Justin Brunson wasn’t an obvious addition to the founding team behind Honor Society Handcrafted Eatery, a fast-fine restaurant that opened this summer in a new office building behind Union Station. If you’re looking for a charcuterie whiz, he’s your guy. If you’re craving a three-pound pork chop and pork-fat fries, he’s your man. But “clean, delicious fare” that’s “nutrient dense” and “calorie sparse,” to quote a few buzzwords from the Honor Society website? That seemed like a stretch for a chef synonymous with porcine gluttony.
So prior to developing the menu, Brunson did research. He pored over books and studied up on raw foods. He tinkered with ways to make nutritionally minded salads, sandwiches, pizzas and sides, and dabbled in healthy substitutions, like yogurt for cream. As a result, his early recipes for Honor Society were clean — but they weren’t necessarily delicious. “I was making stuff too healthy,” laughs the restaurateur behind Masterpiece Delicatessen, Old Major and the soon-to-open Masterpiece Kitchen. “At the beginning, I was so focused on how low-fat can we make it. [The team] said, ‘Go make it more fattening and more flavorful.’”
Those magic words saved the concept. Despite the preponderance of acai, chia and other things that are good for you on its menu, Honor Society doesn’t feel like a health-food restaurant. Instead, it feels like a restaurant that should be in every mall, airport and neighborhood, a next-generation Panera that caters to nearly everyone. There’s no way a seitan-pushing, sprouted-grain spot would have the same pull.
Working in its favor is the fact that Honor Society doesn’t scream fast-casual — or fast-fine, as the case may be. With long community tables, whitewashed planks on the walls, loud music and barrels as light fixtures, the decor strikes a trendy balance between industrial and homespun. There’s even a bar in a room off the back, with everything from cocktails to craft beer to coconut water on tap. Indeed, if you took away the line where you stand to order, by bins full of ingredients — and the slightly corny “Honor Thy Belly” proclamation on the wall by the door — the restaurant could moonlight as a sit-down with a large open kitchen.
And yet Honor Society offers the perks of the fast-casual genre, starting with speed. Food, though not assembled as you walk down the line, comes quickly, delivered to your table by a runner. Choice is another. The menu is built around a handful of fillings that can be had over three standard and four specialty salads, as a pre-set sandwich, or on a plate with two sides. I toyed with the idea of figuring out how many options that amounts to, but after a very intense three seconds, I remembered that I never liked those kinds of math problems.
Some fillings are obviously health-conscious, like grilled Red Bird chicken and sustainable cedar-plank salmon with lemon juice, olive oil and dill. These work well as salad toppings — one step up from spa food, but light enough that you can eat them and still feel virtuous. Juicy slices of boneless, skinless chicken breast perked up nicely with miso dressing over a plate of kale, apples, raisins and candied walnuts.
Salmon benefited from the strong flavors in the Honor Society specialty salad, with a laundry list of such goodies as radishes, oil-cured black olives, edamame and peppery greens. Roasted vegetables sounded like a good idea, and maybe they would’ve been as a side dish. As a main course, the long halves of carrots, broccoli, cauliflower and beets rolled off the halves of the roll they were sandwiched between, and even when I managed to get an intact bite, the veggies still tasted like a side, with far too little of the promised edamame hummus and lemon vinaigrette to add flavor.
The dishes that friends and I reached for first, the ones we fought over, involved the more rebellious ingredients, the ones that ignored the directive to be calorie-sparse. Fried chicken is a bestseller for a reason, with chia seeds blended into a thin, crisp shell of seasoned rice flour. This is kids’ chicken for grownups: easy to eat, without bones or skin, like age-appropriate nuggets from responsibly sourced birds.(Honor Society uses the same conscientious sources for produce and meats as Old Major.) If the thought of chia seeds makes you think of birdfeeders, don’t worry: The tiny specks get lost in the batter, and if you didn’t know they were there, you wouldn’t notice them. Braised short ribs are just as good, not to mention appealing in a way that salmon-topped salads can only dream of. Fork-tender and robustly flavored, they have an alluring smokiness from ancho chiles in the braising liquid and the additions of roasted poblanos and romesco sauce, and seem to channel the inner Brunson.
Given Brunson’s early success at Masterpiece Deli, I’d expected to like the sandwiches more. But plates edged them out, partly because the bread wasn’t crusty enough, and partly because plates come with two sides, all of which are seasonally appropriate and highly tempting.
Brussels sprouts are roasted and tossed with maple-lemon vinaigrette. Butternut squash is cubed and tossed with kale, cranberries and pumpkin seeds. Indian-inspired cauliflower explodes with curry. Silky mashed sweet potatoes are laced with butter and cream. (They just wouldn’t be the same with yogurt.) Daily specials included soy-marinated broccoli with pomegranate seeds and farro and coarse-grind polenta lush with more cream.
Still, I couldn’t help but wonder what short ribs and fried chicken are doing at a restaurant that serves carrot lemonade (delicious) and fruit-and-granola-topped, Slushie-like acai bowls (odd, but also delicious)? The answer is simple. “Everybody has cheat days, too,” Brunson explains. That’s why the menu was designed to be “80 percent healthy and 20 percent indulgent.” In charge of bringing that indulgence to your table is executive chef Craig Dixon, formerly of the BSide and Cafe Options.
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Having overcome the hurdle of how to balance health and flavor, the restaurant’s current challenge is consistency. Sandwiches routinely came with such paltry toppings, it was hard to appreciate the flavor harmony that Brunson envisioned. A seasonal pizza — made with the same flax-laden dough as the house-baked rolls — needed more than lip service to apples, parsnips and Brussels sprouts if it was going to taste like anything more than Gorgonzola and bacon. The kale base could’ve used a few more handfuls of raisins and candied nuts for the heap of greens. Staff could use more training, too. Once, I was told that the cashew Caesar dressing didn’t have anchovies, but it does; the error wasn’t a problem for me, but it would’ve been for a vegan.
It was a long way from charcuterie to chia seeds, but Brunson and team pulled it off. And who knows? You might one day see an Honor Society in every mall, airport and neighborhood. “It’s most definitely built to scale,” Brunson says, shrugging off questions about how big that scale might be. For now, however, one will suffice: I’ll have another order of fried chicken and carrot lemonade, please.
Honor Society Handcrafted Eatery
1900 16th Street, Unit 150
Salmon-topped Honor Society salad $14
Seasonal pizza $11.75
Acai bowl $8.75
Carrot lemonade $3.25
Honor Society Handcrafted Eatery is open 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday. Learn more at eatwithhonor.com.