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.