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Lazy Bear Is For the Industrious - Mostly 

Wednesday, Jun 22 2016
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I've tried, always intermittently but for a very long time, to get a reservation at Lazy Bear, Chef David Barzelay's restaurant-slash-nightly-performance-piece on 19th Street in the Mission. Until now, the closest I'd ever come was a lunch at Merryvale Vineyards for the Napa Truffle Festival that Barzelay cooked (and to which I'm pretty confident I will never be invited back, after I was a little skeptical of a truffle festival where no one has ever successfully cultivated a truffle). So when I finally went in late May, bringing a friend who was going through a protracted breakup — there's always someone who needs cheering up — it was with a feeling of profound satisfaction. Finally, I got to doodle increasingly inebriated notes in an illustrated pamphlet provided by the venue, instead of surreptitiously into my phone!

It goes without saying that virtually everything was outstanding in both taste and presentation, but this is not a restaurant review per se. (The sagely observant Anna Roth tackled that in SF Weekly early last year.) Still, many courses were spectacular: the Parker roll made with an ever-evolving, in-house culture and served with a full-on cube of butter; the porcini with a gorgeously poached egg yolk, blackberry, and wheatberry; and the Guinea hen, an assertively vegetal strip of meat dressed with fava beans and greens, like the best of AL's Place. And I was particularly smitten with the bintje potato fondue — with peas, morels, nettles, and a powder of dill, tarragon, and parsley that Barzelay admitted was "kinda weird" — and made with confit'ed potatoes that were "in the ground yesterday."

With implied praise for its own foraging ethic like that, Lazy Bear risks coming off as if it were fighting a foodie arms race against unnamed opponents. (They're prepared to go full thermonuclear release with redwood leaves under the grilled lamb and a dessert rolled in puffed amaranth that's meant to evoke Honey Smacks.) But compared with some of the technically dazzling but ideology-forward tasting menus around town, a low-key joy shines through. Why is that so notable? Because in the not-quite-two-years since it opened — and seven years since Barclay threw his first pop-up — he's been named to Food & Wine's Best Chefs, nominated for Bon Appetit's 50 Best New Restaurants, sold out a $550 foie gras dinner in no time, and pretty much won every accolade that could make a person lose his or her bearings.

It's not cheap, though: Beyond the chef's tasting menu itself, cocktails are all $14-$15, and yes, there is at least one bottle of wine priced north of $4,000. But it wasn't as if I had Peter Thiel to my right and a Qatari emir to my left. I know this because diners are not only encouraged to approach the kitchen and inquire about what's being served — at opportune moments, of course — but also to chat with the people seated to either side of you. I believe this comes from a genuine desire to encourage camaraderie during a long experience, but it's also probably because communal dining has an iffy reputation in an era when social awkwardness is on the ascendant. In any case, to my right was a hearing-impaired couple who'd been twice before and who grinned at each other throughout the meal, and to my left was a woman who worked in advertising and her date. I enjoyed their company but didn't get his occupation because they were consumed with paroxysms of uncontrolled merriment almost the entire time. We did squeeze in one group activity, gathering a ton of Lazy Bear's red golf pencils, each embossed with a different Boy Scouts-esque message, for a rare non-food Instagram shot.

But beyond the silliness, there were small details that made me swoon, and not just because the stereo played the new Beth Orton followed by the new Tame Impala. One of my pet peeves is when, after getting up, I return to my seat to find my napkin folded. (I'm going to put that near my mouth; how clean were the phantom napkin-folder's hands?) Here, to my delight, I returned to find the Field Guide upright, the pages fanned out. (It was like the stacked kitchen-table chair scene in Poltergeist, only not terrifying.) And the check, when it came, arrived tucked in a hardcover copy of A Field Guide to Rocky Mountain Flowers. But again, the overall vibe is relaxed. The layout of open kitchens militates against diva tantrums, but Barzelay — a chef who began his professional life as an attorney — seems congenitally congenial.

It's really hard to decipher my notes at the end even though I started writing in all-caps to keep things legible. After coffee service, I drew arrows and wrote "STEAL, ATELIER DION espresso cup/saucer, matte volcanic gray." (I didn't pocket anything, so make of that what you will.) What really made me LOL was the bathroom, where there's a pic of a felled tree in a forest and the caption "Who cut one?" and a poster stating, "Employees must wash hands before returning to work. But we would do it even if it wasn't required." Un-passive-aggressive signage! Imagine that. In a city where postings at steep hilltops say, "Trucks not recommended," we could use more of it. And fried soft shell crab with green tomato, ramps, and cilantro. We could definitely use more of that, too.

About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Bio:
Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.

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