With its unpretentious atmosphere, friendly service and intelligent menu, Helen's is all about the food. 

Serious Eating

For an upscale restaurant with $24 entrées, Helen's retains much of the feel of the casual little neighborhood eatery that it once was. Helen's falls in the ranks of the now-familiar diner-turned-high-end-bistro genre — the birth of which has been one of the welcome consequences of the recent American culinary revolution. These establishments — and Helen's is an excellent example — are run by creative culinary artists who recognize that serious food needn't be paired with formality and pretense.

On the evening we visited, Helen's offered five starters from $7 to $13, and eight main courses from $15 for the smoked duck cannelloni with baby carrots, red Swiss chard and a lemon marjoram sauce, to $24 for the curious sounding salmon-stuffed beef tenderloin with potato gruyere cakes, wilted spinach and dill sauce.

We started on the light side. Tuna carpaccio ($8) was no more than a couple of ounces of fresh tuna seared ever so briefly, sliced thinly and neatly fanned out in the center of an oversized black plate nouvelle cuisine style. A roasted garlic aioli set off the irresistibly radiant red flesh both in color and flavor, producing a refined dish in the familiar family of tuna and mayonnaise pairings. Helen's kitchen has little use for gratuitous garnishes, so the mound of dressed basil leaves that elegantly crowned the tuna served a greater purpose than visual enhancement, though it was undeniably pleasing to the eye.

A second starter was less involved and also less good. White asparagus over baby green oakleaf lettuce with persimmon vinaigrette ($7) was a pleasant and simple salad with a nice tart vinaigrette and sprinkle of perfectly toasted pine nuts. But the white asparagus, the star of the dish, suffered from woody stalks which is an avoidable condition. The kitchen could have peeled the coarse exterior layer from their bases — a traditional and unpleasant task best assigned to the newest apprentice in the kitchen.

The intriguing thing about this style of menu is that each main dish is, or at least aspires to be, an intelligent composition of mini dishes that complement each other in terms of taste, color and texture to form a single artistic plate.

Rack of lamb ($23) did just that. The rib chops were roasted medium rare, crusted with an herbed chevre, presented on a mound of braised cabbage with crunchy golden potato shreds and sauced with a sweet red wine currant reduction. The kitchen placed a fanciful nest of julienned apple atop the teepee of lamb bones and used a simple herb garnish that the sous chef later identified as mutant lavender blossom he had personally snipped from the restaurant's herb garden. The lamb was flavorful but not gamy, nicely trimmed, perfectly cooked and very tender.

If the lamb bordered on the traditional, the flounder ($20) struck me as inventive. A good-sized filet of flounder sat atop a "smothered onion sauce," apparently an onion and cream reduction. To add excitement to this mild fish the kitchen threw in a few hand-made ravioli stuffed with spinach — a real treat — and a bright green stalk of steamed "broccolini" — a cross between broccoli and Chinese kale that tastes milder and sweeter than broccoli.

Nor does Helen's drop the ball on its desserts. In an ingenious effort to maximize the caramelized surface area of its crŠme br–lée. Helen's serves this classic dessert in a wide and shallow dish. "Now, why didn't I think of that?" was my first reaction to this well-executed dessert with a twist. Finally, and for obvious reasons, I couldn't resist the whimsically dubbed "flaming fudgsicle." This dessert, clearly the stuff of some chocolate lover's fantasy of indulgence, is a rich square of fudgelike chocolate sauced with crŠme anglaise, splashed with liqueur and set on fire.

I give Helen's high marks on the intelligence and creativity of its dishes — they're well thought out, a pleasure to eat and aesthetically appealing. I also like its warm and unpretentious atmosphere, a tone mimicked by its friendly but professional service. If sampling the work of an educated and serious kitchen is high on your list of priorities, then Helen's certainly ought to be on your list of restaurants to visit.


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