Chef Justin Haifley went to a fine East Coast culinary school and counts the legendary Charlie Trotter's in Chicago as his training grounds. He's led the kitchen at Roy's in New York City, cooked at the prestigious James Beard House and, here in St. Louis, was the culinary force behind the acclaimed Tavern Kitchen and Bar.
And now he's making salads.
That Haifley left the world of fine dining for the fast-casual market speaks volumes about what it means to dine out in 2016. Whether it's a case of people abandoning formality, or simply a matter of wanting economical options in order to eat out more frequently, the fact is, fast-casual is where the market is right now. Just look at the numbers: Over the past year, exactly half of the restaurants reviewed in the Riverfront Times — some of the hottest openings of the year — were fast-casual. The previous year, it was nine out of forty-two.
A chef of Haifley's caliber wouldn't make the leap from white tablecloths to carryout boxes just because it was trendy, though. He needed a concept to believe in, and after he left the Tavern, he was ready for something new. That's when his friend Chris Sedlak shared his idea for Wicked Greenz.
A longtime fast-casual restaurateur, Sedlak had been playing with the idea of a salad joint after realizing that his increasingly busy lifestyle left little time for sit-down dinners. He found that options for healthy, good-tasting food in St. Louis were limited — even nonexistent — so he set out to fill that niche in the market. The resulting concept is pitched as part restaurant, part lifestyle brand — the website oozes verbiage like "oneness" and encourages patrons to "nourish the mind, body and spirit." If Goop were a restaurant, it would probably be a lot like Wicked Greenz.
That au courant branding carries through to the restaurant's aesthetic. Located in the former Bocci Wine Bar in the middle of Clayton, Wicked Greenz is a sleek, trendy-looking eatery with reclaimed wood, white walls and vintage chalkboard-inspired signage. Moss-covered murals and wood carvings filled with succulents whisper "modern" and "posh."
The massive open kitchen and counter, where diners place their order and watch as their food is prepared, take up the majority of the space. Walking along the assembly line, you can customize your meal from a seemingly endless number of ingredients. However, Wicked Greenz breaks from the Chipotle-honed model with a menu made up of already-composed choices, though the suggested proteins cost extra. Sure, it takes away that illusion of freedom, but it also prevents you from piling on a bunch of random things that result in a hot mess. Let's be honest here: Haifley is in a better position to pair ingredients than you or I.
And he does so with aplomb. Haifley may have left behind the world of white tablecloths, but he brought with him his knack for combining flavors, providing serious substance to back up Wicked Greenz's polished branding. Served either "bowled" (as a salad) or "rolled" (in a wrap), his creations span a range of genres, like the southwestern-inspired "Mexicali." Black beans, corn, pico de gallo and onion are liberally tossed with cilantro and garnished with crisp tortilla strips. Avocado crèma and a tart, charred tomato vinaigrette mingle to form a rich, zesty dressing. I ordered it as a salad and opted to add plump lemon-pepper shrimp — as tender and well-cooked as anything I've had served in a sit-down setting.
The "Siesta Salmon" gives another demonstration of Haifley's skill with southwestern flavors. This selection pairs the lightly blackened fish with most of the accouterments from the "Mexicali," as well as avocado, southwestern-seasoned ranch dressing and a searing hot salsa verde vinaigrette. Like the shrimp, the salmon was impeccably cooked — medium rare, in fact. That's a gutsy decision from a fast-casual joint, but Wicked Greenz proved the kitchen was up to the challenge. I just wish the dish had more salmon in it, especially in light of its $13.50 price tag.
The entrees ordered as wraps were equally satisfying. The "Harvest" ticks off all of the classic fall salad requirements: kale, apples, sweet potatoes, pecans and a mouth-puckering white balsamic vinaigrette. Goat cheese adds earthy funk to the otherwise sweet flavors. A similar "Sun Kissed" is the more summery version, tossing the kale with strawberries, quinoa, almonds, a hearty bunch of parsley and lemon vinaigrette.
If I closed my eyes and forgot where I was, the "Yo Adrian" would have convinced me that I was chowing down at a sandwich shop on the Hill. Ham, salami and pepperoni are folded into the wrap with provel cheese, tomatoes, onions, herbs and red peppers. Fiery giardiniera adds a significant kick; paired with the white balsamic dressing, it's like a spicy Italian sandwich mixed with a sweet Italian salad.
As much as I enjoyed the "Yo Adrian," my far-and-away favorite dish was the "Chopstix," which I ordered as a salad. Haifley's time at Roy's honed his skill with Pacific Rim-influenced cuisine, and the "Chopstix" is where he shines the brightest. Edamame, onion, peppers, almonds, fresh herbs and the suggested teriyaki chicken are tossed with spring mix and served with both creamy "volcano" sauce — think of the piquant drizzle you get atop a spicy tuna roll — and sweet sesame soy vinaigrette. When the two dressings mingle, the result is wildly addictive. And like every last dish I tried, this magnificent salad was so impossibly fresh that every bite — not just the crispy wonton strips — had crunch.
It's clear that Wicked Greenz has aspirations far beyond its Clayton address. Haifley, Sedlak and their other partner, Matt Ratz, have plans to open locations in Maryland Heights and O'Fallon in the next few months, and their branding and streamlined concept indicate that their plans won't stop with just three stores. Their prices aren't cheap (with proteins, salads range from $10.50 to $13.30), and other chains are already making inroads into filling the fast-casual salad spot niche, including another burgeoning St. Louis chain, Crushed Red. But Sedlak has clearly tapped into the country's culinary zeitgeist for quick, healthy eating, which has yet to be defined by a monolith like Chipotle for burritos. Haifley, Sedlak and Ratz hope their concept will be that game changer.
I could be a cynic and think that that this is why Haifley ditched the fine dining business for Wicked Greenz — that he saw it as an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a potential fast-casual goldmine. But then I taste his food and see how much passion and thought he's put into everything, and it's clear he really believes in what he's doing. And if Wicked Greenz stays on track with what they are doing, I do too.
- PHOTO BY MABEL SUEN
- The "Chopstix" bowl with teriyaki chicken, edamame, red onion, bell peppers, toasted almonds, cilantro, basil, crispy wontons, sesame-soy vinaigrette and volcano sauce.