Of Vinyl, Ramps and Stinging Nettle: Helm Reviewed
You knew this was coming. In Philadelphia, where chefs are constantly popping up in one another’s kitchens or dueling each other at Cook, it was only a matter of time before two of them would notice a FOR RENT sign as they carpooled home one night and decide to take the next logical step and move in together.
That’s how Kevin D’Egidio and Michael Griffiths (who used to drive up North 5th Street after their shifts at Stateside and Fork, respectively) ended up in the no-man’s-land where the frayed edge of Northern Liberties meets the scruffy fringe of Fishtown. The storefront might not have worked out for Philly Food Factory (whose menu featured a “cheese steak mac and cheese cheeseburger” —which is not a typo), but maybe it just needed a healthy dose of foraged ramps and stinging nettles to attract a crowd.
That more or less sums up the strategy at Helm, where those early spring treasures gushed from a plump purse of homemade burrata whose classic mozzarella-curd wrapper gave no hint of the garlicky, buttermilk-tanged greens hiding inside. From green chickpeas and urban-farmed asparagus to Japanese knotweed and house-made goat yogurt, D’Egidio and Griffiths couldn’t get a tighter lock on the culinary zeitgeist if they handcuffed Dan Barber to the fridge where they dry-age their poultry.
Yet the living-room vibe of their 34-seat BYO, which opened without fanfare in late March, reminded me of how Philly BYOs felt 10 years ago. The two chefs are cooking all the food, washing dishes on weeknights, and every few minutes turn-ing into food runners for general manager Zach Firestein, whose breezy poise is just the thing to keep precocious cooking safely on this side of pretentiousness.
He’s also an avowed enemy of alcoholic thirst. “We have wine back there, too,” he told my wife and me at the beginning of a meal that ended with an offer of fernet. Another night concluded with a homemade aperitif and Meyer lemon limoncello—and, after we’d lingered a bit longer, a game attempt to coax us into a valedictory round.
Regulars at Helm have begun bringing their own vinyl along with their bottles, fleshing out a house record collection that leans heavily on Dylan and the Band. And against this hospitable backdrop, Griffiths and D’Egidio chart an eclectic course. Their vegetable cooking abounds with nifty tricks. Early May found them poaching ultra-tart green rhubarb in dill simple syrup as part of a wild arugula salad crunched up with potato chips. An exemplary chicken breast—the skin painted with pilsner malt extract—arrived with a quarter of a cabbage that had been roasted whole for 18 hours, partially carame izing it without rendering it into mush.
Dairy crops up often, to varying effects. Tangy goat yogurt touched with honey was a brightly creamy foil for roasted young leeks. A gâteau Basque at dessert struck another fine balance, mixing luxurious Chantilly cream with preserved and fresh grapefruit and a dollop of grapefruit curd for extra refreshment: pitch-perfect in this hot season.
Curds of cheddar weighed a little heavily on svelte tortellini packed with creamed brussels sprouts, though. And another voluptuous entrée, which featured luscious hunks of Arctic char, fingerling potatoes, pearl onions, green chickpeas and freshly grated horseradish in a mightily creamy saffron sauce, was likewise far better suited to sharing than trying to conquer alone.
Yet two wide-ranging dinners only brought one real misfire. Pork and home-made buckwheat noodles in a lapsang souchong-shiitake broth sounded soothing, but the noodles were crumbly rather than pliant. And pairing a soupy tangle of them with a springy pork chop was a bad idea.
Just the same, it’s not too hard to forgive D’Egidio and Griffiths for occasionally reaching beyond their grasp, given that only one entrée eclipsed the $20 mark during my visits. Amid spiking food prices, a well-chosen dinner at Helm can be a steal.
Just make sure it begins with the squid. Poached in vegetable stock and shallot-and-garlic-flavored olive oil, it comes out the color of pale pink dogwood blossoms yet still tastes unmistakably of the sea. In the company of fennel bulb roasted almost to creaminess and a slightly pulpy puree of fennel fronds and spinach, it sang a Northern California tune of lightness and simplicity that—along with that burrata and a few other choices—marks Helm as a promising destination for more than just its lucky neighbors.
2.5 Stars – Good to Excellent