Chef Chat Part 3: Travis Lenig of Liberty Kitchen and Good, Honest Food Served in Manly Portions

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This is the third part of a three-part Chef Chat series. If you missed our previous posts, you can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

This week, we sat down for a chat with chef de cuisine Travis Lenig of Liberty Kitchen, who left a fine-dining kitchen to join the team at Liberty Kitchen about a year and a half ago. There, he and his team regularly feed hundreds of customers a day with what he calls "good, honest food" in "man's portions," which we taste today.

If I were to describe the cuisine at Liberty Kitchen to someone, I would definitely call it gourmet comfort food. Many of the items on the menu are rich and decadent, but there really is a little bit of everything for everyone. Most notably, Liberty Kitchen has great seafood options and some of the best oysters in the city.

We started with a half dozen freshly shucked oysters from the East Coast and a sample trio of grilled oysters. The grilled oysters are normally served three to an order, but for the purposes of the tasting, I requested one of each flavor: herb butter oyster, barbecue salmon roe oyster with coconut, bacon jam oyster with jalapeño. All three were delicious, but if I were to go with one flavor, it would have to be the bacon jam jalapeño, which married the briny, oceanic flavor of the oyster with this sweet and salty topping that had me immediately wishing for seconds (order it topped with a fried oyster for the ultimate in flavor and texture).

I normally shy away from large oysters, but I had nothing to fear with the half dozen East Coast oysters that Lenig had chosen for me. I'd told him my preference for creamy oysters, and these delivered with an incredible creaminess and silky smooth texture that knocked my socks off. According to Lenig, you can always get a selection of up to four or five of them daily, changing each day so that you won't get the same ones from one day to the next.

We continued with the shrimp and blue crab campechana, served in heaping portion in a tall cocktail glass with tortilla chips on the side. Resembling a super-thick salsa, it reminded me a bit of an extra-thick gazpacho -- cold and rich with tomato, with a super-flavorful blend of shrimp, blue crab, avocado and cucumbers mixed in. Less chunky than other campechanas I've sampled, this one scored points for its well-balanced flavor and its size. It's something I could imagine sharing with friends over a cold glass of beer.

For the mains, we tried the tuna salad melt, served open-faced and topped with melted cheddar and cherry tomatoes. The recipe, which includes tarragon, apples, celery, onions, bacon and tomatoes, was a good one for people who enjoy tuna.

The Liberty Dog, one of Lenig's creations, is only available on Thursday afternoons, so I had to have it. Inspired by his frequent trips to Good Dog Hot Dog food truck, it was an over-the-top, all-beef Texas chili dog topped with pickled jalapeños, pickled red onions, chili con queso and fried oysters. It's definitely not the lightest dish; I would order it with an extra helping of queso to give it a bit more juiciness and then bank on getting my hands a little bit dirty, in a good way.

The highlight of the meal was Lenig's signature double cut pork chop, a menu item that he came up with on his own. The big-enough-for-two-or-three chop was grilled until it had a good crispy char on the outside, and served on top of a roasted potato cheddar hash and finished with an Abita root beer reduction. The 12-bottle hour-and-a-half root beer reduction was thick like molasses, with hints of vanilla from the root beer that complemented the cheddar hash and succulent pork chop, which -- though charred on the outside -- was moist and juicy and utterly scrumptious on the inside.

We also tried some fantastic onion rings because Ronnie Killen of Killen's Steakhouse said they were his favorite in the city. They lived up to the hype, coming out all gloriously golden, crispy and heaped up to overflowing in a white bowl. The restaurant's grilled asparagus with bacon jam was also yummy -- as is anything with bacon jam at Liberty Kitchen.

This tasting barely made a dent in capturing what Liberty Kitchen has to offer. It wasn't Wednesday, so I couldn't try Lenig's famous fried chicken, but I'll definitely be back for that. The brunch, I hear, is also a must-try on the weekends, something I'll want to try someday as well.

Lenig is gearing up to helm the soon-to-open Liberty Kitchen and Oysterette, which is currently under construction but slated to open this summer on San Felipe in River Oaks. I have no doubt that it will quickly establish itself as a neighborhood eatery for its fine American cooking, and its honest value and man-sized portions.

Liberty Kitchen 1050 Studewood St Tel: 713-802-0533 http://libertykitchenoysterbar.com/

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