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Lee Ellis & Lance Fegen on Liberty Kitchen Oyster Bar in Clarksville and food critic fueds

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Liberty Kitchen Bar oysters on ice
Liberty Kitchen Oyster Bar oysters on ice. Courtesy of Liberty Kitchen Oyster Bar
Liberty Kitchen Oyster Bar steak and asparagas
Rendering of Liberty Kitchen Oyster Bar set to open 2014 in Clarksville.  Courtesy of Liberty Kitchen Oyster Bar
Liberty Kitchen Oyster Bar interiors
The interior of Liberty Kitchen Oyster Bar in Houston. Courtesy of Liberty Kitchen Oyster Bar
Liberty Kitchen Bar oysters on ice
Liberty Kitchen Oyster Bar steak and asparagas
Liberty Kitchen Oyster Bar interiors

One of Houston's most popular oyster bars and seafood restaurants, Liberty Kitchen Oyster Bar, is opening an Austin location in early 2014. Just a stone's throw away from Larry McGuire's famed Clark's Oyster Bar, Liberty Kitchen has found a 3,800 square foot home in the Gables complex in Clarksville.

Restaurateur Lee Ellis and executive chef Lance Fegen of the Feed TX restaurant group are working away to tailor and craft their new outpost, which already has two locations in Houston (one of which is currently being built), to feature an extensive selection of craft beer, oysters, seafood, game, meats and more. 

Ellis and Fegen spoke with CultureMap about moving into the Austin culinary scene, local restaurants that inspire them, qualms with food critics, and an upcoming ice cream project. 

CultureMap: What inspired the decision to bring Liberty Kitchen to Austin? You guys seem to be doing so well in Houston.

Lee Ellis: I have some family living there. Lance has some family living there. [My wife] Melissa and I were spending quite a bit of time there, and we were approached about being in the Gables retail complex and liked the idea. This project started a couple years ago, but it took a while to get the ball rolling. We just really wanted to be in Austin. We love it there.

CM: Houston's and Austin's culinary scenes are both very exciting, unique and creative, but they're different in a lot of ways. What are some similarities and differences that stand out to you guys?

LE: I know the permitting process for Austin is probably just as difficult as Houston's, but the food truck scene [in Austin] seems to be a little bit more lax than it is for Houston trucks. The food scene in Austin also seems to move really quickly. There seem to be a lot of young guys and girls that are doing all these unique concepts out of trucks or small little restaurants.

Lance Fegen: The thing I like most about Austin is the scope of restaurants. They're smaller and seem to be friendlier, in that they're easier to navigate. Houston has a lot more big, complicated restaurants. Even things like parking have to be a huge forethought when you're thinking of doing a restaurant in Houston. It's almost your most important step. Austin doesn't seem to have as much of a problem with that.

CM: Just recently, I've felt that Houston is a little further behind Austin in terms of food movements. I feel like Houston takes a nod from Austin in a lot of ways.

LF: I feel like the press picks up on things that restaurants are doing in Austin quicker than they do in Houston. There are so many restaurants in Houston, so it's hard to know what everyone is doing at any given time. In Austin, the press picks up on new dishes and new concepts right away.

LE: Yeah, there are like 13,000 restaurants in Houston and not near as many writers.

CM: How will Liberty Kitchen in Austin be different than the one in Houston? Will it be exactly the same, or will it be inspired by what's going on in Austin?

LE: The whole idea behind Liberty Kitchen is that each one is going to fit the neighborhood it's in. Liberty Kitchen in Austin is going to be a hybrid of BRC Gastropub [our other restaurant] and Liberty Kitchen, as far as what we're doing behind the bar with all the draft beer, which we don't do at either Liberty Kitchen in Houston. The one in Austin is going to have a much larger selection of craft beer. I think we're doing 36 beers. We only do four drafts at the original Liberty in the Heights, and the one on San Felipe is going to have eight drafts. The menu will be a little more extensive and sophisticated as well.

LF: The way I build the menu for each new place is I start with the kitchen. We decide what things fit in the kitchen, and then we build off of that. In that neighborhood, we're going to feature simple-yet-refined dishes. I haven't written the menu yet, but I've played with it in my head. The San Felipe location [in Houston] is going to have a lot of caviar and champagne because it's close to River Oaks. I don't see much of that going on at the Austin location, but it'll be there in shades. You're going to be able to get a really good burger.

We believe in value, quality and giving people as many choices as possible. That's not something you see as much of nowadays. Many young chefs are very limiting in their menus; I get that. That's what I did at The Glass Wall. The Glass Wall was like eight entrees. It was me and one other guy cooking. That only works for about 10 percent of the population, though. We want to build a business that's profitable, and to do that we have to appeal to 90 percent of the population. We'll bring in smoked things, wild game, meats, sausages and German influences will certainly play a role. Like I said, we're still working on it.

CM: What are some Austin restaurants that stand out to you guys?

LE: Melissa and I eat at Clark's Oyster Bar every time we're in town.

LF: Their hamburger is one of the best burgers I've had in my life.

LE: Yeah. My wife loves their oysters and fish. They do a great job at Perla's also. We've got a condo right behind Perla's, but we drive over to Clark's a lot. The staff over at Clark's really takes care of us. I'm all about service, and I think they do a fantastic job over there.

I like Backspace and Parkside. Honestly, my new favorite thing is First Chinese Barbecue. I have to go there every time I'm in town. We eat at Olivia, Elizabeth Street Cafe, Sway and Lucy's as well.

CM: Tell me more about the location you chose.

LE: I like Clarksville, and I also knew Larry [McGuire] was going to do Clark's, so that was another selling point. We had a prior relationship with Julie Wilsey, who is the vice president of retail development for the Gables, and she had hit us up about the space. It took a while for me to massage it out and feel comfortable with the neighborhood. I like that it's super accessible off of Mopac.

CM: You mentioned that this Liberty Kitchen will be a hybrid between Liberty Kitchen and BRC Gastropub. I was going to ask if you are thinking about bringing BRC to Austin. Is that still a possibility?

LF: They originally wanted us to do BRC in that space, and we're the ones that elected to go a different direction with it because of the success of Liberty Kitchen in the Heights. We knew we were doing another one in San Felipe.

I really want to do a BRC up on the north near Burnet and Anderson. I think that's a great fast-moving area with young couples and young families. I've been spending quite a bit of time there when I'm in Austin.

The stuff downtown is kind of a hard sell for me. You're looking at a lot of people who struggle and people who don't struggle. I've had a harder time seeing the appeal of downtown.

CM: One thing I was asked to touch on by my editor was the incident with [Houston Chronicle Food Critic] Alison Cook and BRC Gastropub, which I wasn't familiar with until today.

LE: I'll cut to the chase on this. Alison Cook used the BRC as a personal vendetta against Lance, and we've spoken about this in the press before. It's rolled over to [Texas Monthly Food Editor] Pat Sharpe now, and [she] won't write about us because she's a longtime personal friend of Alison. You can print what you want, but I feel like Pat has jumped on the bandwagon with Alison. I'm a businessman, and I didn't think it was fair to the 49 people that worked at the BRC for her to attack it [like she did].

If you ever read the review you would see the maliciousness of it. She attacked us for serving her pimento cheese on a white plate. It was just over the top. There was even a Dallas publication that jumped in and said, "There is obviously some underlying current here," and it was. Alison had a personal thing with Lance, and she used [The Houston Chronicle] as her vehicle for it.

Liberty Kitchen in the Heights does phenomenal business. It seats a little over a hundred people, and we're doing unbelievable business. I didn't think it's fair that Pat won't write about Liberty Kitchen…. I'm okay with it though because, honestly, it's not hurting us at all over in the Heights.

CM: Chefs that I've spoken to in the past usually say that reviews don't matter as much as customer reception. Is that how you guys feel?  

LE: We've been doing this a long time. I've had businesses that are successful and received all kinds of publicity. For me, getting in the press is more about the employees. It honors what kind of job they do. That's why I'm for it. It's not going to offend me if we're not getting written about, but I just don't think it's fair to those people who work in the building and bust their tail every day; they literally care about the restaurant and their customers.

CM: What are you looking forward to going into summer at Liberty Kitchen in Houston?

LF: In terms of fish, offshore will be kicking in. We'll start seeing a variety of Gulf fish. Black fin tuna, things like that. Even snappers. With these big menus we have, we have to be careful to not go overboard with a ton of stuff though. We do get some local products in, but we don't go nuts with it because the reality is that there isn't a lot of local stuff as people would leave you to believe in Houston. We'll work with stuff that grows well here, like tomatoes and peaches.

LE: Another thing to note is that we're going to be adding a few frozen custards from Petite Sweets to the kitchen. We're going into the ice cream business as well, so we'll talk about that when we get to that.

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