Lowbrow, the new bar in the former Cafe Artiste/Sophia space, has hired chef Rachel Merk to run its kitchen. Merk, who recently returned to Houston to be closer to her family, comes to Lowbrow after a stint as sous chef at Liberty Kitchen and the Culinary Institute of America-trained chef brings a prestigious pedigree to her job.
Prior to her return to Houston, Merk worked at Rioja in Denver, where chef/owner Jennifer Jasinski won the James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest over Houstonians Chris Shepherd and Hugo Ortega. Prior to that, she worked for both John Besh and Sue Zemanick in New Orleans.
"I got as much learning and training as I could," Merk tells CultureMap. "Now, I'm here."
"I have a chance here to make my own name. Everybody here is at the top of what they do. It's kinda awesome."
She's embraced co-owner Omar Afra's intention that Lowbrow be a space for creative people to do their thing. She'll work from the menu created by consulting chef Matt Marcus of the Eatsie Boys but won't be bound by it. "It's going to be a flowing menu," Merk says.
Marcus cites bars like The Spotted Pig in New York as inspiration for the concept of a gastropub with good food. He'll divide his time between the Eatsie Boys and Lowbrow for the first month or so, but he is confident Merk could step in and run it without him if she needs to.
Afra tells CultureMap he likes that Merk is "game for following Matt's initial lead but also willing to freestyle. She's going to have a ton of wiggle room to experiment." Merk has already added a scallop dish to this weekend's soft-opening menu.
She'll have some help from Jason Kerr, who's been out of a kitchen since Hollister on Washington closed last month. Merk says she's known Kerr since he worked at Cafe Rabelais. "He's a great chef who can help me grow," Merk says. "I called him yesterday. 'Want a job?' . . . Hopefully, he stays."
Asked about his role, Kerr says he's Merk's "kitchen muscle." He likes Lowbrow's atmosphere and is looking forward to working there.
BMrk realizes what an important opportunity Lowbrow represents. "I have a chance here to make my own name," she says. "Everybody here is at the top of what they do. It's kinda awesome."
Meanwhile, Afra says he's happy with the way Lowbrow has come together. "It's tough to get a lot of people to come together with that critical good vibe. So far everything has been gravy," he says. "To see it come together without a rigid concept was pretty awesome."
Afra also has a response to those who accuse him of supporting the same sort of Montrose gentrification that he's previously criticized in Free Press Houston.
"We're resurrecting a Montrose landmark that 15 years ago was a place for artists to hold court . . . I've lived in this neighborhood for so long. I think that myself and the people we have working here will be good custodians of the best things about the neighborhood."
He also says that he's "glad to eat crow" and admit he was wrong about the H-E-B. "I was pissed about H-E-B," he recalls. "I loved Fiesta. Now, I kinda like the H-E-B. I shop there."
Lowbrow begins its soft opening Thursday night at 7 and continues through the weekend. Ultimately, it will be open from 9 a.m. until 2 a.m. daily and serve breakfast, lunch and dinner.