First Look at Liberty Kitchen

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"Chef Lance is back," read the marquee outside Liberty Kitchen last Saturday afternoon, a gloomy day that was brightened only by the prospect of trying the brand-new oyster bar. We weren't the only ones to whom the idea appealed, apparently; every table in the the restaurant was packed at lunch.

Many folks looked to be Heights residents, eager to welcome back both chef Lance Fegen (who helmed the popular Glass Wall down the street for many years before opening BRC Gastropub over off Washington Avenue) and to welcome anything at all into the space at the corner of Studemont and 11th that had sat vacant for a few years.

Liberty Kitchen seems to have already given this corner an injection of life. The Heights had a more small-town feel than normal on Saturday afternoon, with people walking to and from the craft fair down the road at Antidote Coffee and crowding into both Liberty Kitchen and 11th Street Cafe across the way.

The idea here is more than just "oyster bar," as we quickly found out. It's a weirdly disjointed marriage between a Northeastern coastal restaurant and one with more Southern and Cajun influences, but it mostly works.

The look of the place is almost entirely modern New England -- all reclaimed, whitewashed wood and pops of sea blue and bright orange -- which makes the appearance of gumbos and po-boys (ahem, sandwiches, as they're called here) oddly intriguing. After all, even though the place looks lifted from a Massachusetts coastline, we're still in Houston -- so there's no excuse for bad gumbo here.

As it turns out, the gumbo here is great. Very great. Confusingly great. Because I got a serving of gumbo the size of a punchbowl, with crispy fried oysters and plump rounds of okra floating on top and a dark, rich roux thick with andouille sausage for only $8.

Meanwhile, my dining companion got a bowl of oyster stew for only $1 less that was maddeningly tiny, with only a few oysters to be found in the creamy, dill-infused broth. I couldn't understand the disparity between our orders, but gave him most of my gumbo to take the edge off.

Our sandwiches were similarly lopsided, although a few screw-ups are definitely to be expected in a place that's only been open a couple of weeks (I also suspect that a far too expansive menu here is partially to blame):

My friend's rib-eye sandwich ($14) from the breakfast menu was missing its fried egg, meaning that he'd really just ordered a terribly expensive patty melt, although the crunchy, herb-coated fries served on the side went a long way toward making up for it. The tough, gristly rib-eye meant that I ended up giving him half of my shrimp po-boy sandwich, which I reluctantly parted with so that he'd have a full meal.

I didn't want to spare even a shred of that sandwich, though: Fat, well-battered and nicely fried shrimp populated the length and width of a long piece of crusty French bread that had been spread with a tangy remoulade and a bacon-onion jam that tasted like a meatier version of Branston pickle. I couldn't taste the arugula or the cherry tomatoes through the shrimp-and-remoulade party, but at least the sandwich was fully dressed.

The onion rings our waitress had recommended were equally popular, charmingly huge slices of sweet onions battered and fried to a crispy texture that neither crumbled apart nor fell limply off the rings, although I don't know that I'd pay $3 extra for them again, on top of the $14 sandwich.

We also ordered the two new Karbach beers ($7) that the local brewery is making specifically for Liberty Kitchen. They're called only Light and Dark on the menu, which may need some tweaking so that you'll know what you're getting into ahead of time. The "Light" is a hazy Hefeweizen-style beer but the "Dark" is more of an IPA, whereas we were expecting a stout or a porter. I loved them both, however, and thought to myself that the IPA and two dozen oysters will be my plan of attack on my next visit, grabbing a seat at the inviting bar and relishing them over its white subway tiles and marble counter.

What I won't be doing, however, is visiting the restrooms. If this seems an odd thing to mention, that's because the restrooms themselves are remarkably odd. I had flashbacks to the worst restroom experience of my life at The Purple Pig in Chicago, where the unisex restrooms fairly front the main dining room, and force diners -- and the many noises they make in the restroom -- to be on display for all to see and hear.

The restrooms are thankfully tucked away here, but they're still unisex. Sure, there are two doors: one marked "men" and one marked "women," both of which contain a toilet and nothing more. The restrooms share a large outer vestibule and two sinks, where you will mingle uncomfortably with a handful of other patrons while you wait for one of the two toilets to open up. Call me puritanical if you will, but I'll go to my grave clutching my pearls over this.

Men and women use restrooms differently. I no more want to fix my hair, check my teeth, pick crumbs out of my boobs or adjust my Spanx in front of a bunch of men waiting for the loo than I would do those things in front of the rest of the dining room. And since there's no mirror or sink in the toilets, you're stuck doing them in a vestibule with an awkwardly placed audience.

I think Liberty Kitchen is having its share of issues with the toilets anyway, as both seemed to be broken on the day that I was there: A hapless employee was attacking them intermittently with plungers, while a broken sewage pipe out front bubbled into the street. And although it's pricey and a bit disjointed for now, it's a tribute to Fegen's food and the atmosphere at Liberty Kitchen that none of those things are major deterrents for me yet: I still can't wait to return.

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