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Fill up on healthy greens at Hungry Leaf

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There was a time when a "nice" dinner out, particularly in the South, was marked by the presence of the salad bar. If there wasn't a buffet-like table featuring limp lettuce, mealy tomatoes, desiccated cucumbers and carrots and stale croutons, then it wasn't much more than fast food.

And let's not forget the buckets of French, ranch, blue cheese and Italian dressings. Close by there would surely be a bin of institutional-grade chocolate pudding. In case you wanted pudding on your salad.

Enter Hungry Leaf.

In the former home of Chopped Greens, a similar salad-centric eatery near Duke University Hospital and West Campus, Hungry Leaf has been selling salads, soups and wraps containing ingredients that just a few years ago would have seemed even more absurd than the chocolate pudding.

Kamut, quinoa, edamame—all are, or are at least on their way—to becoming a part of our food vernacular. They are just a few of the 50-plus ingredients you can add to your salad should you choose to build-your-own, though there are a number of pre-combined menu items to choose from as well. The Panda Pear ($7.30)—spinach, shaved pear, red onion, blue cheese, dried cranberries, walnuts and sesame seeds—pairs well with the toasted sesame vinaigrette. Add chicken for $1.80 more.

Collins and Goodwin have been in cahoots since finishing their MBAs at UNC. They both hail from the East Coast, and both went to college in the Southeast, Collins at Duke, Goodwin at the University of Virginia. While at the Keenan-Flagler Business School, they realized they not only both shared an entrepreneurial spirit (and a love of marathons), they also felt the Triangle, as hot as the food scene is these days, was lacking in a West Coast-influenced, healthy option for something quick and easy, which they had come to value while living in California, where they originally met.

When they purchased Chopped Greens, they knew there would be a massive overhaul of the restaurant that went well beyond a new moniker. Their most concerted efforts concerned the menu, originally fraught with bulk purchased dressings and less adventurous toppings. They asked Durham restaurateur Matt Kelly, owner/chef of Mateo Bar de Tapas and chef of Vin Rouge, to weigh in on their offerings. Kelly got them in touch with Chef Todd Schiller, who has worked for James Beard-winning restaurants. He is now a research and development chef for Whole Foods Market.

Schiller took Collins and Goodwin, who have no previous professional cooking experience, through a culinary boot camp of sorts, showing them how to build a balanced salad with sweet and savory notes, acidity and richness. Most important, he showed them how to make salad dressings that actually inspire people to want to eat salad. A little dressing goes a long way; it is designed to be intensely flavored.

They roast the garlic, chop the shallots, peel fresh ginger for the miso dressing, add herbs to the balsamic vinaigrette and put actual anchovies in the Caesar. They invested in commercial grade Vitamix blenders, which manage to emulsify the vinaigrettes to the point they appear to perhaps be something from a bottle when in fact they are not. They do take the time, however, to hand-fold the buttermilk, sour cream, garlic and onion for the ranch dressing. Puréed poblanos are added for the ancho rancho version.

And though it might be a cold menu, a lot of cooking goes on behind the scenes. Mushrooms and tofu are marinated then sautéed, grains cooked then cooled. The hormone-free chicken and steak are grilled in advance and kept slightly warm to enhance the flavor. They use a basic seasoning on all proteins to allow for versatility.

"We use recipes which allow our chicken or steak to pair well with all of our salads," Collins said. "Our aim is to enhance the flavor of the proteins to make them even more mouth-watering. Cooking them fresh daily also makes a huge difference."

They will chop your salads, unless you request otherwise. Brace yourself: the dining atmosphere is punctuated by the sound of the stainless steel bowls being pounded by a hand-held chopper.

"Chopping is simply part of the process. We feel it is unique and particularly beneficial to distributing a little of every ingredient in every bite," Goodwin said.

And there is no chocolate pudding in sight, though there are some fudgy chocolate brownies for sale at the register.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Salad days."

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