with its Boy Scout-hunting lodge meets mid-century modern decor.
There’s a Smokey the Bear cut-out, a faux bear head on the wall, framed bird prints, plaid pillows, and wintery throws on the leather sectionals. The bathrooms even sport framed vintage Cub Scout badges.
Depending upon how many are in your party, you’ll be escorted to standing-room only at bar-height tables or a ledge that overlooks the main-floor dining room and kitchen. Or you might get lucky and be led to one of the couches or to a corner loveseat for two, which is where my husband and I sat.
The layout is supposed to encourage mingling and small talk, just like at a real party. Maybe I just hit an unsocial group, but the night I was there it looked like everyone kept to themselves. The woman seated beside me at dinner did ask me if I was a blogger when she noticed me taking so many photos with a DSLR camera. Turns out this was her third time dining at the restaurant, one of her favorites in the city.
You spend about an hour upstairs in the lounge. It’s where your wine pairing actually begins, as you get a parade of small bites. There’s quite a bit of alcohol during this first act, so just take heed and remember you have to walk down stairs afterward to get to your table.
After punch, there is a dainty tea-cup of “Otello-cello,” a lavender limoncello playfully named after the restaurant’s bar manager. The lavender is not overpowering to the point of being soapy, but adds a subtle floral note that evens out the usual pert tang of this lemon liqueur.
The first nosh is a signature that has been on the menu since Day One — whipped egg with maple syrup, hot sauce and bacon fat that’s served in its own eggshell cup. It’s liquidy and foamy, and tastes exactly like Sunday breakfast.
Next up was a diver scallop seared on one side for my husband; and a Bolivian sunroot for me (due to my recent scallop allergy) that was glazed with cape gooseberry jelly. Crunchy, sweet and smoky, the sunroot tasted like sunchokes and artichokes.
Then came a fun one-bite pastrami Reuben, fashioned from lamb tongue that had been prepared confit-style, then smoked, before crisped up on the grill. It was piled on a tiny pancake studded with caraway seeds, and topped with cabbage and kohlrabi sauerkraut and “fancy sauce” made with Early Girl tomatoes. It may have been teeny, but it carried a hefty taste. It was like an enormous Katz’s Deli sandwich in one little bite.
Oysters from Washington were served warm, smothered in a cream sauce of smoked spring onion, fennel and curry squash, giving it incredible richness and a potent anise note.
Lazy Bear makes its own caviar with Tsar Nicoulai, which is brought to your table in its tin. As a parsnip custard is set before you, finished with creme fraiche and apple cider gelee, a server dollops a spoonful of the luxurious eggs overtop.
After that, you are escorted, party by party, downstairs to your seat at one of two long, wood communal tables. The chairs swivel, all the better to talk to your neighbors or to turn your attention to the open kitchen, where Barzelay stands to shout a greeting before spelt and rye Parker House rolls are set down in front of you.
Lazy Bear makes its own butter using a culture that’s 7 years old. It adds incredible tang, so that the butter almost tastes like cheese. If you’re so inclined, you can have a second roll, too — because Barzelay wants you to use up every bit of the butter. It’s so good, you don’t need much persuading.
In honor of Tucker Taylor, Kendall-Jackson’s noted culinary gardener, a single baby radish with its leaves still attached is austerely placed in a bowl atop mayo made with the trim of geoduck. Accompanying it is another dish of diced geoduck and pickled radishes arranged with toasted grains, sorrel and my favorite finger lime. It’s a light beginning that perks up the taste buds — all the better in preparation for the next dish that is quite rich.
Fluffy Dungeness crab meat is mixed into a creamy sauce, the foundation for a dish that also includes a sourdough dumpling that’s kind of like gnocchi and foraged watercress. Kalamansi marmalade and Meyer lemon juice make this dish not quite as heavy as it could be. As you enjoy this, servers come by to offer a little fried crab leg topped with more Meyer lemon and black citrus, which is actually an orange that’s been dehydrated until it’s petrified to be grated. It’s such a gift to get a plump morsel of crab meat like this without having to shell it yourself that you only wish you could enjoy this kind of pampering all the time.
That’s followed by the prettiest fondue ever. Made with Fiscalini cheddar and French comte, it’s a gooey pool encircled by compressed pears poached in Calvados, salt-baked red onions, and sunchokes cooked in tons of butter until they turn crisp-caramelized on the outside and soft like custard inside. A bone-marrow bordelaise is drizzled off to the side, lending an almost meaty component.
Then, it’s on to the meat dishes, starting with squab, which is one of Barzelay’s favorite proteins. As he says, “It’s like duck, but more so.” It is indeed, especially when it’s aged two weeks to concentrate its flavor and to develop just a smidge of savory funkiness. The chefs actually don gloves to wave the little birds over an open flame for 90 seconds before they finish cooking in a pan, leaving the skin wonderfully crisp. The meat is dense, bordering on a little liver-y tasting, with an extremely long finish on the palate. It is very much like duck to the nth power. Bitter greens, a fragrant citrus vinaigrette, a black olive crumble, and squab jus complete this memorable dish.
Miyazaki beef, which is 100 percent purebred Japanese Wagyu, is as special as it sounds. The beef is cooked directly on the coals, then seared in a pan in its own fat before being plated with a cabbage roll stuffed with black trumpet mushrooms, and a small morsel of fried sweetbread in a citrus sauce that our server said would remind us of Chinese orange chicken. And it definitely did. The single slice of beef is all that you need to appreciate its rarity. The exterior is crisp and smoky charred. Take a bite and it gushes pure fatty juices that fill your mouth.
After something so decadent, you need a little refresher. It comes in the form of key lime pie. It’s not a wedge of pie, but a deconstructed beauty with a white chocolate dome tinged green from being infused with citrus leaves that hides a macadamia nut crust and key lime mousse. There are little dollops of graham cracker puree that have no actual crunchy graham cracker in them but still possess the toasty, wheaty flavor of the cookies.
A bowl arrives, covered in a thin masa tuile that you crack to discover what’s below, as a palm sugar caramel is poured into the bowl. It’s chicory coffee cream with horchata ice cream, and small squares of butternut squash cake, and candied pieces of squash. It’s clearly dessert, but with its deep warm spices, it’s nearly savory tasting.
Lastly, there’s a slate board that holds the final treats: cute little bergamot gummi bears, softer than Haribo ones and more tart tasting; candy cap-flavored itty-bitty sticky buns that have the unmistakable maple syrup-taste of these unique mushrooms; and mint bonbons that have a nice touch of salt.
Barzelay was a lawyer, who parlayed his severance package after being laid-off into pioneering pop-up dinners. They were such a hit that they led to this real brick-and-mortar restaurant. He’s largely self-taught, having staged at Nopa and Mission Street Food in San Francisco before embarking on his own. The law profession’s loss is definitely the culinary universe’s gain.