“The one constant we labored under was that everything had to be bar food,” Lazy Bear chef and co-owner David Barzelay says of True Laurel, his spinoff project a few blocks east. Having taken up the space that used to be The Tradesman, True Laurel has been described as the casual companion to the mothership — which is both true and not true.
It’s true in that you don’t need to buy tickets for a dinner party-style experience several weeks in advance as you do at Lazy Bear, which received its second Michelin star in 2016. But Lazy Bear is — and not to question its excellence — a laid-back, communal dining affair borne out of a self-taught chef’s underground restaurant, and its decor is cheeky.
True Laurel, although reservation-less, a rung or two lower in price than its progenitor, and with menu categories called “small items” and “items that are also small,” has a more serious vibe in some ways. There, in lieu of golf pencils inscribed with “I love you beary much” that you use to jot down your favorite dishes in a red-and-black plaid notebook, there is an entire wall of bas-relief abstract sculpture that artist Nicholas Roberto created as an homage to mid-century landscape architect (and Martha Graham set designer) Isamu Noguchi.
Both bars are made of quartzite, and along with all the tabletops, one corner of the front bar is inlaid with bay laurel (chips from which get smoked and find their way into a recipe or two). But maybe this is the type of “casual” we should expect from Barzelay and bar director-partner Nicolas Torres, whose $14 to $16 cocktail menu is a litany of hip-hop references and, on the whole, unique flavor profiles.
The A-Dilla, a boisterous, Nordic-in-the-tropics mix of aquavit, makrut lime leaf, coconut, passion fruit, pomegranate, and dill, and the Shaker Lemon Stirred (a sleeper hit made with Meyer rind-infused Fino, Moscato Chinato, vodka, and lemon leaf oil) were the two standouts — although you shouldn’t overlook the Rum the Jewels, made with three rums, a house-made mandarin clove shrub, and the onomatopoeically delightful, grapefruit-flavored Jamaican soft drink called Ting for a take on the classic Mandarin C&C. (Grapefruit and cloves might actually eclipse grapefruit and tarragon as a flavor combination; can someone please make that into a sorbet this summer?)
Although it’s a bar with food and not a restaurant, True Laurel questions the rationale behind making that distinction. You can sense a bit of chummy competition between what the front and back of house serve, and many excellent dishes clock in at a price lower than that of most drinks. Lazy Bear lovers will note the importation of hen of the woods mushrooms with a sour-cream-and-alliums dip ($11). Partisans of that humble American dinner plate staple, the loaded baked potato, will no doubt gravitate toward this $12 umami’ed-out spud, made with miso butter, bacon, bonito flakes, and scallions. (Note: It’s a big-ass potato.)
The very best dish is probably the Dungeness crab and aged cheddar fondue ($18), brought to life by a house-made version of Baltimore’s finest seasoning blend, Old Bay. Barzelay and chef de cuisine Geoff Davis have given nearly every dish at least one enhancement to push against the limits of the self-imposed “everything must be bar food” stricture. For instance, the chicken cutlets ($15) have a yuzu A1 sauce to bump up the tang and play off the shaved brussels sprout salad accompaniment. And the three little gems ($9) come with Green Goddess dressing but also “crispy stuff” in such density that they look like pine cones slathered in peanut butter and rolled in bird seed. While hardly bar food in an American sense, the bone broth soup ($14) is like a ramen by way of gumbo z’herbes, which sounds almost absurdly labor-intensive before you realize that the vegetarian NOLA stew served during Lent is further adulterated with country ham for good measure.
Sometime in the weeks ahead, the eight-seat tasting bar at the rear will reach its full potential, with a plentitude of rare spirits (and brunch service to follow). But the let’s-leave-our-mark-on-it spirit is entirely intact. Even if you sit down for a cocktail and some humble bar nuts, you’ll start idly snacking on the candied mix with wilted brassicas threaded through it and suddenly, that will be the focus of your attention to the exclusion of all else.
True Laurel, 753 Alabama St., 415-341-0020 or truelaurelsf.com