At the entrance to Green Soul, there are touchscreens to order your Cajun salmon BLT, fast-casual style, for a speedy lunch. In the front corner, there’s a chill-out lounge with overstuffed chairs framed by live plants and a happiness quote from John Lennon. By the fold-up glass wall, there are lively Wednesday-night jam sessions with the Roots' James Poyser. And at the large horseshoe bar, the cocktails are blended with so much kombucha, matcha tea, and produce — beets, apples, sweet potatoes (yes, sweet potatoes) — it could almost be mistaken for a health-club smoothie station.
There’s a lot going on at Green Soul, the latest creation from brothers Ben and Robert Bynum, the music impresarios and soul-food entrepreneurs behind Warmdaddy’s, South, and Zanzibar Blue. So much, in fact, that it takes a few beats to realize what’s not happening here: an overt attempt to reinvent classic soul food as health food. There is no miraculous incarnation of fried chicken here as dieter’s delight. Actually, there is no fried chicken here at all.
“We want Green Soul to be a bridge to better eating, to have a healthy concept to offset all the indulgent food we’ve served over the years,” says chef Ben Bynum, 56, who says he’s served probably “a million orders" of fried shrimp and chicken during his three-decade career. “We don’t think of it necessarily as a ‘soul-food restaurant.' The notion of having a ‘green soul’ is more about having a balance in your life in mind, body and spirit … with some soul-food elements.”
Those elements hit home for me in one magnetic bowl of soup, a brothy vegetarian stew lit with cumin-scented curry and filled with black-eyed peas, diced sweet potatoes, and wild rice. The combination evoked the seminal soul-food ingredients with a light touch, and also hinted at the African diaspora theme that threads this menu. And I couldn’t stop eating it — until the tacos stuffed with harissa-spiced chicken and plantains appeared. The tender meat was glazed in fragrant North African spice, laced with shreds of spicy collards, and snugged inside a flour tortilla with the caramelized softness of a ripe plantain, a tropical transatlantic taco combo that resonated as uniquely satisfying, even in an era when the taco knows no borders.
One sip of a Purple Power smoothie to wash it down (and the surprise realization that I didn’t hate the frothy fuchsia brew of roots and fruit), and I knew my scouting lunch merited a return for a full review.
The biggest challenge, it seems, is figuring out exactly what Green Soul is really trying to be. Is it a soul-inflected Chipotle? The touchpad-ordering system at lunch hints at that ambition, but that shortchanges the substance here, not to mention the warm hospitality my server brought to the table. (I opted to stick with traditional service, which is the norm at dinner.)
Is it just another Bynum music club? It can feel that way three nights a week when the bands start playing and drown out conversation after 9 p.m.
Is it even healthy enough to be considered “healthy"? At a time when strict veganism has become mainstream, there are multiple nutritional guidelines Green Soul might not live up to. It’s not as though the deep fryer has been entirely disabled — see the parsnip fries and tempura-crisped stuffed pepper — something for which Robert’s wife, co-owner Kim Bynum, had first lobbied. (“She’s the impetus here,” says Ben Bynum, “but that little texture difference makes it so much better.”)
Green Soul is more about a variety of choices and small victories. There’s no red meat on the menu; turkey bacon stands in for the pork original. Impossible Burgers, the plant-based patties that “bleed,” replace the beef. There’s plenty of fish and lots of whole grains. There are gluten-free options, avocado hidden in a dessert, and dairy-free soy ice cream in the Sun & Moon Milk Shake — although the malt whiskey from Phoenixville’s Bluebird Distilling and drizzles of salted caramel are, happily, very, very real.
“We want to make sure our menus provided something for everyone,” Ben Bynum says, “but with smaller portions and options for all groups. We also wanted to appeal to our existing clientele.”
Which is to say, if you happen to be standing on Warmdaddy’s fried Cajun catfish side of that “bridge to better eating,” Green Soul’s menu will be a nutritional plus on every level as it roams through various tacos, salads, small plates, and “soul bowls.” And Bynum’s kitchen, run with the help of chef Nasir Mason, assures that flavor is never shorted, and that prices, which top out at $16 for the larger plates, are impressively affordable.
The turkey chili is hearty, with two textures of meat — both pulled shreds and ground crumbles — simmered in a gravy of smoky spice tanged with cider vinegar and darkened with cocoa, coffee, and molasses. The North African chicken bowl is a classic tagine, the skinless thighs rubbed with turmeric and spice, then braised tender in an aromatic brew with olives and preserved lemons over simple couscous — and it’s a true deal at $14.
And, yes, that big chili pepper was lightly fried, but cutting into it was like opening a vegetable-shaped treasure chest of corn and mushrooms bound with a little cheddar that spilled out onto a vivid chipotle sauce that layered some smoky heat onto the poblano’s milder profile. A delicate little crunch also helped the tempura-fried shrimp “soul tacos” with creamy avocado and Cajun mayo stand out. Along with the African chicken and Buffalo sauced-cauliflower tacos, they were among the more satisfying light-bite options on the menu.
That doesn’t exactly clarify the mild confusion as to what Green Soul is really trying to be. It could refine a few more “larger plates” to anchor the dinner experience at night. The wild-caught fillet of salmon over apple-Brussels sprout hash with mustard BBQ sauce was easily the best of the three options. The jambalaya was too tomato sauce-y, in part because the multigrain base didn’t absorb the liquid as well as traditional white rice. And though I loved the flavor of the roasted veggie pasta in broccoli crema sauce, the corn-based penne was too soft (as so many gluten-free pastas can be).
That was a light disappointment, though, compared to the thick black bean burger, which at first bite turned into a squish patty. The Cajun salmon BLT was a far better sandwich experience, the moist, spiced fish playing nicely against the smoky turkey bacon, perky rémoulade, and reasonably ripe (for January) tomatoes.
The culinary quest here is clearly ongoing. But Green Soul’s multiple personalities are a result of the fact that the concept has morphed through different locations. It began as a more limited takeout venue, first in West Oak Lane, then in Chestnut Hill. Both closed. Then, as the Bynums moved into the larger full-service space vacated by Alla Spina beside South on Mt. Vernon Street, they embraced the possibility for it to become a broader holistic project, a multipurpose venue that could be used for poetry readings, cooking classes, and candidate forums when musicians aren’t on stage, with a commitment to sustainability that extends to the all-draft wine and beer list, local sourcing, and an overall desire to create a community space that simply exudes positive vibes.
“No compromise,” Kim Bynum says. “We want people who buy into what we’re doing. Green Soul, for me, is more of a consciousness.”
They’ve warmed up the restaurant’s industrial space with bright colors, natural wood accents, and dozens of live plants. They’ve effortlessly attracted a diverse staff and clientele in the way all too many Center City restaurants fail. And the staff has been uniformly cheerful and outgoing.
There were some concerning moments in my later visits, when obvious inexperience let a few essential details unravel, like servers repeatedly forgetting to bring silverware with hot food. A soup that wasn’t hot enough. A sudden absence of rye (a Philly first?) ruined one drink from a bar that otherwise had a solid handle on its juice-bar cocktail mojo. I loved the fresh pineapple take on a colada, the soy milk-enriched matcha green tea drink spiked with local vodka, and even the New Liberty bourbon Manhattan sweetened with maple and an orange blush of pureed sweet potato that could have passed for a dessert. (Love? Maybe not. But it was better than expected).
True to its something-for-everyone form, you can go a few ways with dessert at Green Soul: classic fruit lover (pear crisp with soy ice cream); veggie trend seeker (a chocolate mousse enriched with the fruity gloss of whipped avocados); or soul food comfort splurge (sweet potato doughnuts).
The agave syrup streaked over top of those fritters comes under the health-food category of “small victories.”
Yes, chef Bynum concedes that he’s had some deep-fried relapses on his journey into this new realm of cooking. Then again, while traveling that bridge to better eating, maybe it’s OK to reward yourself with a few small indulgences on the other side.
1410 Mt. Vernon St., 215-660-9600; greensoulliving.com
The latest project from Ben and Robert Bynum expands their fast-casual healthy concept (now closed in Chestnut Hill) into a casual full-service restaurant-bar and performance venue in the sunny, plant-filled former Alla Spina space. The affordable menu roams the African diaspora, from North Africa to Louisiana, along with classic soul-food elements reinterpreted in lighter, brighter forms of salads, sandwiches, tacos and cocktails whirred with produce. There are still rough edges with service and logistics, and occasional items that are arguably not so healthy. But for a duo known for deep-fried success at Warmdaddy’s and South, this project is as much an ode to sustainability and community gathering, and has a unique, forward-thinking warmth with good flavors that feel worthwhile.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Sweet potato, wild rice and black-eyed pea soup; turkey chili; parsnip and carrot fries; vegetarian soul salad; tacos (harissa-spiced chicken; tempura shrimp; buffalo cauliflower); poblano tempura; Brussels sprouts with turkey bacon; Cajun salmon BLT; North African chicken couscous; salmon with mustard BBQ and Brussels sprout hash; chocolate- avocado mousse; sweet potato doughnuts; Sun & Moon shake.
DRINKS The smoothie bar meets the cocktail bar here, as virtually every cocktail comes blended with fresh produce, kombucha or tea: the fresh pineapple colada, the Matcha Milk, even a Manhattan blended with sweet potato that was (ahem) better than expected. The Sun & Moon shake with Bluebird Distilling’s malt whiskey and soy ice cream is worthy of dessert. Local wines on draft (from Karamoor and Wayvine) plus good Pennsylvania beers back the restaurant’s low carbon footprint mission. Meanwhile, vividly colored nonalcoholic smoothies — Purple Power, Green Soul Juice — are balanced and tasty.
WEEKEND NOISE Come early to chat. Live music performances beginning mid-evening transform Green Soul into a space more nightclub than restaurant.
IF YOU GO Lunch Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner Tuesday-Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m. Closed Monday.
Dinner entrées, $17-$29.
All major cards.