- Ligaya Figueras The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A dozen Christmas cookies too many. Eggnog plus your cousin’s homemade grog. New Year’s Champagne toasting and a couple of bloodies the morning after, followed by binge-watching college bowl games during which you stuffed yourself silly with wings, buffalo sauce and beer. Go, Dawgs!
So now your oversized sweater is feeling sorta tight after the holidays. Your colon has pretty much forgotten what fiber is. If “new year, new you” is the mantra you wish to adopt, but preparing healthy food yourself is completely out of the question, a couple of fast-casual dining concepts are ready to clean you up.
This fall saw the Atlanta debut of “the next generation salad bar” Salata. Since unlocking doors at Atlantic Station, Salata has opened a location in Sandy Springs, and two more are coming soon to The Hub at downtown Atlanta’s remodeled Peachtree Center and Providence Square in east Cobb. A total of 20 Salata locales are planned in metro Atlanta for the Houston-based concept that counts more than 65 franchises throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Illinois, California and now Georgia.
In comparison to fast-growing Salata, there’s also local, indie, single-unit Wildleaf. A takeout-only spot that opened in the Terminus 100 building in Buckhead last January, Wildleaf is a project by Randy Lewis, the former executive chef at Gypsy Kitchen and the Southern Gentleman in Buckhead Atlanta. A 20-year culinary veteran, Lewis got his start working for celebrated name Norman Van Aken in Coral Gables, Fla., and was named Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine in 2001. Wildleaf strives to be a chef-driven leaf- and grain-lover’s oasis.
Build-your-own salads are the core for menus at both Salata and Wildleaf. Each also offers salads in wrap form. Both also have soups and souped-up beverages. Both strive for speedy service and affordable pricing.
Here’s how they stack up:
Salata is all about clean eating. Even the minimalist space and its zen colors (white, green, mocha — definitely mocha) will put you in a healthful state of mind as you peruse the nutritional guide, complete with calorie counts and allergen information, then step in line to create your salad or salad wrap from more than 50 toppings.
The plenitude of options is one of the upsides to Salata. From five kinds of lettuce or leaf blends to crunchy, notably fresh vegetables holding every color of the rainbow to add-ons bearing brine (olives), sugar (dried and fresh fruit) and protein (legumes, four cheeses, chopped eggs, seeds and nuts), the salad sect can have a heyday mixing, matching and proselytizing on a place that even offers a “topping of the month” (in December, it was persimmon).
You’ll encounter all those choices before you even get started with bulkier proteins, which cost an additional $3 to $4, that range from pesto chicken (good choice) to herb-marinated shrimp (average) to baked tofu (decent) to falafel (no — these dried disks taste like they were made from a commercial box mix).
Salata gives some of its proteins special treatment: Herb-marinated chicken, spicy chipotle chicken and pit-smoked turkey were flavorful, juicy even, and lent personality to my salad creations and wraps (for which there are five different flour tortilla flavors to pick from — the whole wheat was surprisingly good).
At Salata, you are the one in control, but the fact that the customer decides every component isn’t automatically a good thing. Some vegetables really don’t play nice together. Nor do some dressings pair well with certain proteins. I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to create the “perfect” bowl or wrap. I succeeded with a sort of Southwestern spicy chipotle chicken bowl with black beans and an Asian-ish shrimp salad tossed in ginger lime dressing, but it took a lot of mental flavor bank calculations and relying on a dressing to pull it together. Salata’s dressings were flavorful, and not a single one was too oily, too creamy or too sweet.
Honorable mentions go to Salata’s soups and self-service iced tea and lemonade taps. In the former category, the tomato basil and the chipotle white bean soup were both nicely seasoned, filling on a chilly winter day, and consistent at both locations. Broccoli soup was thick and stringy like the saddest celery soup. But those beverage taps! Have fun doing the Southern thing of mixing sweet and non-sweet teas, or turning your concoction into a fancy Arnold Palmer with lemonade flavors like raspberry or peach or the double-fancy prickly pear limeade.
Considering that a basic small salad or salad wrap runs $7 and that a regular salad is priced at $8, it’s no wonder Salata is growing so quickly. The combination of value, freshness of product and speed of service makes it a solid salad destination.
Like Salata, when you walk into Wildleaf, you’ll be met with a counter full of fresh eating options. But here, rather than giving a verbal order, customers fill out an order sheet.
On one side, you can check the boxes to devise your own salad bowl or grain bowl ($7 for a 24-ounce bowl, $9 for a 36-ounce bowl, extra for proteins and premium ingredients such as roasted red peppers or roasted pecans). If you don’t know which cruciferous combinations taste good together or you don’t need this decision in your life, flip the sheet over to find a selection of pre-set ingredient combos, dubbed “creations” ($7-$8 for a 24-ounce bowl, $9-$10 for a 36-ounce bowl).
Unfortunately, few of the house creations I tried were worth it. The Ancient Grains bowl (sorghum seed, wild arugula, avocado, cherry tomatoes, basil) looked bright and happy, but sadly, it was heavy and wanting for flavor. The main culprit was sorghum: wet and lacking any bite (an ailment that many grains suffer at Wildleaf, including farro and red quinoa). In addition, every grain bowl I tried lacked salt and pepper, two components that, while basic, make or break a salad.
One of the problems with some creations may be that they hold too many ingredients, which results in muddled flavors (such as with the Thai Peanut salad and the Santa Fe grain bowl). The most satisfying creation was the Catalan, a minimalist mélange of Tuscan kale with thoughtful toppings of medjool dates, hazelnuts and manchego cheese.
Whereas Salata discloses nutritional facts, allergen info and ingredients used for dressings, proteins, soups and tortillas, Wildleaf puts an emphasis on sourcing. Proteins are free of antibiotics and hormones. Chicken comes from Springer Mountain Farms, ethical farmed salmon is sourced from the Faroe Islands. Bread for Wildleaf’s short list of sandwiches hails from H&F Bread Co.
Among those sandwiches is a superbly kickin’ chicken curry. If only the brioche bun had been slightly toasted, the sandwich would have held up better. Ditto for the roasted salmon sandwich topped with an Asian slaw. It was good, but messy eating.
Wildleaf’s chicken and wild rice soup is a menu staple, and I’ll make it a part of my order every time. It is a solid recipe, with a nice ratio of broth to bulk, good chew on the rice and the quality of the chicken evident. Seasonal soups of butternut squash and black bean were both disappointingly thin and brothy.
On the beverage side, Wildleaf offers a trio of house-made drinks called “juice hydrates.” More like agua fresca than juice, the ingredient combinations sounded refreshing — cucumber-mint, cranberry-orange-ginger and pineapple vanilla — but all tasted hollow. The thick coffee almond cacao smoothie was far more satisfying, straddling between sweet and bitter with the addition of almonds, dates, vanilla bean, banana and coffee grinds.
Wildleaf doesn’t offer seating, but no matter. There’s a shared cafe-like space just a few paces away as well as a covered patio with plenty of tables during warm weather. But from the looks of the line, the majority of patrons are office workers who descend from the Terminus towers, grab food and take it back to their desks. So while Wildleaf came up short at times on the food side, for a certain sect of Buckhead, convenience might outweigh all else.