Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette Is a Disappointing Sister Act
Initially, there seemed to be some sort of failure to communicate. When we arrived for our 7:30 p.m. reservation (made a mere four hours before), the women at the hostess stand seemed perplexed and annoyed after we said that perhaps they might want to try a different spelling. The restaurant's website doesn't recommend reservations outright, but if you don't have one and you show up on a Friday evening, you'll be laughed at by the hostess, because the wait will be two hours. Fortunately, this was a Sunday, and the hostess was able to seat us. Forty minutes into our meal, we began to wonder why the wait is ever so long.
It was sort of comical, actually, what we went through to finally get our food. First, the waiter ambled about for a good ten minutes after we had been seated. It wasn't immediately clear what he was doing — possibly splitting checks at the server stand right next to our table, possibly fighting with the computer there — but he never once asked if we'd like drinks or appetizers, or even acknowledged our existence. When he finally came to our table, he apologized that the food was taking so long and asked for a reminder of what we had ordered so he could check on it in the kitchen.
"It's taking so long because we haven't ordered yet," we told him, amused but also very hungry. He seemed baffled and proceeded to take our drink and appetizer orders. But then, before we could order the main course, which by now we had firmly decided upon after 25 minutes of perusing the menu, he rushed off, eager to finally bring us some campechana and oysters.
It's not that the food at Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette was bad once it actually appeared at our table. The campechana is alluring in a not-too-much, not-too-little, just-right kind of way. A lovely balance of citrus and tomato brings out the sweetness in the crab and gulf shrimp without imparting too much sweetness of its own. Too often, restaurants assume that ketchup makes a decent campechana, when in fact the sugary tomato paste takes away from the subtle seafood flavors. At Liberty Kitchen, the glass goblet overflowing with seafood and spices is punctuated by creamy avocado, crisp fried oysters and vinegary green olives — an addition that I'm afraid I'll now miss whenever it's not present in my crab cocktail.
The oysters from the robata grill are also tantalizingly unique, one version swimming in warm tequila with a bite of spice from jalapeño juice, the other rich and meaty with pork belly and bacon. Of course, the entire time I was enjoying the oysters — and they were very enjoyable — my mind kept jumping back to the chargrilled oysters topped with tasso ham at Danton's and the enormous campechana at Goode Co. Seafood, both superior to Liberty Kitchen's efforts.
Why is it, then, that this new spot is packed most nights, I wondered. What am I missing?
To view photos from this week's cafe review, check out our slideshow "A Closer Look at Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette."
The design of Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette is hip and inviting, I'll give it that. The sister restaurant to the Heights's Liberty Kitchen opened in late October 2013 as a more sophisticated, high-end version of the friendly family eatery. The guys behind Petite Sweets and BRC Gastropub — Travis Lenig, Lee Ellis and Lance Fegen — wanted to create a seafood haven with Southern flair and all the amenities needed to produce sushi, tacos, burgers and everything in between.
The result is alternately confusing and intriguing. There are two spaces within the restaurant: the oysterette and the kitchen. The area referred to as the "kitchen" is what you see when you first walk in. It's a sea of kelly green, teal, navy and white, almost wholly nautical in nature except for the dozens of ceramic owls filling every square inch of shelf space, as if the designer had raided Anthropologie's home-goods section in search of decor inspiration. Overabundance of owl sculptures aside, the "kitchen" is what I'd want my own kitchen to resemble if I had the resources. The retro subway tile and faux leather bar seats and booths are reminiscent of a 1950s soda fountain, and the hand-spun milkshakes on the dessert menu add to this sense of dining in a bygone era.
Then there's the oysterette, the more upscale half of the restaurant, an area with hardwood floors; dimmed, golden-hued lighting emanating from a central chandelier; and a mix of high and low tables with plush leather chairs arranged around the oyster bar, which anchors the space. This, too, is an incredibly inviting area, and one in which I would gladly spend several hours sipping wine and slurping oysters — if, that is, I could find the oysters I wanted on the somewhat rambling menu of nearly 100 items all on one large, unruly sheet of paper.
Most menus are divided into obvious, logical sections, such as appetizers, salads, meats, seafoods and desserts. The Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette menu (much like the menu at the original Liberty Kitchen) boasts a whopping 25 sections, not including the separate beverage menu. Oysters can be found under "Iced Raw Oysters" as well as "Iced Platters," "Robata Grill & Smoked," "Salads" and "Sharing." Then there are the headings like "Jewels of the Seabar," not to be confused with "Seabar Tastes and Cures" or "Swimmers." My favorite heading, though, is "What?" which contains only one item: Lil K's Big Bad Breakfast. (Note: This does not fall under the breakfast section of the menu.)
Fortunately, after that first confusing meal at Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette, during which the waiter seemed utterly befuddled about everything, subsequent servers were more than willing to help me decipher the menu. For instance, I learned that many of the "seabar" options are too small for a full meal, while salads are intended to be more of a main course than a starter.
The deviled eggs, a carryover from the menu at the original Liberty Kitchen, are as good as ever, as is the All-Star Gumbo (here called "40-Oz. to Freedom Gumbo"), which features a few different proteins but the same dark, spicy roux that made it so enticing when I first tried it at Liberty's spot in the Heights. Aside from a few other appetizers and salads, though, this menu is unique to the oysterette, with the addition of caviar, special fish options, and an increased emphasis on steak and prime rib.
Surprisingly, for a place so focused on the bounty of the sea, the filet mignon was one of the most thoughtfully prepared things I ate at Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette. Ordered "black and blue," or very rare, it was served with a divine sear and just a hint of salt and pepper for seasoning. Other than that, the chefs let the 44 Farms beef do the talking, a smart move, because the 8-ounce hunk of meat was tender and juicy, all the flavor of a happy, grass-fed cow shining through the simple rub.
Sea scallop and pork belly kebabs also hit the spot, thanks to a light hand with the spices. Scallops and pork pair so well together — one subtle and sweet, the other smoky and salty — that all they need in order to harmonize is to be properly cooked. Two skewers of scallop and swine, also stacked with bell peppers and onions, are served atop a bed of potato, bacon and cheese hash that doesn't exactly complement the kebabs but is rich and decadent all on its own. The smart chefs include a small dish of apple and cilantro relish on the side, which serves as a refreshing palate cleanser between forkfuls of heavy hash and caramelized pork belly.
Less effective is the bacon-basted rainbow trout, which is stuffed with blue crab and rolled in its own skin, creating the effect of a dark-brown seafood log. The skin on the outside is seared until crispy, holding together the delicate fish and crab on the inside, but the unique essence of the trout and crab is lost; the dish ends up tasting like an unidentifiable seafood with bacon undertones. The overall effect is that of fish mush wrapped in skin, and all of it needed more salt, or more citrus, or more something, to make it pop.
So, too, is the caviar disappointing (a phrase I never thought I'd write), because there was too much going on to enjoy the flavor of the roe itself. Add some avocado, fine. A little cilantro is acceptable as well. But top off a mound of raw tuna and caviar with fried shallots, and the shallot and oil flavor overwhelms the whole dish, taking it from upscale to fried fair food in just a few bites.
Overdoing it seems to be the theme of Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette. Not content with one Liberty Kitchen serving quality seafood with a number of other options for the burger-, steak- or salad-inclined, the trio behind the venture went bigger and bolder with the Oysterette version and seem to be confused as to what, exactly, they are trying to accomplish.
One look behind the oyster bar will tell you that there's a bit of an identity crisis going on — if the separate design themes in the kitchen and oysterette didn't already tip you off. There's a sushi bar. There's an oyster bar. There's a robata grill. There's fresh fish on ice next to a hot trompo grill and seafood towers being prepared as burgers zing past from the main kitchen, barely visible over domed cake stands filled with goodies. It's no wonder not everything at the new Liberty Kitchen is a winner. The restaurant is still trying to figure out who and what it is.
Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette does gumbo very, very well. The deviled eggs are second to none, and much of the raw seafood is treated with the care it deserves.
But then there are the burgers, which can be topped by the fare at any number of burger joints in town. I've had better brunches at Harry's or Eleven XI, better pasta at Ciao Bello and better fish at the original Liberty Kitchen. I prefer the lobster rolls at Maine-ly Lobster, and I prefer the mac and cheese at BRC Gastropub. For sushi, I'll likely head to Kata Robata or Michiru, and if I want tiradito, I'll go to Latin Bites. Raw oysters are cheaper at Goode Co. Seafood, and nobody can touch Taqueria La Macro's trompo. If Liberty Kitchen is going to charge such high prices for dishes available for much less at other restaurants in town, it had better be making the best versions out there. But as of now, with a few exceptions, it isn't.
Thank goodness for the desserts, though, which are provided by Petite Sweets. The gooey caramel bread pudding and four-layer cakes are unavailable at the Petite Sweets storefront, which deals less in cakes and more in cake balls, so you have to go to the restaurant to get those. And it's one of the few places in town where you can order a milkshake with a slice of cake in it.
It's clear from the success of the original Liberty Kitchen (as well as BRC and Petite Sweets) that the folks behind this new restaurant know what they're doing and have the skills to execute it. The problem may be that they have too many skills and that they're trying to apply them all at once.
Remember that phrase you were taught back in elementary school as a guide for writing and crafts and life? KISS? Keep it simple, silly. Get back to the basics, guys, and Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette will evolve to live up to the quality of its predecessors.
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