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New River Oaks seafood restaurant is already drawing a crowd

New River Oaks seafood restaurant is already drawing a crowd

Lance Fegen, Lee Ellis and Travis Lenig of Liberty Kitchen
Lance Fegen, Lee Ellis and Travis Lenig at Liberty Kitchen's original location. Lenig is the executive chef at the new location. Photo by Eric Sandler
Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette on San Felipe October 2013 neon sign
This sign at the entrance is among the fun details scattered throughout the restaurant. Photo by Eric Sandler
Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette October 2013 interior
A table near the oyster bar has its own chandelier.  Photo by Eric Sandler
Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette on San Felipe October 2013 No Alison Cook sign
As at the original, partner Lee Ellis has banned Chronicle critic Alison Cook from entering the restaurant.  Photo by Eric Sandler
2 Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette October 2013 interior
The long, circular bar is sure to be a popular spot for cocktails and sharable plates. Photo by Eric Sandler
Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette on San Felipe October 2013 ceviche
Fruit-filled ceviche was one highlight of a dinner during the soft-opening.  Photo by Eric Sandler
Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette on San Felipe October 2013 fish
Salmon arrived medium rare with a side of creamy mushrooms. Photo by Eric Sandler
Lance Fegen, Lee Ellis and Travis Lenig of Liberty Kitchen
Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette on San Felipe October 2013 neon sign
Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette October 2013 interior
Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette on San Felipe October 2013 No Alison Cook sign
2 Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette October 2013 interior
Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette on San Felipe October 2013 ceviche
Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette on San Felipe October 2013 fish

A friend of mine in the restaurant business jokes about certain dishes being "nostalgia traps." They combine familiar flavors that are totally irresistible to anyone who grew up eating the dish as a child. When he worked on food truck The Modular, chef Lyle Bento's Eggo waffle-crusted chicken wings were a total nostalgia trap for diners in their late 20s and early 30s.

Want to see what a nostalgia trap looks like when it's turned into a restaurant? Go check out the new Liberty Kitchen and Oysterette that celebrates its grand opening today in the former Vida Tex-Mex location on San Felipe. 

 Want to see a nostalgia trap looks like when its turned into a restaurant? Go check out the new Liberty Kitchen and Oysterette.  

It's the second location of the seafood-oriented neighborhood spot that's become a staple in the Heights, but partner Lee Ellis, who designed the restaurant with Carl Eaves, has turned up the original's coastal/vacation theme and added luxurious accents to fit the restaurant's more well-heeled clientele.

Upon entering, a long, circular bar is the focus of attention; on Saturday night, Chronicle food editor Greg Morago could be seen enjoying a bite. There are wood floors throughout and tufted leather chairs. A large chandelier illuminates a chef's table of sorts next to the oyster bar.

There are lots of other, small details, too. Booths that line one wall have photographs of various neighborhoods that should provide the restaurant's customer base, including River Oaks, Afton Oaks and West University. The wood ceiling near the oyster bar has a star pattern. Each stall in the ladies' room has its own chandelier. The custom wallpaper features an oil derrick, horses and football helmets. As with the original, a sticker on the front door bans Chronicle critic Alison Cook from entering.    

To the extent that the decor is designed to make people feel relaxed and comfortable, it totally works. My friend, who's never been to the original location, announced that it's the best-looking new restaurant she's seen this year and is already making plans for a return visit. 

Larger menu

The new restaurant also has a larger menu than the original. There are more oyster selections, more sharable appetizers and a prime rib cart for that table-side Ramsay-esque wow factor. Lobsters, caviar and two chilled seafood towers are available for splurging. “We designed the Oysterette menu with a sophisticated, social and comfortable dining experience in mind,” explains chef Lance Fegen in a statement. He'll serve as Liberty Kitchen's culinary director, and Travis Lenig moves from the original to be the executive chef. 

There are more oyster selections, more sharable appetizers and a prime rib cart for that table-side Ramsay-esque wow factor. 

Although the menu is decidedly seafood-centric, there are burgers, steaks and Fegen's signature mac and cheese available, too. Sister restaurant Petite Sweets supplies the desserts, which on Saturday included an enormous, brioche-based bread pudding with raspberries. For drinkers, there's a short menu of craft beer options, about 10 cocktails and a lengthy list of wines available by the glass or bottle.  

Saturday night was only the second day of the soft-opening, but the kitchen appeared to be rounding into form. Salmon ($31) came out beautifully medium rare, and a side of dirty rice was nicely firm with a subtle spiciness. The fruit-filled ceviche ($7) balanced sweet and tangy flavors.

Whether people read that the restaurant would be open or simply saw the valets out front, a crowd gathered to check out the newcomer and the dining room began to fill by 7:30 p.m.They'll probably be coming back, too. Nostalgia traps are hard to avoid. 

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