First Look: True Laurel, Pairs Clever Cocktails and Bar Bites

Lazy Bear's arty young cub focuses on the drinks
December 20, 2017
by Trevor Felch

The gist: It may have taken 50 weeks to open, but one of the year's most anticipated San Francisco openings has finally arrived.

After three years of residing atop the local fine-dining tasting menu elite, Lazy Bear’s chef-owner David Barzelay and bar director Nicolas Torres took the leap with this second concept. While Lazy Bear enjoyed a slow climb to fame — it was a secret then not-so-secret pop-up from lawyer-turned-chef Barzelay — True Laurel arrives from a now-established team, ready for its close-up. Location is prime: It's a five-minute walk from its older sibling in a compact Mission space (previously The Tradesman) just off the buzzy 20th Street block known for headliners like Flour + Water, Trick Dog and Sightglass Coffee.

Unlike Lazy Bear with its intricate tasting menus, True Laurel is at heart a cocktail-centric bar assisted by clever bar bites served from early evening until the early morning. It’s equal parts neighborhood watering hole and destination cocktail and dining experience from some of the city's top talents.

Crispy hen of the woods mushrooms with sour cream 'n' alliums dip. Photo by Leo Gong

The food: Barzelay and chef de cuisine Geoff Davis (most recently from Oakland's KronnerBurger) divided the menu into “small items” and “items that are also small” categories (accurate), a cheeky nod to the poetic small plates that are so trendy today. Dishes have hints of Lazy Bear's imaginative edginess but tend to be more approachable. Think bar staples like burgers and bar nuts taken to the next level. Barzelay explains, “The menu will have the same quality and innovation as Lazy Bear, but we try never to take ourselves too seriously.”

Warm bar nuts with crispy brassicas and Meyer lemon. Photo by Leo Gong

Those bar nuts arrive as three kinds of warm, candied nuts tossed with kale chips and — curveball alert — lemon seasoning. True Laurel’s take on french fries are actually crispy allium powder tempura-battered hen of the woods mushrooms with a crème fraîche and allium dip. A delicate scallop crudo is served on a scallop shell with diced apple and turnip and fresh Sierra Foothills olive oil. Meanwhile, a little gem salad certainly doesn’t take itself seriously. It's three spears of lettuce topped with “crispy stuff” (puffed grains and seeds) and an avocado green goddess drizzle — all meant to be eaten with your hands.

Dungeness crab​ and aged cheddar fondue. Photo by Leo Gong

Speaking of San Francisco classics, Dungeness crab comes atop an aged Fiscalini cheddar fondue dusted with “SF Old Bay,” a local variation of the Baltimore crab seasoning staple. The baked potato is loaded with bacon and scallions, plus miso butter and bonito for an umami kick. Barzelay's most eyebrow-raising dish ties together NOLA gumbo z'herbes and Japanese ramen with a robust ham and chicken broth sporting ramen noodles, country ham sausage and “lots of greens.”

Bone broth soup with ramen noodles, country ham sausage, "lots of greens" and marinated egg. Photo by Leo Gong

True Laurel’s burger is a four-ounce patty melt using the rib-eye cap of dry-aged beef. The meat is cooked on a griddle and served on petite pain de mie slices specifically baked by Oakland’s Firebrand Artisan Breads to fit the tidy dimensions of the patty. It's all elaborated with melted American cheese, spicy pickles and a caramelized onion “special sauce” (so you don't have to worry about onions falling everywhere). Barzelay hopes the burger’s reasonable size and crave-worthy taste sums up the menu — one that invites sampling and second orders.

Two tempting dessert options are led by warm freshly baked giant chocolate chip "cookies" (more like finger-shaped chocolate chip financiers) with sweetened milk for dunking. The other has a sweet-bitter profile: laurel ice cream topped with candied citrus and an olive oil drizzle.

The Shaker Lemon Stirred cocktail (Meyer lemon rind–infused fino sherry, Moscato Chinato, vodka and lemon leaf oil). Photo by Leo Gong

The drinks: Lazy Bear fans may head to True Laurel for the food — but the intriguing cocktail creations devised by partner and bar director Torres are the real pulse of this concept. Housemade aquavit serves as the base for the refreshing, frothy A-Dilla (makrut lime, passion fruit, coconut and pomegranate), which tastes just like a Scandinavian piña colada. Trust us, it works. Guests looking for a lighter beverage will gravitate to the Quinine Cobbler tying together two low-proof apéritifs and housemade grenadine. Or try the carbonated Top Dawg with a shinko pear tonic made in-house and rancio wine, served tall and finished with a black sudachi and smoked salt rim.

Top Dawg carbonated cocktail with fermented shinko pear tonic, rancio wine and a black sudachi-smoked salt rim. Photo by Leo Gong

On the more spirit-forward end, Negroni fans will be tempted by the Humps for the Boulevard (sesame-washed bourbon, persimmon-infused vermouth and Bèrto (a bitter Italian liqueur), while the funky Golden Child brings together mezcal with clarified golden beet, a gentian wine reduction and black lime bitters on an oversized rock.

A-Dilla cocktail (housemade aquavit, makrut leaf, passion fruit, coconut and pomegranate). Photo by Leo Gong

Rare and vintage spirits are also a pivotal part of the bar program. Imbibers who enjoy sampling century-old bourbon in dusty bottles or quirky spirits like Finger Lakes rye whiskey or Austrian gin will be thrilled by the substantial collection here. A small globally minded wine list, heavy on oxidized wines and obscure grapes, round out the beverage choices along with a trio of taps.

Photo by Leo Gong

The space: The quirkiness prevalent in True Laurel's food and cocktail programs extends to the whimsical space. Both Torres and Barzelay are clearly enormous fans of early modern art, and it's everywhere in the 48-seat space. SFMOMA would be proud.

The duo even created a still life quartet of photos featured on the side of the bar that play on Irving Penn still life works. The abstract shapes of the main back bar are inspired by Josef and Anni Albers–designed textiles.

Tasting bar. Photo by Leo Gong

The room was designed by San Francisco’s own Nicholas Roberto and features three distinct areas: table seating, the main bar (with a countertop made of a laurel tree and quartzite) and then a low-ceilinged second bar; the latter seats eight guests and eventually will become a ticketed tasting bar (one of the few similarities to Lazy Bear). It will offer two seatings per night of five mini drinks paired with high-concept small bites.

Photo by Leo Gong

The most prominent part of the room is a plaster wall sculpture made by Roberto that is loosely based off of the celebrated Japanese artist Isamu Noguchi’s avant-garde playground designs. Watch for it in your Instagram feed — or get here first yourself.

The details: 753 Alabama St.; open nightly from 4 PM–2 AM. The kitchen is open from 5 PM–1 AM and reservations are not accepted. Once open in early 2018, the tasting bar will accept ticketed reservations. A weekend brunch service will open later in 2018.

fine dining
tasting menus
no reservations
chocolate chip cookies
bar bites
patty melts