First Look at Lowbrow
A few weeks ago, I was soaking up the sun on the patio at Eatsie Boys with some friends, all of us working our way through the cafe's Sunday brunch menu, when chef Matt Marcus came by our wooden picnic table to visit. He looked stressed.
In addition to the cafe, the Eatsie Boys team—Marcus, Ryan Soroka, and Alex Vassilakidis—also run a catering business, the 8th Wonder brewery, and hustle up a few dozen gallons of Frozen Awesome ice cream each week. On top of all this, Marcus recently took on another project as consulting chef for the upcoming Montrose bistro Lowbrow, and an important task still loomed ahead even as Lowbrow was set to open in a couple of short weeks.
"I still haven't found a full-time chef," Marcus admitted. "Know anyone who needs a job?"
Staffing issues aside, Lowbrow is a natural fit for Marcus, whose entire aesthetic at the ultra-casual Eatsie Boys—from the food to the decor—has been deeply influenced by his Houston home. Lowbrow was envisioned by its owner, Omar Afra, as a casual neighborhood pub with the same deep respect for the Bayou City.
Inside what was once the Cafe Artiste space on West Main, Lowbrow is almost a love letter to Houston: its custom-designed gray wallpaper by local artists Blake Jones and Dual incorporates illustrations of the Astrodome and derricks reminiscent of the Houston Oilers. The walls are lined with rich watercolors of famous dead Houstonians by another local artist, Shelby Hohl. I counted celebrities from Marvin Zindler and Lightnin' Hopkins to Bill Hicks and Selena on my first visit. Lowbrow even pays homage to the nearby Menil with museum-style placards describing everything from the cafe's occupancy limit to those watercolor portraits.
Afra also runs Free Press Houston, Fitzgerald's, and the ever-expanding Free Press Summer Fest, but Lowbrow is the first time the entrepreneur has added a full-fledged restaurant to his portfolio of newspapers, music venues, and festivals. For perhaps that reason alone, there are still some kinks to work out—but that's to be expected in a brand-new space. I hope table service is added, for instance, as I can see the bartender who takes food orders becoming quickly overwhelmed once Lowbrow takes off (and especially on nights when the large dining room and welcoming patio are filled).
What doesn't need working out at Lowbrow is the food. Between the time I ran into him a few Sundays ago and last week, Marcus was able to find a full-time chef to take over the menu he created: Rachel Merk, a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef with experience from New Orleans to Denver who's finally returned to her Houston home. She brought along with her Jason Kerr, most recently chef for the now-closed Hollister on Washington (but most well-known for his popular food truck, Zilla Street Eats). For now, Merk is serving dishes that are clearly Marcus's invention—a fontina-stuffed Juicy Lucy burger topped with pickled shallots, a sandwich on rye filled with housemade pastrami brisket—but plans to add a few of her own along the way.
What speaks most to me about Lowbrow's menu is how thoroughly Houston it is, just like the restaurant itself. Here you'll find classic Texas dishes mingling with Jewish (that pastrami on rye), Lebanese (ejjeh—a sort of Middle Eastern omelet—and hummus), Indian (masala-spiced chicken wings), all served alongside local craft beers, wine, and cocktails.
In its heydey, Cafe Artiste was—much like Rudyard's—a living room of sorts in Montrose, where creative types from all walks of life gathered to eat, drink, and commune. When it closed in 2008, many residents felt as if they'd lost a close friend. While Lowbrow isn't a reinvention of Cafe Artiste, Afra's new yet familiar restaurant feels a lot like welcoming that friend back into your life after an absence that's made everyone's hearts grow fonder.