From the time that it opened, Liberty Kitchen attracted some notoriety for its sign banning Houston Chronicle critic Alison Cook. Despite the negative attention from the food press, Liberty Kitchen has been a success. The packed dining room is a testament to the extent to which Heights residents have embraced the combined seafood restaurant, oyster bar and burger joint.
Owners Lance Fegen and Lee Ellis, along with chef de cuisine Travis Lenig, talk about how the restaurant came together, what dishes define the menu and their plans for at least two more locations, including a move to Austin.
Let's start with this locaiton. How did you decide to put a restaurant here, so close to Glass Wall?
Lance: That's a little sticky for me.
Lee: The original idea for this place was we were gonna do a burger joint here. Then when Lance left Glass Wall, we decided we should recapture the clients and the customers you had. So we retrofitted the place to be a full restaurant. That's why I think some things aren't perfect in the way it's set up. It was always going to be an open kitchen, but it was going to be set up for burgers. Doing the menu the size that we have, you see what we have to deal with. They do a great job with it. We just had to retrofit things like glass racks and things like that. It was never planned to be a full-blown (restaurant), it was planned to be a burger joint.
Lance: One of the things we realized was missing was a midpriced, moderate, upscalable, flexible space for families. These younger couples.
Lee: And I think because Lance has children, and a couple of the other partners have children, it was really important that the restaurant cater to families. For someone like me, I don't have children – I've been married for a really long time. It didn't mean a whole lot to me, but it's been great.
Lance: I used to go to Tampico a lot to get oysters and campechana here on Airline. So that always registered in the back of my head. There's really no seafood of the sort that most people can handle, which is, again, where I think we're going as a company. To try to feed people without being so exclusive.
Lee: We want the menus to be chef-driven, but we want it to be accessible. We don't want to go over someone's head.
How did that manifest itself? What's a dish on the menu that you made it more accessible?
Lee: The gumbo, the fish.
Lance: I think we took typical East and West Coast fish dishes, and, over the 20 years that I've been cooking, found how I've sort of changed those. The recipes that I learned how to make at Brennan's has morphed into mine with the fried okra and the fried oysters. The hot smoked salmon that we do. We were ready to go, and I said guys, we need a wood burning grill. It cost us 15 grand.
Lee: You have no idea how much it cost us to do a wood burning grill. It was probably the right call. We had everything laid out, so we had to redo everything.
Lance: So the coastal things, then we said we're always going to do good burgers and sandwiches, because that's for everybody to afford. Then we're going to drop the bomb and say you can get a three-pound lobster, a $40 steak, a $40 dozen oysters from Washington or Vancouver. All in the meantime saying everything between those two nothing comes out of a jar or can. We make everything.
Lee: Except for the spam, dude.
What do you serve with the spam? Like a masubi?
Lance: Close. We do loco-moco, which is the Hawaian breakfast dish of hamburger, spam, mushroom gravy, fried egg on white rice. It's what I eat everyday when I go surf.
Lee: It's so damn good.
Lance: The masubi, we've done that before. Then, just mixed up all the global influences of fish more than anything: Hawaii, Peru, East Coast, West Coast, Gulf Coast, French, Mediterranean, African.
There's no one in the state that does roast pig like we do. Babi Gauling. It's Indonesian suckling pig. It's a specific method we coconut shells, fresh tumeric and all these other beautiful ingredients that we spit roast. Do you serve that every day? Every Thursday.
Where did the idea for that come from?
Lance: About three years ago I was in Indonesia surfing, I ate it three times a day, that's how good it was.
I know we don't get a lot of credit in the food press for being what I would call the new guard, which, we're ok with that, this thing does $80,000 a week, so we don't give a shit (laughs). If you look more deeply at the menu, you'll see a lot of this stuff is really chef driven. Poke salad, using things like ginger beer for our ceviche. These are things I've learned throughout my surfing career. Even the smoked salmon I learned how to do it in Vancouver on a beach and going surfing in 40 degree water. That's how we ate our salmon, so some of those influences are in there.
It seems like there's been almost an immediate demand for the restaurant.
Lee: We've always been pretty successful about marketing what we're doing and getting it out there. I've been in the bar business for quite some time. Lance has been in the food business, and I think all together, you look at how busy BRC was from the moment we opened it. We never did any advertising. We still haven't advertised this place. I think for the neighborhood, Eric, it was needed.
Lance: I think people want to test us a little bit. They expect certain things from us: the design of the building, the quality, the service, those things. I think we get tested a little bit. Even from the media. We have a lot to prove.
Lee: This restaurant does between 300 and 400 covers daily. We get no credit from any of the food writers in this town. It's obvious that the food is good, is fresh. It's not out of a can or frozen. I don't understand it. Is it because of what we did to Alison? I don't get it.
I don't know either. That's kind of why I'm here.
Lee: The girls at CultureMap, they shun away from us. The girl that writes her column, Ruthie, whatever, she's got, like, eight names. On her little hot list, when she wrote about this restaurant in November, December. All she put on there was "Better be nice. If you say something negative, they'll kick you out." That was her comment about the restaurant.
I didn't come here to do that. I know you wanted to talk to Lance about something bigger.
Lance: Let's get back to the restaurant.
Lee: We used reclaimed wood. Have you been here before? I wanted to do this art piece. It's taken me a year to get it done. It's something in here that had some relevance for the neighborhood. My original vision was to photograph all the intersections of Heights Boulevard in the neighborhood, and it was too short. So we did the beginning of Montrose turns into Studemont turns into Studewood. So we started at Mecom Fountain and it goes all the way around the building and ends up back at 610. It's kind of a cool idea.
Lee: We're going to Austin.
I didn't know that.
Lee: Fifth and Pressler. For another Liberty Kitchen? Well, they wanted BRC there, so it's going to be a hybrid of the two. It'll have the twenty-something craft beers. It's a cool looking space. Has Eater Austin written anything about it? No, we haven't told anybody. We're signing a lease the second week of December, but Michael Hsu is the architect. He's already done a layout. They started on it a month ago.
Travis, let's talk to you for a minute. Just tell me a little bit about how your view fit in with this menu that's influenced by Lance's surfing.
Travis: I came here. I've worked for Ibiza, Mark's and Rainbow Lodge: a little bit higher end restaurants. Actually, I called Lance up one day and asked what was going on up here. I wanted to get out of the fine dining restaurant scene. It was wearing on me. I wanted to do something fun and whimsical ? He was looking for somebody to man his kitchen and help this place grow and grow. They knew, at the time, there was a lot more that could happen in this spot. It's gotten bigger and bigger and bigger since.
Lance and I have the same background and fine dining skills. We just put our heads together and refine the dishes. We hired cooks that were more competent than the ones that he had at the time. Guys that were speedy and had more of a skillset. How long had this place been open when you came on board? It had been open two months. I've been here now for 10 months.
What do you think it is about the food that's made this restaurant so popular?
Travis: I think it's value, it's just good home cooking. When people come here, we're not pretentious or anything like that. We're a family restaurant. We're welcoming to the Heights. This is a hometown in a big city, you know. That's what people classify the Heights as. I think people think the food is fun, it's fresh, you're getting a good value on what you're spending.
Ok, tell me about the fried chicken.
Lee: We had fried chicken on the menu. When Travis came on board, he redid it. He's got his own recipe.
Travis: It takes three days to make.
Why does it take three days?
Travis: First day, we brine it. Second day, we marinade it in buttermilk. Third day, we cook it. It's a three-day process. I put a lot of thought into it. You're spending $18 on half a chicken, but you get fries, you get gravy, you get sauce, you get cole slaw. I wanted people to come back and really enjoy it. Yeah, you can go to KFC.
Lee: Or you can go to Barbecue Inn. I went to Barbecue Inn and got chicken last night.
Travis: I wanted something that was a long process that was going to be outstanding. Something that people would come back for. We do 100 orders of chicken every Wednesday.
Let's talk about the second location on San Felipe that's going into the Vida space. Is this the first of many?
Lee: We've always been looking for a vehicle for us to do multiples of. We did BRC first. We know what we did wrong there and what we need to do for the next one. The tongue-in-cheek part people just didn't get. They took it way too seriously.
Now, what happened with San Felipe is there again, we're making a little bit of a change there. It's going to be called Liberty Kitchen and Oysterette, because the oyster bar is going to have a small kitchen with its own grill and its own hood. We're going to grill oysters. The bar itself is shaped like this (makes a U-shape); we're doing a communal table off it. We're making it fit in to the neighborhood. I keep telling these guys it's going to have more of an East Coast seafood trip: white tile, a lot of cool motives. The light fixtures I bought in Paris. We've signed two other LOIs, but we'll tell you about those as soon as we sign a lease.
This building in the back. We're going to do fried chicken out of it.
Lance: You can put in "Help Wanted" in the context of your paragraphs. Chefs Wanted.
Lee: There's 3 LOIs that we've done. Two have been approved. One we're still working out.
Lance: In some ways we're going to kowtow to the press, we're going to drive this menu a little harder. How does that manifest itself? Some more modern techniques. A lot more simplification and pure ingredient components, but still with our company's sensibilities. A sensibility that reflects to the customer "I don't feel like an idiot here."
How do you define that sensibility?
Lance: It's not the hot word. It's not the buzz word. It's not necessarily the coolest, most untested thing. It's what people can understand and what they want.
Lee: People want things simple. If you take something fresh and just simply cook it, it holds a lot of its own merit.
Lance: I admire these younger kids that are taking risks. I think food needs to go that way, but, at the end of the day, everything always comes back to how you felt as a kid when your mom was cooking. It always goes back there at some point.
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