by Lou Mancinelli
It’s called “smart casual,” and it has transformed fast eating into an eco-conscious, healthy fine dining experience.
Chestnut Hill’s latest example is Green Soul, which opened at a second location in October in a stone building that shares a wall with the Farmers Market at 8229 Germantown Ave., behind the Chestnut Hill Hotel.
The vision of Green Soul comes from executive chef Al Paris and partners Robert and Kim Bynum, who opened the first Green Soul in West Oak Lane in 2011. Paris also opened Heirloom, an upscale BYOB which has been hugely successful, at 8705 Germantown Ave., next to the Chestnut Hill State Store, in December 2011.
Paris, who lives in Wyndmoor, also plans to open the jazz/dining club, Paris Bistro, in the former Melting Pot location at Germantown and Southampton Avenues sometime next month.
Green Soul creates high quality smoothies, sandwiches and salads in a beautiful environment — the walls were stripped down to expose original 19th century Wissahickon Shist stone — at good prices with excellent service. Ingredients are locally sourced, like the lamb that comes from nearby Erdenheim Farm. They use recycled materials and ingredients free from artificial additives, sweeteners, colors and preservatives.
It’s like taking the local organic market and turning it into a cafe, minus the coffee and cakes. Take a well-traveled hyper-informed sophisticated individual with an affinity for the organic kale smoothie, listening to Spotify on their iPhone and wishing for an upscale healthy hoagie, and you have something like the image.
“It started when fine dining started to casualize,” said Paris. “People wanted homemade artisinal ingredients in smoothies, salads and sandwiches … It’s healthy. It’s made to order. It’s reasonably priced.”
According to Paris, it has become rare for people to sit down for the long four-course meal. “It’s not where 99 percent of the market is,” he said.
So at Green Soul, he developed a menu designed to fill a specific need. It’s a homey yet upscale colorful menu. It’s inexpensive and based on Paris’ traditionalist philosophy that high quality ingredients make great meals more than chefs do.
“I don’t put my own ego above and beyond the respect for the ingredients,” said Paris. “The real stars became the farmers because of the quality of their livestock and vegetables.”
Now the menu: take the salads, for example, like the mango jerk salmon, or the shrimp and edamame (both $8.95). Or create your own, use chicken ($3) or egg ($1) as a base and toss in some organic herbs and veggies for 50 cents each. There’s also the barbeque pulled chicken with green apple cabbage slaw sandwich ($7.50); and the portabella and veggies with meaty portabella, tomato, roasted onions, kale, smoked gouda and collard green pesto ($6.95), which can be served on a bun, wrap or over greens. There are soups and chili, and the green soul smoothie with banana, apple, dates mango, kale and pear ($4.95 for 16 ounces).
“If you can’t fill a need, then there’s no purpose to open, even if you have a sharp package,” said Paris, a South Philly native who has served as executive chef at restaurants in Chestnut Hill, including Marabella’s, and across the country, from the Asian fusion, Mantra, near Rittenhouse Square, to French Bistro, Oberon, in Old City, to the City Tap House in University City, to various upscale locations in Napa Valley, California.
At heart, according to Paris, the brutally competitive restaurant industry is in the entertainment business, and you have to give people what they want, or they will not come back. That fact, in Paris’ opinion, is why many restaurants have survived tough economic times like a national recession.
“It takes your mind away from the mundane, and we start to remember to celebrate our existence,” he said about eating at a well-run restaurant.
And judging by his success at Heirloom, which has a four- out of five-star Yelp rating out of 58 reviews, and his long varied and successful career as a chef, Green Soul might follow suit.
“The customers are more informed than they’ve ever been. If there isn’t a meaningful transaction that has taken place, they won’t come back.”