by Sam Gugino
Chestnut Hill Food writer Sam Gugino travels the area looking for the best BYOBs and suggests the best wines for them.
If you are nostalgic for those thrilling days of Philadelphia’s restaurant renaissance (which means you’re probably north of 60), take a trip to Helm in Kensington. (A new Helm just opened in South Philly.) Just as the Black Banana and Lickety Split pioneered storefront dining in the desolation of South Street 40 years ago, Helm is breaking new ground on a street where razor wire is a major design feature. (However, some 500 housing units are in the works.)
Helm’s decor is somewhere between plain and distressed with hard surfaces that don’t invite serious conversation. The restaurant doesn’t have the mismatched flatware and china of Astral Plane but it does have blackboard menus; this time in Technicolor and large enough to dominate the room. Kudos for our waitress, who made our heads spin by describing in great detail all the dishes listed in less time than it takes to say “Still or sparkling water?” (Speaking of which, the tap water was awful.)
The waitstaff garb is as eclectic as the menu with short shorts and a tank top at one end and at the other a three-piece suit topped with a “Peeky Blinders” haircut. Regardless of their attire, the staff does a good job impersonating the Golden State Warriors with everybody helping each other. So you’re not very far from an assist.
Some of the best bread you’ll ever eat in a restaurant, the nutty and sweet Genzano loaf from High Street on Market, comes with homemade butter delivered at room temperature, so you don’t have to batter your bread with a knife. After that, it’s a mixed bag with an overarching cavil that some dishes can be overwrought.
A mussel appetizer with cauliflower (yes, cauliflower, again) was more like cauliflower with mussels because the shelled bivalves got a bit lost in the mix. However, I liked the combination of flavors, textures and colors (including a pea green oregano aioli), though not as much as the exceptional broth. (Ask for a spoon or more bread. And keep both because you’ll need them for the terrific broth that comes with the cod entree.)
Curried pea ravioli was nicely presented, the pasta tender, but the filling much blander than the description would have you believe. Nor was it saved by the goat cheese infused beurre blanc.
Cod poached in olive oil was as luxurious as it sounds, surrounded by elements that evoke a Mediterranean spirit including a brandade made with sunchokes. And another heavenly broth. However, the lamb done two ways was a puzzle. The loin was perfectly cooked medium rare and looked great but was surprisingly insipid. Somewhat better was an accompanying lamb sausage. Sherry vinegar gave a tang to button mushrooms, which provided a welcome contrast.
The only side dish offered – a spicy and soulful chickpea and sausage concoction suffused with roasted peppers – was satisfying enough to be an entree.
Among the few dessert offerings was a gateau Basque, which had a lovely, tender crust, but needed more sweetening. Chocolate custard, which tasted a lot better than it looked, was sprinkled with a crumble of buckwheat shortbread.
Finally, before I give wine recommendations, Helm provides glasses in a variety of sizes. So, if you’re bringing a monster red that needs room to breath, ask for the jumbo stemware.
Helm, 1303 N. Fifth St., Philadelphia, 215-309-2211, helmphilly.com. Tuesday-Thursday 5 – 10 pm, Friday & Saturday, until 10:30 pm. Reservations and major credit cards accepted. Appetizers, $11-$15, entrees, $20-$24.
Why drink Australian wines with the new American food at Helm? Because they are the most like American wines, primarily those from California, especially the reds. There is more choice among Aussie reds than whites, including Oliverhill Red Silk Shiraz Mclaren Vale 2013 (Code: 49615, $16.99), which was rich but not jammy even though it has 15 percent alcohol. The less potent Woop Woop Shiraz Australia 2014 (Code: 49690, $10.99) opens up with time and is a great value. Also consider Dr Angove Red Blend South Australia 2013 (Code: 72576, $11.99) a ripe mix of Shiraz, Grenache, and Petite Verdot
Among white wines, try Leeuwin Art Series Riesling Australia Estate 2014 (Code: 72580, $17.99) with difficult seafood or vegetables (like the mussels and cauliflower). It initially appears austere but matches up nicely with a variety of dishes. Wirra Wirra Scrubby Rise White Blend Adelaide 2014 (Code: 72657, $13.99), a delicious mix of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Viognier, is also quite versatile.