Not long ago, Kelly Barnhart was an assistant curator at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. Today, she's the owner, designer, and creative director of Montrose's newest dining concept. Part restaurant, part art gallery, Vibrant opened its doors to the public this week with high hopes for its health focused, hyper local menu.
Barnhart's vision for Vibrant was to create a space from which to both feed and nurture the community she calls home. The native Houstonian aims to apply, to the operations of her restaurant, the same values of holistic health and self care that she uses in her daily life as a parent. The Vibrant menu is a reflection of a core belief that healthy food must bring joy in order to genuinely improve health.
Located in the old McGowen Cleaners building at 1931 Fairview, Vibrant is only the second business to ever operate out of the location since its construction in 1961. Naturally, the building has undergone a complete renovation in order to house the aesthetically-focused dining concept. Inside, bright white walls play home to an assortment of curated art pieces, while newly installed windows provide natural light throughout. Food and drink is served on custom ceramic ware created by New York based Argentinian artist Fernando Aciar. Everything inside Vibrant looks like it has been curated; because it has been.
One of Barnhart's strengths seems to be team building. The novice entrepreneur and restaurateur is no trained chef, nor had she any restaurant experience prior to launching her passion project. As such, she sought the help of more qualified partners in the realization of her vision. The menu was largely designed by prominent wellness and health food blogger, Alison Wu. Kitchen operations are run by culinary consultant, Omar Pereney, and Vibrant's unique coffee program is curated by Fernando Aciar (the same chef and artist who creates the ceramics).
Although a beautifully designed space and one of a kind ceramic bowls make for excellent social media posts, they won't be enough to earn Vibrant long term success on its own — the real test is the strength of the menu. The health food industry is plagued by palate-deaf dishes, overpriced hype trends, and questionable wellness claims. All of these are realities that both Barnhart and Wu are tasked with overcoming in the presentation and execution of a menu that heavily stresses its health benefits and wellness pedigree.
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No gluten, no dairy, no refined sugar, no GMO, locally and sustainably sourced; these are the guarantees upon which the Vibrant menu is crafted. While extremely difficult to create a menu of appetizing, hearty, filling, and diversified dishes within these self-imposed boundaries, the team at Vibrant has done an excellent job of executing that vision. Salad bowls like the Greens + Grains bowl, with quinoa, avocado, and a dairy free cheese made of macadamia and cashews, prove to be both delicious and deceivingly filling. The Breakfast Socca, a definite standout on the all-day breakfast menu, is an arepa-like pancake of chickpea flour smothered in a house pesto, topped with oven roasted tomato, watermelon radish, and two runny fried eggs (it will give your favorite avocado toast a run for its money).
Vibrant's beverage list is as much a part of the experience as anything else. While water, juice, and teas are available, more health-conscious beverages are also an option. Five so-called "potions" and "elixirs" contain ingredients like matcha, coconut milk, turmeric, and rose essence among several others. The hot drinks each serve separate health purposes and all are infused with medicinal herbs and spices. This author ordered a Matcha Potion, and while the jury is out on its medicinal benefits, its deliciousness and warm comfort are undeniable.
Along with the potions and elixirs, Vibrant also introduces a menu of exclusively natural, biodynamic, and organic wines. Becoming perhaps the first Houston eatery to commit to a fully natural wine program.
All in, Vibrant took approximately five years to go from concept to opening. Along the way, Kelly Barnhart has gone from art curator to restaurateur. Time will tell if her first venture into entrepreneurship will prove successful, but her commitment to her values and initial vision are not to be understated. In an industry dominated by powerful restaurant groups and celebrity chefs, Vibrant is a team effort of first timers and idealists; a highly unique business venture with a lot to prove.