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Lazy Bear: Three-Hour Dinners Unlike Anything You’ve Had Before 

Wednesday, Jan 21 2015
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It takes a tremendous amount of confidence and talent to pull off what Chef David Barzelay and his formidable team are pulling off at Lazy Bear: a restaurant masquerading as a dinner party, complete with cocktail hour in a lounge that could have been designed by Wes Anderson, followed by dinner at one of two long communal tables set with wildflowers and notebook/menus that encourage diners to chronicle their experience, all in front of an open kitchen where chefs chat with guests about the ingredients they're tweezing onto intricately arranged plates.

It would be so easy for a concept like this to go off the rails, to be all affectation and no substance, or worse, get so weighted down with pretension that it only catered to the most obnoxious type of foodie. Dishes on the $120, 13-course dinners (with optional $75 drink pairings) are ripe for social media likes: One dinner included duck Slim Jims and hushpuppies, large hunks of lobster in XO butter sauce, medium-rare squab adorned with quivering hunks of newly legal foie gras. And the midcentury-modern-summer-campy trappings of the restaurant seem meant to be seen through an Instagram filter.

Barzelay was a lawyer before he became a self-taught chef and about five years ago began hosting dinner parties in his Duboce Triangle apartment, which eventually expanded into a popular and highly regarded underground restaurant, Lazy Bear, an anagram of his last name. His multi-course dinners were a cult favorite, eventually becoming the No. 1 rated restaurant on Yelp with a mailing list of 20,000 people who applied for tickets via a lottery system. Last September, thanks in part to investments from some deep-pocketed fans, Barzelay opened a brick-and-mortar in the Mission. The goal was to keep the spirit of the dinner parties alive even after going legit.

To this end, Lazy Bear uses the ticketing system developed by Alinea in Chicago — you pay in advance for a seating at 6 or 8:15 p.m., like buying a ticket to a sporting event, and there are no refunds. (It also means that as a restaurant critic, you can accidentally make a reservation under your real name instead of a fake one because it's the name attached to a credit card and you only realize after it's too late. I share this in the interest of disclosure, not because I think it seriously affected my experience; Barzelay admits there's not much he can do for a critic when serving 40 meals at once, and my service and food seemed congruous with the rest of the dining room and other reviews.)

Getting tickets these days can take some doing. Your best bet is to follow the restaurant on Twitter to find out about periodic ticket drops, or subscribe to the mailing list, which is now up to 27,000 fans also hungry for a seat.

When you arrive for dinner at your set time, you're taken up to the balcony, kitted out like the type of living room you might find in any Mission Victorian, with midcentury sectionals, stump chairs, taxidermy, and shelves of vintage books. From this vantage point, you can look out over the main dining room (at an 8:15 seating, dessert was just being served for the 6 p.m. folks), admire the upside-down tree hanging from the skylight, and watch the crowd arrive: mostly under 40, mostly white, many clutching phones to document the experience.

Punch was served, a bitter apertif made with tequila, Campari, and green peppercorn syrup; you can also order cocktails, wine, and beer. (If you go cocktails, get the Mum's Reviver, a refreshing blend of gin, lemon, kiwi, guava, and plum brandy.) A team of waiters permeated the room, serving nibbles: luxuriously fluffy whipped scrambled eggs with housemade hot sauce and maple syrup; crudites dipped in a thin, creamy bone-marrow fondue; and a slate rectangle adorned with duck bites, including duck liver mousse with marmalade, duck rillettes wrapped in a guava fruit roll-up, a duck confit hushpuppy, and that duck "Slim Jim" that had all the spiciness and snap of the gas station treat.

I wanted to roll my eyes when a waiter with a topknot offered me an oyster on a bed of polished river stones — it all seemed so self-consciously hip, and I started to wonder how much of the relentless hype had been about the restaurant's style over its food. But the briny Shingoku oyster was dressed with a froth made of citrus, togarashi, and dashi that beautifully brought out the flavors of the pristine Washington state inlet it came from. The rest of the meal was similarly great, playful and surprising, utterly delicious. More importantly, it was presented with enthusiasm, not snobbery. I never felt like I was a supplicant at a temple constructed to Barzelay, as other fine dining restaurants sometimes suggest. Lazy Bear is centered around the diners, not the chef's ego.

Eventually we were led down to our seat at one of the two long tables in the dining room. Dinner's a group experience, meant to encourage you to talk to other people. Barzelay, red-haired and jocular, greets everyone from the front of the room, and lays out the rules: Courses come out all at once. A chef will explain the dish, but you should eat while they are talking. You can use your plaid-striped notebook and golf pencil to take notes on your food. And everyone is encouraged to come up to the kitchen between courses and talk to the chefs.

In short, he's asking everyone to engage with their meal and the restaurant as deeply as any critic, something that a culture steeped in Top Chef and modernist cooking kits is more equipped to do now than ever. The kitchen is having fun (even when chefs are assembling food, they're remarkably calm and approachable; Barzelay says he's "just not a yeller"), and that takes the edge off. It seems to make guests feel comfortable asking questions and actually engaging with the food itself and not just the idea of having eaten it, as foodie culture can too often encourage.

The meal starts with brown butter brioche, served with butter from a culture that Barzelay has been developing for two years to the point where it's funky, almost like cheese. The bread is warm. You don't have any utensils, so you have to eat with your hands. It's paired with a bright Muscadet that wakes up the palate.

It's followed by a salad of sorts, an arrangement of bright sorrel with local, sweet spot prawns, poached geoduck, and garden snails fed on basil. The textural contrast between the crisp sorrel leaves and quivering prawns is a treat. Then comes lobster in XO butter sauce, a super-rich and buttery dish punctuated by spicy Tokyo turnips. A different chef comes out and introduces the dishes each time, super-casually, occasionally cursing. In between, as they build each dish, they're happy to explain technique or chat about anything.

Charred onion broth is like ramen, salty thanks to Benton's ham from Tennessee (salt and fat are two recurring themes in the meal — it's a splurge in more ways than one). Floating in it is a confit egg yolk the consistency of fudge, and bits of apple that provide both textural and flavor counterparts to the salty umami of the broth. Then comes squab, medium rare, with seared, silky, newly legal foie gras and a crunch of almond nougatine.

The main is a showstopper: rare Waygu beef served with a sauce that combines Thai green curry and French au poivre sauce, both which emphasize green peppercorns to a stunning effect. It's followed by several desserts: a kiwi palate cleanser that's fragrant and light; a nutty amalgam of candy cap mushrooms that's sweet and cinnamony; and a plate of treats and cookies including a smoky s'more. The restaurant's in-house barista comes by peddling coffee and tea.

It's all over around 11:15 p.m. The last cookie has been eaten, the last of the dessert wine has been slurped. We know our neighbors a little better, and all sit in the afterglow of a great meal — a meal that we didn't just have, but which also had us. The city has many remarkable prix-fixe dinners for under $100, at places like Rich Table, Flour + Water, and Commonwealth. But if you have the means to afford one of these fantastical dinners (and, it has to be said, not many do), you're buying more than a ticket for dinner: You're paying for a whole evening, an experience, an education. I went in wondering how it could possibly live up to the hype, and I left wondering how long it would take me to save up before I could go on the ride again.

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About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Bio:
Anna Roth is SF Weekly's former Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.

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