Intelligent Design 

How a corner cafe adapts with the times.

From the pressed-tin ceiling and half-dollar-sized floor tiles to the wooden bar and booths, Helen's decor whispers "Come as you are, sit and rest a spell," as sweetly today as it did in the '30s. What's new and different is the menu. Its latest changes include a downward tilt in prices. And a younger crowd seems to have noticed.

Entrees run from $14 to $25, a small price to pay for a comfortable seat on the cutting edge.

Remember when sesame-encrusted tuna was innovative? Helen's was the genesis of that trend. Today you can order the dish at half a dozen restaurants on Main Street alone — everywhere, it seems, except at Helen's, where new chef Nora Hickey, formerly of The Kitchen Table, is busy creating the next big thing. Of course, aside from genetic engineering, no one is creating "new" foods — only foods that are new to our culture, new flavor pairings and resurrected tastes. Hickey's winter menu dabbles in all three.

Imagine whole snapper stuffed with herbs and lemon, crusted with cracked black pepper, grilled until the skin crisps and anointed with chipotle butter. Delectable. When the waiter encouraged me to turn the snapper over and dig into the other side, I replied with satisfaction, "Been there and back again — just looking for the little bits I may have missed."

Hickey is a young chef, but she's mastered that too-often-elusive lesson: It's not OK to plate spectacular meats with neglected side dishes. My snapper was paired with quinoa (pronounced keen-wah). This Peruvian grain is a "perfect food" that blends amino acids and proteins. But that's beside the point. It's tasty.

Helen's appetizers are all over the map, literally. Savor Cuban-inspired avocado empanadas updated with mango salsa and lime sour cream, or dig into traditional Eastern European comfort food — potato and leek latkes enriched with smoked tomatoes.

For diners seeking something heartier, a classic rack of venison is so tender and juicy, it can be pulled off the bone with the fork alone. Served with cranberry apple sauce and garlic mashed potatoes, it makes a perfect winter feast.

Cold nights were made for soup, and Helen's current collection includes traditional offerings that belie their monikers. Light lobster bisque? Lean butternut squash? Believe it. Both are delicate, velvety and full of flavor, thanks to the balance of cream and a perfectly browned roux that is vaguely reminiscent of your grandmother's Old-World butter cookies.

Vegetarian options include seitan "meat loaf," a surprisingly well-executed reincarnation of this American standby.

Some traditional dishes are perfect in their original form. For example, my wife insists that crŠme br–lée should be garnished with raspberries and otherwise left alone. But after a few bites, she was sold on Helen's amaretto-laced adaptation of this classic. For a lighter end to the evening, try a midwinter fresh-from-the-garden miracle: succulent ripe figs and yogurt garnished with an edible orchid.

Though often a trendsetter, Helen's has recently hopped on River City's brunch bandwagon. But brunch Helen's-style includes feta wrapped in phyllo with black olive tapenade, a grilled petite filet atop a Gorgonzola frittata with wild mushroom demiglace, and lemon chiffon pancakes, dishes that range from decent to sinful to sublime, respectively. Helen's also serves tapas into the night, and after most of the dinner eating is done, the place fills with tattooed hipsters smoking cigarettes and drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon.

As Helen's sheds its latest skin, Chef Hickey proves that she has what it takes to keep this institution thriving — an intelligently designed menu that blends old standbys and new discoveries. The result is a gastronomical Eden where old-school regulars and forward-leaning foodies can dine together in harmony. Here's to another 71 years. S

Helen's ($$)
2527 W. Main St.
Dinner: Tuesday-Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m.;
Friday and Saturday, 5:30-11 p.m. (tapas until 1 a.m.)
Brunch: Sunday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

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