When we started our Cobaya "underground" dinners, there was no pretense of originality; we were very deliberately copying things we had heard about in other cities. So for years I've been keeping track of what other like-minded people are doing around the country, including the Lazy Bear dinners in San Francisco.
In many ways, Lazy Bear is very similar to our Cobaya events: it's a set menu, with a focus on creative, contemporary cooking; events are announced only by mailing list and website; seats are assigned by lottery; the location is only disclosed to confirmed attendees. But there are differences as well: whereas Cobaya was organized by a few avid diners, and features a different chef for every event, Lazy Bear is a chef-driven affair: specifically, David Barzelay, who cooked at Nopa and Commonwealth, and staged at McCrady's and Aldea, before going the underground dinner route.
When the opportunity presented itself to attend one of his dinners on our recent trip to San Francisco, we eagerly did so.
(You can see all my pictures from the dinner in this Lazy Bear flickr set, or click on any picture to enlarge).
The location was a secret, so let's just say that it was a funky warehouse-type space, with two long tables set up for a total of 24 diners. The attached kitchen had plenty of room to work; if the equipment was not exactly cutting-edge, it's still a leap up from several of the facilities we've used for Cobaya dinners.
This is a preview version of the menu from when the event was announced:
Nine courses are listed, though in actuality it was even more generous than that, with several "snacks" and "treats" bookending the start and finish of the meal.
First, a little amuse bouche of a "scrambled egg mousse." Like breakfast in a shot glass, the creamy mousse was infused with bacon and topped with snipped chives, but finished sweetly with a dollop of maple syrup. Some might recognize this as a variation on the "Arpege egg," Alain Passard's iconic egg yolk poached in its shell with creme fraiche and maple syrup. But you don't need to know the reference to know it's delicious.
Another small bite: tombo, or albacore, tuna, aged and cured in lime ash. The tuna had an intriguing, slightly waxy texture, and a deep, concentrated flavor that was further brought out by doses of acidity and umami from translucent cubes of pineapple compressed with tamari.
Next, a cocktail, in a manner of speaking: "Smokey y El Bandido," a potent combination of red pepper sorbet, juiced jalapeños, mezcal, rum, Worcestershire sauce, lime zest, and who knows what else.
The "bread service" was a tranche of a rich brown butter brioche, plated with a more than generous shmear of freshly churned butter. The browned milk solids gave a nutty, almost cheesy flavor to the brioche. And Chef Barzelay prompted more than a few relieved grins when he assured everyone it was OK to scoop up the butter with your fingers if you ran out of bread. Our kids readily did so. All right, maybe I did too.
When I was growing up, most holidays and birthdays were spent at my grandparents' apartment, and my grandmother's stuffed baked potatoes were among my favorite childhood dishes. They were good, but they weren't this good. A spin on a classic combination, crisped hollowed halves of new potatoes were refilled with a rich potato purée, garnished with a dollop of paddlefish caviar, and set afloat on a pool of a silky creme fraiche sauce flecked with chive oil and chervil, with golden-browned little potato coins scattered across the plate. Rich, indulgent, earthy, briny, creamy, crispy - I can taste it in my head a month later, but still wish I could have the real thing over again. A fantastic dish.
The next course by comparison didn't feel quite as fully developed. Ribbons of fatty wild hamachi were curled up with slices of almost crispy grilled pork, all swimming in a BBQ "dashi" along with cubes of melon and cucumber and sprigs of salicornia (a/k/a "sea beans"). Individually each component was fine, but they didn't quite come together as a dish for me.
There were no such quibbles with the next course, though, a salad of several different varieties of pole beans dressed with a country ham "crema," garnished with crumbles of a sausage made from processed country ham, slivered radishes, shards of crispy sesame crackers, and bright purple borage flowers. There was a perfect harmony between the snappy, vegetal beans and the salty, meaty country ham. Other than me, nobody in the family particularly likes pole beans - yet everyone cleaned their plates. This was another truly memorable dish.
We came full circle to our first meal in San Francisco from this trip with more quail, this bird rubbed with szechuan peppercorn and coriander, its skin crisp and golden, its flesh still tender, with a meatier depth of flavor that makes clear you're not eating a chicken. It was served over a satiny corn purée with a garnish of slivered pickled sweet peppers, grilled baby corn, and snipped scallions, along with a plank of earthy, rich game bird "scrapple."
What does "green" taste like? That seemed to be the question the next dish asked, combining a plump seared sweetbread with a Thai style green curry, fresh green peppercorns, tender leaves of little gem and sorrel, and fresh green figs, along with crispy puffed rice for some textural contrast. Grassy, herbaceous, floral, fruity, spicy flavors were a nice foil for the mild sweetbreads.
The headliner for the final savory course were the sungold tomatoes, not the seared beef which accompanied them. These are one of my favorite varieties of tomato, a near-perfect balance of ripeness, sweetness and acidity, and here they were done in two forms: fresh whole tomatoes quickly blistered at high heat, and also sun-dried, wrinkly, chewy and sweet. Here the slices of seared sirloin, along with a sauce from the drippings and a beef fat aioli, served as the garnish for the vegetable, not the other way around. Like the pole bean dish earlier in the dinner, this was a nice balance of vegetal and meaty flavors.
Dessert presented an intriguing combination of ingredients: fresh strawberries and lychees, shards of cucumber compressed with jasmine, a creamy coconut pudding, fluffy angels-food cake, and purple shiso ice cream. This is the kind of dessert I love: not overly sweet, with light textures and bright, clean flavors.
Then to conclude, some mignardises - golden, fruit-filled financiers, and blocks of fudgy chocolate chip cookie dough, cooked sous-vide - and a demitasse cup of a "molten chocolate cake" without the cake.
It was a lot of fun to bring the kids along for this dinner, as they don't usually get to come out for our Cobaya events. And while we've always known they were pretty adventurous eaters, even I was impressed by the genuine gusto with which they dove into most of these dishes, which I think speaks to a purely hedonistic level of appeal of Barzelay's cooking. There's creativity, and there's technique, and there's presentation, but a kid isn't going to eat it if it doesn't taste great.
To say that this was restaurant-quality food is to seriously undersell it. Indeed, a few of the courses were among the best things I've eaten all year - the potatoes and caviar, and the pole beans and country ham in particular. These were gorgeously balanced dishes - rich without being heavy-handed, with layers of flavor. I don't think it's giving away too much to say that David Barzelay is not likely going to be "underground" forever - indeed I wouldn't be surprised at all if the next time I'm in San Francisco, I'll be eating his food in a real restaurant rather than a secret unidentified warehouse. After all, even a lazy bear needs to come out of its cave eventually.
 In fact, the parallels go well beyond those: the first Lazy Bear dinner was in September 2009, within a month of the first Cobaya dinner; Also, Lazy Bear's founder, chef David Barzelay, is a former lawyer, and "Lazy Bear" is an anagram of his last name.