I didn't know much about Lazy Bear (an anagram of Chef Barzelay) except for a few facts: it was a pop-up in SF, it was highly rated on Yelp with a near-perfect score, and it was extremely hard to get into. I was hooked immediately but was thwarted a few times the past year when trying to get a seat through their lottery system. My most recent failed attempt was for their last dinner in June before they moved operations to their brand new brick and mortar space - the endgame of all pop-ups.
Imagine my delight when Anna came through clutch again with a surprise reservation for October 5 at their two-story space with two long communal tables seating a total of 40 guests per service. She was able to pounce on two tickets on their new system that licensed the software of Alinea's system where diners prepay for tickets in full. which cuts down on cancellations. Despite the whole system crashing due to demand and technical glitches, the first two weeks of dinners were sold out within hours.
Our UberX pulled away in a cloud of mist as raindrops lazily pelted us from above. Our eyes nervously darted from door to door for a semblance of signage when the hostess appeared in a doorway and smiled. Our eyes adjusted to the darkness as we stepped into a beautifully decorated dining space with ultra-high ceilings, huge open kitchen with gleaming steel, and gorgeous wood on wood action from the tables to the floor. The space was so new that blank canvases hung on the walls of the dining room as placeholders for some forthcoming art. We were led upstairs to the lounge to relax until the rest of the diners arrived.
The lounge had an unobstructed vantage point of the dining space and the kitchen below where Chef Barzelay and his staff were calmly prepping and assembling the first round of amuse bouches.
The lounge itself made me feel like I was in a pimped out ski chalet with mid-century finishes. Hexagonal coffee tables. Fireplace from the Jetsons' living room. Plush bearskin rugs. And a picture of Tom Selleck with his trademark mustache that just oozed masculinity.
The comfortable vibe continued when we were offered glasses of complimentary punch: roasted pineapple juice with rye whiskey and basil - refreshing and quite potent.
At this point, groups of diners started arriving upstairs in waves and began mingling with strangers, which echoed Lazy Bear's motto: "We think that the best dining experiences are the ones where we're seated around a table sharing food and stories with others."
The first amuse bouche or "snack" as they refer to it, was a shooter of whipped scrambled eggs with bacon, maple, and a dot of hot sauce. The sous vide eggs in cream went down smooth and the sweet maple syrup and hot sauce added great contrast. Could have had 4 more of these.
Next up was a cute Damson plum that has been bruleed with chicken liver mousse, brioche cracker, caramelized onion puree with sorrel leaf. Great balance of the savory chicken liver (my favorite kind of liver) with the sweet, juicy plum (my new favorite fruit).
Servers were smiling and holding out trays of food for people to Instagram. The excitement for the upcoming dinner was palpable as the small talk between strangers grew louder.
The most interesting snack in terms of flavor and texture were the charred tomatillos with caramelized onion creme fraiche, beef jerky, radish. I enjoyed both the crunchy radish and fleshy tomatillo as the juice dribbled down my chin. The smoky beef jerky and the subtly sweet caramelized creme fraiche could easily be slathered on anything...like a bagel for instance.
An onyx bowl of chilled sweet corn custard with American white sturgeon caviar was placed on our plaid tablecloth. I'm a fan of anything sweet corn so this went down the hatch in five seconds. My only gripe is that it was a small portion - I understand that it's an amuse bouche but it was literally one spoonful (look at the picture of the spoon for scale).
After serving this last snack, servers began guiding everyone downstairs to take their seats. The host had a clipboard of everyone's name and seating position - curious to find out how they determined the seating. Alphabetical? When the reservation was made? or purely random?
We sat next to a couple celebrating their first anniversary as well as an old friend and investor of Lazy Bear back when it was pop-up. By trade he worked at IGN and had never invested in a restaurant before but after falling in love with the concept a few years ago, he was more than happy to support Lazy Bear as it transitioned from pop-up to brick and mortar.
It was encouraging to hear a success story since most restaurants ultimately fail while attempting to make the leap due to a number of reasons (failed execution, financial difficulties, staffing issues). He was very proud of the progress and how far they had come as it took years to find the perfect space and to execute everything on a larger scale while retaining the intimate vibe that is integral to the Lazy Bear spirit.
Our conversations were cut short by a booming voice. Chef David Barzelay, clad in a custom Hedley & Bennett apron, welcomed us with a smile. A fellow Tampa native, David graduated from Georgetown Law with my high school friend Claudine before being laid off during the recession. With his free time, he began pursuing his passion of food by staging at Nopa and throwing dinner parties out of his apt for a few people which quickly exploded in popularity.
David explained that this would not be your typical dining experience. Before a dish is brought out to the table, a chef would bellow out the description, ingredients, and inspiration behind the dish. As part of the unique experience, diners were able to get really close and observe. As I found out later, most of the chefs were open to dialogue and answered my questions with a smile. One chef even put his tweezers down, went up to a diner and said, "let me see that picture you just took. Ah nice, that's gonna be a sweet Instagram."
This unfettered access to chefs that were in the middle of cooking was vastly different from the usual kitchen tours where I often feel like an intruder looking in from the outside quietly to avoid disturbing the staff.
Every diner received the menu in a booklet with space to jot down notes.
Started off with a bread course: Bay Laurel and Molasses Bread with Cultured Butter & Buttermilk. I took a deep whiff and smiled at the smell of molasses. The bread had both a sweet taste from the molasses and slightly bitter aftertaste perhaps from the bay laurel which is grown locally in California. Enjoyed the tang from the buttermilk.
The couple next to us opted for the wine pairing. The sommelier, Marie Louise, used to work at Quince - one of my favorite restaurants. She had a wealth of knowledge about the flavor profiles and the table was really happy with her recommendations.
Next up was the Chilled Lettuce Soup with Little Gems, Summer Squash, Fried Anchovy, & Parsley. The smell of the fried anchovy made my mouth water so I quickly picked up the beaker and poured in the soup.
All the components worked well - perfectly fried anchovy (not too much batter) and then the crunchiest croutons bobbing on the surface of the subtle and refreshing lettuce soup. A unique play on "caesar salad" where the lettuce was the star of the dish.
The next dish was my favorite of the evening. Just a few days before coming out to SF, I was watching the Mind of a Chef "Rice" episode with Sammy where Sean Brock talks about the importance of preserving and honoring Carolina Gold rice from Anson Mills. After watching that episode, I knew it'd be a long shot to taste this magical rice one day - but here was my chance!
Inside the bowl was a serving of Carolina Gold Rice Grits that reminded me of risotto - smoother and creamier than any grits I've ever had. It happily soaked up the savory bisque made from the crawfish shells. The braised cucumbers were juicy and lastly the spot prawns were perfectly cooked. A simple but tasty dish with depth that made me sad when my spoon scraped the bottom of the bowl.
A chef gave a great detailed explanation of the next course (Guinea Hen with Butter Bean, Chanterelles, Fines Herbes & Hen) but I was still dreaming about the grits. I vaguely recalled him saying that the meat from the guinea hen legs were grounded up into a sausage and then stuffed into the guinea hen. While the guinea hen meat was juicy, it didn't have much flavor and could have used more seasoning. The inside sausage portion inside was a bit dry as well. My least favorite dish of the night.
The next dish incorporated the use of fat. The Smoked Beef Striploin was cooked in beef fat and the jus also contained delicious fat. The seared Sungold tomatoes went perfectly with basil while the amaranth & tomato raisins lent a note of sweetness and acidity. If only the piece of meat was bigger and less chewy.
As we were nearing the end of the meal, diners for the next dinner service queued upstairs in the lounge.
Before we rolled on to sweets, we had a minty, gingery palate cleanser: Pluot Consomme Gelee, Ginger Curd, Shiso, Mint.
"Um, hello? excuse me, hi!" squeaked Maya Erickson, former pastry chef at AQ.
40 people continued talking at full volume, oblivious to the introduction of upcoming desserts.
Maya took a breath and raised her voice.
"Hello?!?! Hi guys, sorry for interrupting. My name is Maya and I'm the pastry chef here. I'd like to talk about the best part of the meal - desserts!" she joked.
The room fell silent and all eyes turned on her as her cheeks faintly blushed.
"Breakfast is one of my favorite meals and this dessert is a play on breakfast flavors. We have a burnt caramel sauce, baked sourdough cake drenched in butter. Earl grey poached pears, and a yeasted ice cream that should taste like Belgium waffles with syrup."
Everyone "ooohed" at the last sentence and the dessert didn't disappoint. Loved the sweetness of the poached pears and the cake and ice cream pairing that reminded me of cereal in milk.
Elaborate petit fours were served next but her explanation was fast and drowned out by table chatter. David was walking by our table when he heard me say, "Man, I wish I could hear the descriptions again." He smiled and said he'd gladly give a description as I fumbled for my phone to record it all.
1) Rose and mezcal macaron, 2) dimsum sesame balls with glutinous rice flour and chocolate inside, 3) strawberry pate de fruit with pinecone bud syrup and basil buds, 4) smore semifreddo: charred marshmallow with graham cracker, caramel, and chocolate, 5) pistachio cake topped with plum cream and pistachio nougatine.
The most nontraditional, "out of the box" one was definitely the sesame ball, an item you'd usually see at dimsum. I wasn't a fan of the gummy texture but I did like the flavor. My favorite one, hands down, were the smores.
As the chefs broke down their stations and wiped the counters down, David made his way through the room to check on things and introduce himself to the diners. What were your favorite dishes? What didn't you like? How did you hear about Lazy Bear? Diners could be overheard asking him questions too. Where do you like to eat? Who are your favorite chefs and role models?
Just transparent conversation that allows both sides to give and receive immediate feedback that can only result in a better experience for all. With the menu changing monthly, I plan on visiting again in a few months to see how the experience has evolved.
From serving 8 people in an apt to a thriving pop-up, to a gorgeous brick and mortar space that sold out of tickets within hours, Lazy Bear's underdog story is only beginning to unfold.
Menu: There is only one menu served at 6pm and 8:15pm from Thursday-Monday. The tasting menu is $120/person plus tax for 11+ courses. Beverage pairings are available at an additional $65.
What I liked: I enjoyed the communal experience of eating at a long table with strangers. But don't worry, if you are introverted like me and Anna, you can easily chill by yourself without being forced to talk to strangers. The second thing I liked was the cocktail hour upstairs in the tastefully decorated lounge. For the diners, it allows them to mingle and relax. For the restaurant, it's a great way to keep diners entertained while waiting for everyone to arrive. Lastly, the transparency between kitchen and diners was refreshing. The freedom to ask questions and take pictures during the action made me feel more connected to the experience.
Room for improvement: The refined dishes were delicious with a focus on flavors and local ingredients. If only the portion sizes were larger. After the dinner, I could have had D2 (dinner 2). Maybe the other diners disagree with me, but for $120+, I don't want to feel hungry. Also, I thought the amuse bouches served upstairs were more memorable in terms of complex flavors and textures. The actual protein courses that came out had less pizzazz. The dried guinea hen was my least favorite and the chewy beef lacked the complexity of the tomatillos and plum amuse bouches. Hopefully next time, all the protein dishes will be as amazing as the crawfish shrimp and grits.
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