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Lazy Like a Fox

Josh Sens | November 14, 2014 | Story Restaurants

“Hi, everyone!” David Barzelay bellows, his bullhorn-volume greeting aimed at our group of 40 diners. Gathered around two communal tables, we’ve all paid online or up front—with varying levels of frustration—for Barzelay’s highly engaging, hard-to-access exercise in haute cuisine. It’s just past 6 p.m. A mood of great expectation prevails.

Barzelay, the burly figure behind the wild sensation known as Lazy Bear, is standing on the threshold of his open kitchen, face flushed with exertion. He makes a marked counterpoint to us chillaxing patrons, who eased into the evening with drinks and palate teasers in an oak-paneled mezzanine lounge furnished with sleek sectionals and Eames-style chairs.

In that setting—imagine the Ahwahnee gone mid-century modern—we embraced the spirit of the cocktail-hour mingle, sipping gin shandies and slurping Shigoku oysters from suspension baths of tomato-water gelée. But we’ve now been summoned to our places downstairs, the first of two seatings that Lazy Bear offers five nights a week at its new location, the Mission space that once housed Hi Lo BBQ.

Lazy Bear (the name is an anagram of Barzelay) began life as a pop-up that itself had evolved from a series of multicourse communal underground dinners that Barzelay and his wife, Jeanette, first hosted in 2009 at their Duboce Triangle home.

A recovered attorney turned self-taught chef, Barzelay made for a compelling and inspirational story. His roving pop-up became one of the city’s hottest tickets, sating local appetites for serious cooking even as it fed a hunger for community, everybody’s favorite little-acted-on abstraction. A lot was going on at those elevated dinners, and it didn’t hurt that the concept felt so fresh.

“OK, you’ve got your first course!” Barzelay belts out. It’s housemade molasses and bay laurel bread, moist, faintly herbal, and ideal for sopping up the pool of buttermilk puddled around a pad of cultured butter that, the chef informs us, has been heavily salted “because I don’t think you can ever get butter salty enough.”

Fine dining’s old divides, teetering for so long, tumble into rubble during meals at Lazy Bear, where cooks take turns introducing dishes and diners are encouraged to approach the kitchen for look-but-don’t-touch primers on what’s going on. Inter-party conversations, common enough over burgers at a bar, rarely erupt at restaurants lofty enough to serve edible soil. But here I find myself discussing the virtues of crumbled toasted rye with the avid gamer and gourmand seated beside me. The scattering of soil lends its earthy crunch to a land-and-sea meeting of cured ocean trout and its briny roe with slivered cauliflower and compressed Mutsu apples, all topped with frothy dollops of apple foam that mimic the waters where the fish once swam.

Before his recent move, Barzelay worried that what worked as a pop-up might come off as contrived in a fixed location, what with the forced sociability and formal seating. But for all its choreography, the dinner party format somehow feels organic, the natural outgrowth of an upscale but easygoing celebration.

It helps that Barzelay cooks for the converted, a crowd already sold on his novel concept—or at least up for adventure. Otherwise, they wouldn’t shell out $120 per person for upwards of 11 courses (another $65 gets you the wine pairing), much less take the trouble to land a seat. To the delight of some and the vexation of others, Lazy Bear relies on a pay-in-advance online ticket-reservation system that’s aimed at eliminating costly no-shows. In the restaurant’s early weeks, glitches in the software were compounded by a frenzy of demand that we might not see again until One Direction goes on a middle school tour.

Having missed the narrow window on Lazy Bear’s website, I turned to Craigslist and snagged two tickets at some 30 percent above face value. The process left me feeling like a grumpy Luddite, and I showed up at the restaurant in a foul mood, thinking, “This chef better bring it.” He does.

As the evening plays on, that ocean trout gives way to a scallop seared just so, set against a midnight palette of squid ink and scallop sauce, the richness of it all cut by charred onion, yogurt, and bright dots of tomatillo and gooseberry purée. Pork jowl arrives next: Seasoned in a marinade of Asian pear, it’s been slow-cooked and then grilled so that a blackened crust encases its fatty sweetness, then garnished with a frilly leaf of red mustard greens. Parsnips and compressed Asian pears flank the meat, as do slivers of matsutake mushroom whose piney flavor infuses the guinea hen broth that servers splash on tableside.

You get the picture. It isn’t every chef who can take such liberty with the season’s bounty and convince you that the tweaks make perfect sense.

There’s an element of theater to all fine dining, and in this already polished young production, Barzelay has ringed himself with a stellar cast. It includes pastry chef Maya Erickson, an AQ alum whose endearingly shy delivery matches the understated beauty of the desserts she describes. One of several stunners is koji rice pudding, dusted with matcha, darkened with huckleberry compote, and crowned with wedges of green tea meringue. All savory umami and tempered sweetness, it claims the spotlight quietly as the night winds down, the subtle closing act in a once-roving performance worthy of its upgrade to a permanent stage.

Lazy Bear
Three Stars
3416 19th St. (near San Carlos St.), 415-874- 9921

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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