“At this point of career, I feel doing Top Chef is not really worth getting into..”- David Barzalay, Chef and Owner of Lazy Bear
The restaurant world is ever changing… Is it possible to be ambitious and remain lazy, carefree at the same time? Probably not, however one man has decided to step out of the box, gone rogue, and put a new spin on fine dining. Lazy Bear’s 56 Reviews were all five star approved. Fast forward, today it’s 93 Reviews with the chain of perfection officially broken (1).
This premiere experience is only accessible if you’re lucky enough to be apart of a reservation lottery. Even if you submit early to the lottery (or waited until the deadline) there is equal eligibility to participate in the tasting menu (no first come first serve). Next you are playing the waiting game, it wasn’t excruciating like the waiting room of an ER visit or a baby delivery but it forces your gluttony thoughts to be held in check. Nothing better than a tease, when you don’t receive confirmation to attend a grandiose dining experience (2).
The tax and gratuity is already embedded given Chef David’s hospitality and generosity to the staff, forcing you to pay out $130.00 a head per diner. Unfortunately, I don’t believe in this type of entitlement (I’ll get back to that later). Once you shell out the cash, you jump for joy and claw your way through the BART crowds and run swiftly into the Mission literally five minutes before service starts…
Everyone knows the mission, at least the San Francisco residents who are quite fond of its schizophrenic identity. On one hand, you have the traditional latino roots of SF’s Mexican underbelly. While the other, holds a pack of American spirits, dressed in Plaid ready to paint the town in old-fashioned PBR binges. The venue was somewhat difficult to find, given that the T-Intersection was split and the Apple Maps app decided to be an wanker, diverting me to the nearest alleyway across the Walgreens.
After meeting up with D.T. we got seated while everyone still continued on with their chatter, I couldn’t resist to cracking open my Macallan seeing as it was a long day for me (worked a plenty) while everyone staring indiscriminately wondering what events prompted my choice of poison. Segregated seatings is the first thing that comes to view. Our left side was couple’s paradise (excluding our stag duo). On the right, was for groups greater than two and wanted to bring their clique along for the ride. Chef Barzaley, expressed his appreciation to all the diners who attended this evening. He also insisted at any time of service, if we wanted to get a more intimate feel of the kitchen’s workflow we can check it out at-will. After reiterating the menu, the tasting began without anymore delays. The first set presented a small series of amuses before we got started with the main set of dishes:
The shooter was a nice intro and had a nice zesty finish. The jerky was spicy and the familiarity was greater with Vietnamese flavors as opposed to Thai. The Cheddar and Bone Marrow overpowered the crispy radish. Although it reminded me of the classic carrot and ranch dip combo, I wasn’t too fond of this appetizer. The swordfish caught my attention and pressed forward with momentum in the tasting. Eerily reminds me of Jamon Iberico, with the ocean splashing at the finish of consumption.
After this snack we took a brief intermission to snoop around and observe how Barzelay & Co., handled their prep, execution, and expedition of our dishes. Everything was pretty smooth, nothing was amiss and everyone handled their stations professionally. After executing several services, the crew became comfortable with the wandering eyes and constant interrogation of diners. For regular restaurants, this type of approach is unorthodox (and unheard of) in most cases, giving people a taste of how hectic (in this case tranquil) the kitchen could be.
We offered a pour of Macallan to the chef and kept our own personal inquiries at the minimum. When he asked what we thought of service, I maintained my ambiguous stance because I didn’t want to jump the gun seeing as the main act hasn’t gone underway. D.T. and I retreated into our seats, and received the following black baguette w/ butter two ways; Curds and whey (shown in the previous photo). The bread was an after thought and the butter had a rich and silky, finish.
Five snacks in and Barzelay was ready to draw out the big guns, in hopes to stun the diners with his series of dishes.
This Rock Cod dish, reminds me of Salmon Benedict. Granted the presentation is a bit more refined but the flavors are quite similar. The crispy potatoes served as a bed for the meaty Rock Cod. The charred scallions complimented the Oro Blanco puree. Not much to harp on, definitely a respectable first dish. Admittedly, I was confused with the potato dish from the first few bites. Everything came to my senses, except for the black olive. My reaction to the lost ingredient was heavily delayed, only after ingesting a bit more sturgeon, the elusive olive finally made appearance. The quail was surprisingly refined from first glance. My past experiences of quail were miniature and cumbersome pieces of game that were unforgiving to the knife and fork. Barzelay’s iteration was straight forward, with a teriyaki-esque aroma, cabbage with a consistency of toasted seaweed and golden raisins that cut the heavy salt on the bird and sauce.
Next on the tasting was lamb two ways (rib and sausage). After being exposed to authentic Nepalese flavors, I can see what Barzelay was going for. Many lamb dishes find comfort with cumin, a staple ingredient and core component for the rib’s flavor. While the mustard greens were side vegetable that remain as an afterthought. The sausage full of gaminess with the meat packed with peppercorns served as an ode to traditional fiery Szechuan and Nepalese appetites. My body wasn’t fatigued at this junction of the meal and my intrigue grew just to see what sort of interpretation Barzelay had for desserts. Now, I’m a big dessert person and I wasn’t sure if Rice and Carrots were going to help make this experience memorable for me. Perhaps the chef wanted to show restraint, serving these last two dishes like a strait jacket to my sugar cravings? The first is the Rice dish, technically a jasmine rice pudding, almond crumbles with saffron infused honey. You get an introduction of orange citrus notes, saffron taking the back seat and the almond rice cracker adds some texture to it. On the flip side, the carrot tasting was full of earthiness. The chicory sorbet reminded me of dark chocolate, while the tulle compliments the savory component. Carrot cake was mild in spice (similar to The Sea’s foreplay on Carrot Cake) caramelized carrot served as a useless reminder.
As a final impression, Chef Barzelay decides to give us some treats (sadly no to-go boxes were on hand) to end on sweet note. Cookie dough met halfway with the caramel, though I can appreciate the Ginger/Lime combo being balanced it wasn’t my personal favorite. I wanted to get at least a hint of green tea with the white chocolate but I believe it was for the better. Lastly, who doesn’t like cream puffs? Initially, I didn’t want to put off typing this review. My first instinct like many other diners that night, was to rant and rave about how surreal and magnificent the experience was from beginning to end.
Customer service was excellent (as expected), the food had a couple of hit and misses, previewed inner workings of a fine-dining kitchen staff, so why should I still complain?
Strike one, was Auto gratuity. I’ve worked in customer service. hospitality/restaurants so I know.. how the whole debate goes down. I’m the guy that believes in, “You work hard for your tip, you’re not entitled to it.” A lot of people may disagree with me but after spending (and experiencing) everything from casual to high-end dining. I’ve experienced excellent (and at the very bottom barrel) of service. Regardless the gratuity some of the wait staff earn out of minimal effort and maximum entitlement irks me the most. Thankfully, LB’s experience was top notch, so my money didn’t go to waste. I would have tipped beyond the 20% but declined to, considering I came into the experience blind this first-go around.
The whole lottery thing was also a pain in the ass for me. Places like Ludo Bites, French Laundry, Urasawa and many more already built off of hype alone making things more difficult. Sure it’s an acceptable tool but when it becomes inconvenient to even get a seat at a place to eat, usually higher turnover is more likely to happen. I understand people (like myself) are partial to blame for creating this demand in trying the best (and the not-so brightest) restaurant spots around the country. As I get older my firm beliefs in reinforced that dining out should remain affordable, accessible, and soulful. Sometimes, not all that glitters is gold and if I’m paying for high premium dinners, I better receive an equivalent standard of excellence in service and dining options that’s unrivaled to my usual weekday getaway.
Despite my entertaining experience with Lazy Bear, I mentioned in the beginning of the article Barzelay explicitly stated, a Top Chef-esque experience would be pointless in his point of the career. This is important to note because if he feels those types of opportunities are under him.. Perhaps his mastery and style to cooking should be flawless. This wasn’t the case because nothing really substantial stood out for me. The most memorable dishes have complete flavor profiles which remain on my tongue like the first time I’ve tried it. It’s almost past the two month mark and without the observation notes (thankfully still had them), a good portion of the meal I considered to be playful and cheeky but remained a cheerful after thought. Even if Barzelay doesn’t consider himself a promising ‘Chef-testant.’ I feel he still has a way to go in his culinary career before he can make a real impact in the dining scene and possibly pull his own 180, Eddie Huang style.(3) He’s got a great foundation and pushes his techniques to the limit but his style isn’t that distinctive yet. I believe every Chef (and restaurant staff as a whole) should achieve this pinnacle of success establishing their own style, even it means to breaking more rocks to flow like water.
After having some time to myself, I got to see more clearly and began to dissect the experience more objectively, uncovering more issues I had with the meal in the process. This is the same fundamental issue urban dancers have, powerful technique vs. a unique style? For a cook the debate boils down to what’s more important? A vast amount of tools and exotic ingredients (molecular gastronomy) or simple straight forward classic cookery (traditional French/Italian etc.)? We can draw black and white divisions for decades, only to find ourselves treading along this
invisible obscure line of neutrality impaired in the process.
I am appreciative to have tried phenomenal food and drink for my age and yet there’s more to uncover. My journey started by learning about the history of food and beverage and what ties the establishment has to the local community. The underlying benefit not only enlightened me to grassroots issues but psychological ones (not just Lazy Bear) but for all the restaurants and pop ups that appear, worldwide.
A big thanks to Chef Barzelay and his staff for serving, entertaining and conversing with all of us diners while working towards his dream of opening up a Brick and Mortar (4) in the near future.
Finally this Lazy Bear, needs to get some sleep… and maybe a bit more ambition.
(1) Lazy Bear Business Page via Yelp.com, “http://www.yelp.com/biz/lazy-bear-san-francisco” last updated circa 2014, last seen 24 March 2014
(2)Ludo Lefebvre Sub Page (Restaurants),”http://www.ludolefebvre.com/restaurants/” last updated circa 2014, last seen 21 February 2014
(3) Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off The Boat, landing page via Vice.com,
“http://www.vice.com/en_uk/fresh-off-the-boat” last updated circa 2014, last seen 24 March 2014
(4) Hi-Lo BBQ OUT, Lazy Bear in on 19 St.,
“http://sf.eater.com/archives/2014/02/24/hilo_bbq_out_lazy_bear_in_on_19th_street.php” last updated circa 24 February 2014, last seen 28 March 2014