POUR OVER: Olive oil poached squid at Helm.
This is a review of Helm, but the night did not begin there. It started three miles to the southwest at another restaurant, a very busy newcomer across from a pocket park. Outside, Pilates instructors, junior law associates and salt-and-pepper haired professors huddled together while an unseasonably frosty gale mocked their lightweight sweaters and espadrilles.
I was prepared to wait. But when I reached the front door, ready to have my name jotted on a clipboard then head to the bar, the host blocked my entrance like an offensive tackle. “You can’t go inside,” he explained with the snide indifference of an actor auditioning for the part of Scar in a live-action version of The Lion King. This restaurant seats the bar, and you can’t mill around inside because “the servers need the room.”
I get it. This restaurant is not large, and the policy, while annoying, would be understandable delivered by an employee who had a little more empathy; if I were he, I would go out of my way to be apologetic, or at the very least, pleasant.
Which is how I wound up at Helm, a buddy BYOB radiating warm energy on a scruffy yet hopeful block of North Fifth Street, where derelict garages alternate with renovated trinities with tidy window boxes. A guy in a chambray button-up and copper man-bun (GM Zach Firestein, I’d later learn) ushered us inside. It would be just a couple of minutes for our table, he explained, then uncorked and poured the wine we brought, which we sipped around a wine-barrel host stand furnished with jaunty wildflowers. Overhearing our concern about running out of booze, he motioned to a kegerator in the back of the dining room with the Phillies tap handle: “Worst case, you’re welcome to have some of the High Life in there,” he laughed. “We have wine in the back, too.”
An hour later, we were taking him up on the offer. I felt well cared for, cozy. Or maybe it was just the voluptuous pinot noir Firestein unearthed. He, along with Helm’s chefs/owners Kevin D’Egidio and Michael Griffiths, who hand-deliver food to all the tables, have a genuine, innate understanding of hospitality. “We want people to sit here for three hours, drink and laugh and enjoy the food,” says Griffiths. The casual, dinner-party vibe and smart, de-starched service was easy to enjoy. The food presented some challenges.
Griffiths, 27, and D’Egidio, 31, met as line cooks at Lacroix six years ago. Their collective CV name-checks some impressive restaurants (Ela, Fork, Will) and their style falls in line with the zeitgeist. On the chalkboard menu at Helm, you’ll find alt-grain pasta, sous-vide steak, savory-tinged dessert and spring produce only a few hours out of the dirt. The night I dined, you could add charred ramps to any dish for $2 a ramp supplement! I can’t think of a more hilarious and splendid idea.
But in many ways, these dishes represent a lack of cohesion. Take plating. Some were so self-consciously styled, like a crop of small compressed sweet potatoes whose long, twisted tips created an attractive (but inedible) bramble to shelter lovely shelled mussels poached in Genesse Cream Ale. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the roasted pork loin, buckwheat noodles and mushrooms in smoky lapsang-shiitake broth looked like the physical incarnation of the ’90s band Puddle of Mud. To make it worse, that pork had the pearly sheen of a raw scallop inside too rare to safely eat.
How do I make sense of the worst piece of pork I’ve ever been served on the same table as the best squid I’ve ever been served, poached in olive oil and vegetable stock until it had the soft snap of licorice? The highs and lows were jarring.
Sometimes, they occurred on the same dish. That fantastic calamari ran along the rim of a round plate till meeting a beautifully caramelized bulb of fennel, but the tableside pour of clumpy, green preserved-lemon and fennel sauce looked like it had never seen the inside of a chinois. Other dishes needed only a quick edit: A fan of snappy, first-of-the-season asparagus was perfect with its egg yolk, aged cheese and bread crumb comrades; the pebbly wild boar ragu was neither very good nor very necessary.
D’Egidio and Griffiths did turn out some show stoppers, though. The skirt steak looked like it had been sliced with a butter knife, but I was obsessed with the flavor and texture of the beef (cooked sous-vide 18 hours), the prickly burn of jalapeño-poblano romesco beneath and the plate’s potato component, a terrine of shaved Kennebec potato and ramp leaves that was pressed, baked and shattered like a napoleon of potato chips. Inside the golden tortellini, another wonderful entrée, I found creamy puree of Brussels sprouts with glimmers of garlic and lemon. On top, raw Brussels leaves, spring onion, cheddar cheese curds and burnt onion oil. The dish had a real Eli Kulp-ness about it; Griffiths was most recently his sous chef at Fork.
The buckwheat crumble and nutty sunchoke chip components of a velvety milk-chocolate mousse also conjured the High Street Hospitality Group, but Griffiths and D’Egidio’s sweet-savory balance feels more carefully tuned. Forms of grapefruit (zest, preserves, curd) gave their gâteau Basque real personality. Without the vivacious citrus, the thick-crusted, tonka bean Chantilly-topped tart might have felt too heavy.
Soon, grapefruit will fade, and rhubarb will take its place. Peas will pop up on Helm’s menu as ramps retreat for another year. Favas, strawberries, eventually peaches and plums. Griffiths and D’Egidio have their collective pulse on the growing season, but their honest, tangible hospitality is what I’ll remember most. That makes Helm that rare find: a restaurant with uneven food that I’m really looking forward to visiting again.
HELM // 1303 N. Fifth St., 215-309-2211, helmphilly.com // Tue.-Thu., 5-10 p.m; Fri.-Sat., 5-10:30 p.m.