Health-Conscious Montrose Restaurant Rolls Out Picture-Perfect Dinner Dishes

It would make sense for a former museum curator to be driven by visuals, so it’s only natural that Kelly Barnhart’s restaurant Vibrant, serves colorful, eye-catching dishes. Barnhart originally opened the Montrose restaurant in August with the help of noted health blogger Alison Wu but is just now launching dinner service and a bar program. That means that Vibrant’s hours are now also extended until 10 p.m. all week long.

Dinner plates include hearty choices like braised beef in mole sauce and lamb meatballs in pumpkin seed-mint sauce. The new cocktail and wine program includes natural spirits and biodynamic wines to pair with the kitchen’s menu of health-focused dishes. Houston Food Finder was invited to sample a few of the new menu offerings and cocktails at the minimalist Montrose eatery.

Barnhart and Wu spent close to a year developing thoughtful dishes that exclude gluten, dairy, refined sugar and GMOs. Food is locally sourced and organic as often as possible, while spirits and wines are naturally produced through sustainable farming and minimal-intervention fermentation.

Fish Crudo, a kampachi ceviche in yuzu dressing. Photo by Jenn Duncan

Some may find this hyper-conscious approach vexing — perhaps even a little pretentious. (Based on Vibrant’s prices, it’s also not inexpensive.) However, diners might be surprised to discover that the outcomes are remarkably mouthwatering, despite those restrictions. Omar Pereney, formerly of now-closed Peska Seafood Culture, is currently Vibrant’s kitchen consultant and is doing a fine job of ensuring that dishes are well-executed and beautifully plated.

The new dinner menu expands on the existing plant-focused breakfast and lunch offerings, but with greater emphasis on proteins. The fish crudo, a sashimi-style ceviche of Japanese kampachi (amberjack), is plated over yuzu dressing and topped with puffed black rice. The dish features creamy avocado mouse, watermelon radish shavings and artfully carved cucumber spheres. The exquisite plating is matched only by the complex mix of fresh flavors and textures that go from chewy to crunchy in one citrus-forward bite.

The braised beef in mole sauce, though, is the highlight of Vibrant’s dinner menu. Slow-cooked until meltingly tender, the all-natural beef is plated beside a bed of roasted baby carrots, corn and zucchini and garnished with radish, pickled onions and baby cilantro. Then, it’s bathed tableside in a creamy brown mole. The beef is extremely tender with an almost caramelized crust. The guajillo and pasilla pepper mole is more nutty than spicy but intensely flavored nonetheless. It’s an intricate, complex dish — and that’s reflected in the $45 price tag.

Braised beef and roasted veggies in a guajillo and pasilla pepper mole. Photo by Jenn Duncan

For drink pairings, diners can choose from an impressive list of natural and biodynamic wines. The polarizing natural wine movement, which has been building momentum in the New York and L.A. dining scenes for years, is now enjoying a growing presence in the Houston market. Vibrant is likely the first in the city to offer an exclusively natural and biodynamic wine program, with natural spirit cocktails to boot.

The Rose Golden, a $13 concoction of vodka and coconut milk, is the creative highlight of Vibrant’s cocktail menu. A mix of natural vodka, coconut milk, coconut sugar, rosewater, and turmeric is garnished with dried rose petals to create an oddly satisfying drink with hints of White Russian and tropical flavors. The brown cocktail over ice is reminiscent of Vibrant’s “potions” and “elixirs” — hot beverages in ceramic mugs that include medicinal herbs and spices.

For dessert, Vibrant currently only offers two choices: pear almond cake and chocolate cake both topped with housemade coconut custard. The cakes are part of a bread list created by baker Karen Man (formerly of Oxheart) which, of course, excludes gluten in favor of nut flours and other inventive ingredients. The tasty coconut custard sneakily gets by without dairy thanks to its coconut milk base.

Vibrant challenges prejudice toward overly health-conscious menus with fare that is both visually stunning and delicious. While the hefty price point eliminates it as a daily option for most diners, the culinary experience is worthy of recognition, in no small part due to the creative hurdles Barnhart’s staff seem to clear with ease.

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