Restaurants / Openings

Former Art Assistant and an Instagram Star are Opening a New Houston Restaurant: Healthy Eating’s Never Looked This Vibrant Before

BY // 02.01.18

Kelly Barnhart wants to shift the paradigm of healthy eating. The former Museum of Fine Arts, Houston curatorial assistant and budding restaurateur wants to share her vision with the Bayou City.

Her vision? Simply, you can please your palate while improving your wellbeing. Healthy shouldn’t be synonymous with sacrifice. Being health conscious should make you vibrant, not restricted.

“I always parent with the word ‘vibrant’ as a sign post,” Barnhart says. It’s succinct, but it encapsulates your whole body and spirit, she believes. As a mother, her daughter Lila’s wellbeing and health is of the utmost importance. With her new restaurant Vibrant, Barnhart wants to change the picture of healthy eating.

Vibrant will open in April in the old McGowen Cleaners spot at 1931 Fairview in Montrose.

What’s the new look of healthy food? Sugar-free walnut cardamom bliss balls, dusted with coconut flakes. Gourmet gluten-free bread smeared with cashew butter. Cauliflower chicken salad with apple. They are all bright — in both color and flavor profile.

The team behind Vibrant showed off some of the upcoming restaurant’s dishes to be at an early preview at Barnhart’s home on Wednesday afternoon.

The carrot ginger soup is an eye-popping orange hue. It personifies the “vivid, lively” flavors that will characterize the Vibrant menu, Barnhart says.

Barnhart’s mission is to prove that you can eat nutritiously and deliciously.

Her concept stands out from your standard health-centric restaurants that offer up organic options and vegan varieties. Vibrant will source ingredients from trusted farmers and its own vegetable garden whenever possible. The philosophy is what sets it apart: a non-restaurant approach to a restaurant.

The eatery is four years in the making. Barnhart searched for chefs for the past two or three years. Four experiments failed, all with “restaurant-style” chefs.

“I had to translate my vision for it,” Barnhart says. “I tried to explain, and I finally realized that this kind of food would need to be innate.”

Authenticity is key to the concept. It’s about the individual. Barnhart is not concerned with what healthy food should be to everyone. She cares about what healthy food is to someone.

After three years, she found that someone. Portland’s Alison Wu, food alchemist and Instagram star, managed to put what Barnhart had in mind on the plate. She was chosen to develop the menu.

“I could see the kind of food [I wanted it to be] and I knew it had to exist somewhere in the world,” Barnhart says.

“Approaching a non-restaurant person like myself” meant taking a leap of faith, she adds. Finding Wu while looking at blogs was a miracle to Barnhart. It took three years of searching high and low but only a “split second” to recognize the right person when she found her.

“She cooks authentically for herself,” Barnhart says. Wu sees food as being immensely personal.

“You should give yourself the love that you deserve,” Wu says. Her true journey with food began when she became a vegetarian at age 15. For the past 17 years, it’s become more and more clear to her just how much food can affect how she feels on a daily basis.

Vibrant Alison Wu
Alison Wu, food alchemist and Instagram star, helped develop the menu. She will return to Houston each season to adjust the menu.

“The more I dive into it, the more I can feel it,” Wu says. She has always developed recipes and cooked for family and friends. Two years ago, she took their advice and started her own blog, Wu Haus. Her brand took off, if her Instagram is any sign. She has more than 150,000 followers, drawn by her crazy photogenic dishes.

Wu describes her food as “nourishing, fresh, and inherently healthy.” Her signature move? Putting a spin on familiar foods, amping up the flavor factor and keeping things interesting. She puts hemp seed in her pesto. She makes her smoothie bowl with tahini.

From Portland to Montrose With Love

Places Wu has travelled to inspire her, and she has picked up influences from foreign cuisines she’s enjoyed.

There’s no place like Vibrant in Houston, she says. They “don’t even have anything like it in Portland, either,” where Wu lives. “Places are healthy, but not at this level.” The menu was developed to “be competitive anywhere in the country,” according to Wu. The concept will be all new to Houston, but she “didn’t want to dumb it down.”

She imagines the menu as delicious and health-centric, with fresh herbs as her calling card. Together, she and Barnhart aim to create a menu of food that’s healthy, “crave-worthy, and super approachable.” The list of fresh ingredients will be extensive. Barnhart recognizes that diners may not be familiar with all of them. She plans to provide an independent glossary to supplement the menu.

Barnhart “comes at it from the consumer standpoint,” aiming for food that is simple and approachable. So approachable, “you’d want to eat it every day.” She vows that each dish Vibrant prepares will be “the healthiest and best version it can possibly be.”

Wu will continue to live in Portland and fly to Houston to adjust the menu as the seasons change.

Vibrant will start off with counter-service breakfast and lunch. Breakfast hours are extended, with traditionally morning fare served from 7 am to 4 pm. Lunch will run from 11 am to 4 pm, freeing diners from meals with conventional time stamps, Barnhart says.

Dinner will roll out within one or two months of the April opening, with plans for table service and a distinct menu. The wine list will contain exclusively natural wines.

This is restaurant where willpower will not be essential to eating right. It comes into play with the cocktail list. You can be a little bad and not feel bad about it — and not feel it the next morning. Mixers will include fresh juices. Wheatgrass margaritas are a good example of the healthy-lifestyle-meets-liquor options.

For those wanting daytime drinks with a little kick, Vibrant will serve an array of what Barnhart calls “potions.” The five different bolstering drinks served warm in stoneware cups offer distinct health benefits.

The Golden Milk potion is calming and even has some anti-inflammatory properties. The Matcha potion is supposed to increase energy. The tastes are complex. Barnhart and Wu have devised a coffee bar with sweeteners like honey, so guests can adjust the potions to their liking.

“One drop of honey really makes it sing,” Barnhart says.

Cleaning Shop

The old McGowen Cleaners space is making a dramatic transition from clean clothes to clean eating. The original building has been divided with a glass wall near one end. The walls have been removed from that section but the roof will remain, creating a covered patio.

In addition to the interior seating on the other side of the glass wall, there will be a few informal scattered seating areas around Vibrant’s lot. The vegetable garden, a source for as many of the ingredients as possible, will sit next to a casual garden area with a pathway. As things develop, the casual seating areas may become more formal.

Overall, Barnhart hopes Vibrant normalizes nutritious food for its guests. Her goal is to promote wellness through a business with conscience. That’s another part of the paradigm shift. The bottom line should be more about the wellness of others. It’s a lesson for her daughter, for herself, for everyone.

“Vibrant is meant to honor ourselves, to be more,” Barnhart says. “To be better to each other.”

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