I am always looking at pictures of food. One of my favorite pastimes, it's the reason why my Twitter and Instagram feeds (and now, my Facebook feed) are constantly crammed with photos of food, and why I spend countless hours mentally drooling over pictures of what people are cooking or eating.
On a recent evening, I was doing exactly this when I saw a picture of chef Travis Lenig carving prime rib tableside at the fairly new (it opened this past October) Liberty Kitchen and Oysterette (LKO). Though I'd been planning to visit for some time, at that point I hadn't yet been to the new LKO location.
That picture was all that was needed to seal the deal: I had to have it.
I called my girlfriend Amber at the last minute and made a reservation for that very evening -- a Friday night -- eager to embark on a prime rib eating spree. Call me naive, but I wasn't exactly prepared for the sight that greeted me. I arrived to a packed house, with stylish guests overflowing into the small landing space between the hostess stand and the front door. Not a seat was empty.
Amber and I, seated to the right side of the bar at one of the standalone tables, were smack dab in the middle of all of it. Now, I have to be in a certain type of mood to enjoy an atmosphere that's so lively. I'm kind of more into the intimate, one-on-one kind of low-key places where you can have meaningful conversation. But it was a Friday night, we were there for some girl-talk and great food, and the fact that we had started the evening off with Veuve Clicquot and a dozen shucked oysters from the Northeast made for a very promising evening.
As it was my first time at LKO, we wanted to get a good feel for the menu, which was vast. The deviled eggs topped with fried oysters were a must have. One of the signature menu items, they epitomized southern comfort -- simple, down-home food amped up a notch with a fried oyster on top. Equally delicious was the daily special of U-10 scallop served sashimi-style with a Thai-style spicy sauce, which came from the raw bar.
Did you know that LKO offers caviar service? An almost inconspicuous line item on the menu, California Royal Osetra caviar is available, served with warm blinis, shallots, crème fraîche and eggs. It was definitely a decadent indulgence, but decidedly amazing.
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The evening hit an all-time high even before we got to my original reason for visiting, when the chef brought out a medium-sized porcelain and bamboo steamer. Lenig made ingenious use of the container, not as a steamer, but as a vessel for smoking. Hickory wood chips had been heated and placed in the bottom compartment of the steamer, so that smoke permeated the top compartment, infusing a cold slab of A5 Japanese wagyu with a rich smoky flavor and aroma. The wagyu alone -- intensely marbled, and so tender you could cut it with a fork -- would have been spectacular, but Lenig added seared foie gras on top to make it a blow-your-mind type dish. I had to slow things down so that I could revel in the moment and commit to memory the taste, texture, and smell of that dish -- it was insanely crazy, stupid good.
Still to come, because we'd ordered it and had come expressly to try it, was the prime rib. It was everything that the picture I'd seen had promised, and then some. When you order it, Lenig rolls out the shiny cart himself, then proceeds to perform this dramatic knife-sharpening act. All around you, people stop eating and turn to watch as he quickly, repeatedly, drags the knife across the sharpening tool, a mischievous glint in his eye. Then comes the moment of glory, as he slices a generous cut of prime rib onto a plate, before covering it with a scoop of deep brown au jus. An order of prime rib also comes with a choice of sides, and we received sauteed asparagus, fluffy onion rings, and creamed spinach as accompaniments.
It was, of course, one helluva prime rib. Juicy and flavorful, with a thickly charred, salted outer crust, it reminded me of my first prime rib fine-dining experience at the famous Lawry's Prime Rib in Beverly Hills years ago. Back then, I also received a tableside carving experience, but it was a much more formal affair served by someone clad in a toque and `chef's whites and gloves. At LKO, you get all the pomp and circumstance of tableside service without the stiff formality of a place like Lawry's -- much better in my opinion, and just as memorable.