Some mornings, after I finally summon the energy to get out of bed, once I've knocked back a couple of aspirin with a slug of black coffee, when the fog of last night's wine has begun to lift and the ache in my knees is at least tolerable, I can face myself in the bathroom mirror and feel, if not good, at least OK about the mess that I've made of the first 35 years of my life.
Then I remember Green Bean.
The basic facts about Green Bean are unremarkable. It opened in November of last year in the heart of the Central West End. It follows the fast-casual model. It serves salads and wraps. The details, however, will either inspire you or send you into a fugue of regret and self-doubt.
Founders Nick Guzman and Sarah Haselkorn are younger than the usual restaurateur. They are young, period. Guzman graduated from Amherst College in 2011, and Haselkorn is a senior at Washington University. Seeing a need for a restaurant that would meet college students' — and others' — demands for meals that don't sacrifice healthiness for speed, they devised the plan for Green Bean.
The key term here is "plan." Green Bean doesn't have the endearingly amateurish "Hey, let's open a restaurant!" vibe of a co-op in the basement of the student union. It's a thoroughly professional operation, beginning with the logo: a sleekly attractive wordmark with a sprouting plant separating green and bean.
The restaurant itself occupies a narrow storefront. The interior is bright, with a spare, modern aesthetic. There is seating along the front window and one wall. Along the opposite wall is the counter where you order your salad or wrap, which an employee then assembles as you watch. (The staff chops, cooks and otherwise prepares ingredients in a prep kitchen in the back of the space.) The employee asks if you want a light, medium or heavy amount of dressing — a small, but welcome touch — and then tosses everything together and double-checks that you're happy with the amount of dressing before putting the salad into a serving bowl.
If you've ordered a wrap, the employee folds the mixed ingredients inside an oversize tortilla (wheat or flavored with either tomato or spinach). The finished product is quite plump — more akin to a burrito than what you might think of as a wrap. When I say that Green Bean reminds me of a chain, which it isn't, I mean it as a compliment: The whole ordering process is simple, efficient and customer-focused.
Of course, none of this would matter if the food were no good. Here, too, Green Bean succeeds. Granted, running a salad bar doesn't exactly entail a high degree of difficulty. But you've likely seen enough brown lettuce and pink tomatoes to know how many restaurants screw up the one incontrovertible rule of the salad bar: Use impeccably fresh produce. Green Bean does.
The menu is simple. You choose one of eight different combinations as a salad or wrap, or you can build your own à la carte combination from the available ingredients. All of the restaurant's combinations include a protein (beef, chicken, duck or tofu) and serve as a stand-alone meal. The "Goddess" is the most conventional of these combinations: mixed greens with grilled chicken (served chilled, intentionally, as all the proteins are), avocado, chives and croutons in a classic green goddess dressing. The chicken could benefit from a dash of salt and pepper — the avocado, mild as it is, has a more pronounced flavor — but the dressing's gentle tang and hints of herbs, reinforced by the fresh chives, enliven the dish. Orange segments and a citrus-spiked dressing add zest to the "Citrus Caesar" salad's otherwise standard array of romaine lettuce, grilled chicken, croutons and Parmesan cheese.
Among the more interesting combinations is the "Seoul Train," which brings beef grilled to a medium or medium-rare temperature (the pieces weren't uniform, though all were tender) with radishes, cucumber, green onions and sesame seeds in a red chile-sesame dressing. Both the radishes and the green onion give the salad a biting accent, and the dressing, after the initial hint of sesame, gradually builds heat at the back of your mouth. A combination of sweetness and heat distinguishes the "Pueblito": Juicy chunks of chile-spiked pineapple and a tangy tomatillo-lime dressing spark a mix of grilled beef, romaine lettuce, corn, queso fresco and crumbled tortilla chips.
The "Turducken" is the most ambitious combination, with duck confit the featured ingredient in an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink mix of greens, dried apricots, crumbled pita chips, spiced chickpeas, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and feta cheese in a lemon-tahini dressing. This seems like two salads (duck and apricot; chickpeas, vegetables and feta) married together. Sadly, a divorce is necessary. The result is just too cluttered, too heavy.
Guzman and Haselkorn take the "green" part of Green Bean seriously. They endeavor to use sustainable produce, and almost all of the restaurant's disposable items are either recyclable or compostable. Seeing this, I felt a twinge of guilt. We've left a hell of a mess for these kids to clean up.