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Banquette nooks outfitted with Houston photos gathered according to neighborhood

Movin' On Up

by John DeMers | Photography by Debora Smail | Houston magazine | December 29, 2013

The folks behind such distinct and divergent eateries as BRC and Petite Sweets may well end up with their biggest success of all in the casual, food-crazed, now multi-location restaurant concept they call Liberty Kitchen. But one may wonder whether changing up the basic formula rather dramatically to suit each new neighborhood they enter—as they’ve done in their new River Oaks location, having traded the Heights’ original laid-back vibe for a laid-back-but-refined aura—is a good idea.

Well, so far so good. It’s surely a testament to the savvy behind the two Liberty Kitchens that I recognize all the differences but love both places—customized for their own environs, eschewing a one-size-fits-all approach. “People are tired of being told what to eat,” says Lance Fegen, the culinary director behind all concepts of parent company Feed TX Restaurant Group, headed by trendsetting entrepreneur Lee Ellis. “They’re tired of being told what’s cool.”

The original 85-seat Liberty Kitchen & Oyster Bar opened in the Heights in November of 2011, winning fans for its fun wood-and-tin interior. The new 216-seat Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette opened on San Felipe in October, offering, in addition to familiar accents of reclaimed wood, far more elements that are shiny—including nifty splashes of white tile that evoke, appropriately, oyster bars of yore in oyster-loving cities like New York and New Orleans. Upholstery tends to be leather, and tufted; the bar is marble. The alcoves carved out for seven booths feature vintage photos from Houston neighborhoods, while the ceiling spotlights a circular installation created from wooden school rulers—remember those?—by Houston’s ever-whimsical Art Guys.

Artsy embellishment is a trend here. There’s another quirky installation, this one with light bulbs and mismatched metal lettering proclaiming “Life, Liberty & Happiness,” in the busy, friendly bar in front of the restaurant. And there’s something else interesting about this bar: It’s round, bisected with a wall of shelving you have to walk all the way round to see the dining room-anchoring “seabar” it morphs into. The guys working here not only shuck oysters, open clams and crack crabs, but also grill items in the unique Japanese robata tradition, one new touch of which the original Liberty can’t boast.

There’s more. As refined by Executive Chef Travis Lenig, who opened the Heights location, the menu at this Liberty Kitchen expands from the progenitor’s 75 items to something like 100. The seabar accounts for many of these, including seven varieties of raw oysters, a creative banana-leaf hot-smoked salmon with hoisin mustard and sesame flatbread, and a really intriguing Japanese wagyu beef “loin cube,” smoked with hickory, topped with seared Hudson Valley foie gras and accented by Maine maple soy syrup.

Wisely, several of Lenig’s most popular items from the Heights have made the crossing to River Oaks, most importantly the deviled eggs topped with fried oysters and the collection of roux-dark gumbos. There’s even something called the “40-Oz to Freedom” gumbo, a huge (hopefully multiperson) portion delivering beef brisket, smoked chicken, andouille, Maine lobster, jumbo shrimp, braised oysters, fried oysters, lump crab and blackened redfish—topped with Creole potato salad and fried okra. This isn’t just a meal, it’s a culinary pilgrimage.

Any restaurant built physically around a seabar is likely to do well with seafood, and so it is at Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette. Among items from the main kitchen, you find several impressive spins on fish. My two favorites are the “bacon-basted” rainbow trout with blue crabmeat stuffing and, even nicer, the POC (Port O’Connor) redfish on the half shell. Cooked skin-on and served with grilled lemon and Champagne butter, this class-act creation never forgets its origins in a Gulf Coast fishing camp. The fish tastes fresh, moist and dazzlingly clean.

In the meat department, it’s hard to talk about anything else until you consider Liberty Kitchen’s courageous prime-rib cart. That’s right, a cart. Everybody likes prime rib, at least a little; it’s the stuff that after-church hotel buffets have carved for years. In those places, though, you go to the prime rib; here, the prime rib comes to you, often with Lenig himself there to slice you off a piece. Table-side service barely works in the finest fine-dining restaurants, and so it’s rather outlandish to try it in a casual, neighborhood joint like this. Applause for the bold retro flourish!
The wild-and-crazy extends to the daily specials, too. Who in Houston (other than my late father, originally from Boston) would think of offering a New England boiled dinner each Tuesday? Or a Moroccan tagine each Thursday? Although I really do want to get back some Saturday night for Jamaican jerk pork, that will be prioritized behind the Dixie fried chicken with garlic mashed potatoes and pepper-cream gravy served on Sundays.

Thanks to the restaurant group’s Petite Sweets, created with Susan Molzan of Ruggles fame, this Liberty and all its kin have access to delightful, mostly traditional desserts. Classics like coconut cream and lemon meringue pies have seldom tasted better, even in our most hyperventilated childhood memories. I particularly admire the raspberry-chocolate bread pudding with caramel sauce and sweet cream—as well as the “candied” banana split, so caramelized that any 1950s soda fountain worth its salt would have considered it a fire hazard. “We like to be fun and creative,” says Lenig. “We go off the chart a little bit.”

Indeed, Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette goes joyously off the beaten path. But just a bit. In the end, this gussied-up spin-off is, like its fun-loving big sister in the Heights, more than just an all-original Houston spectacle. It’s a fine place to eat.

Why Go?
Rub elbows—and shuck oysters—with River Oaks regulars in an artfully appointed but still down-homey hot spot.

Valet is your best bet at this busy, sometimes hard-to-maneuver strip center edging the Galleria area.

Morning, Sunshine
Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette opens for breakfast on Saturday and Sunday. Beyond the decadent sweetness of the red velvet pancakes, check out the “shirred eggs” sharing a skillet with lobster and bacon, or the ever-changing Lee’s Biscuit in a Box.

Hill Country Cred
Now that Liberty Kitchen has been successfully exported from the Heights to River Oaks, stay tuned for Version 3.0, heading to Austin soon.

Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette
4224 San Felipe St.

Hours: 11am-10pm Monday-Thursday, 11am-midnight Friday, 8am-midnight Saturday, 8am-10pm Sunday

Prices: “Seabar” items $3-$16, burgers and sandwiches $14-$24, main dishes $18-$89, sides $4-$9, desserts $5-$10