I had been waiting for this experience. People swoon over Helen's. I had heard its praises sung far and wide since arriving in Richmond. I have to say I was stoked.
It was elbow-to-elbow when we arrived at 8:30 p.m. Some members of the staff were exhibiting signs of nicotine deprivation brought on by nonstop business. It's hell when you want a cig but all the glasses are dirty. We slid up to the bar and had a drink while our table was prepped. The bustle and tipple both began to register, and I saw my friend become aware that the pampering was at hand. A window table and second cocktail later, he was putty. This gave me time to consider the menu.
Helen's offers a restrained take on nouvelle cuisine. This style of cooking is too often an answer to the chef's question, "What are the most obscure ingredients I can trammel up these scallops in?" The resulting food makes you wonder if the chef has forgotten that what he is cooking is going to be eaten instead of viewed.
The first tenet of nouvelle cooking is to avoid unnecessary complication. To its credit Helen's does, while still twisting things up a bit. A great example is the grilled Caesar ($7). A whole heart of romaine is lightly charred on the grill and served uncut with the dressing and such scattered over and around it. I doubted it at first, but the smoky flavor from the grill was just enough to set it apart from a traditional salad, and deconstructing it was actually fun. We also tried the seared foie gras with grilled asparagus and rhubarb-ginger coulis ($12). We were being pampered, after all. This was a slight stumble, though. The tart and spice of the coulis worked well with the pate, but it wasn't seared, rather just heated. Consequently the loose and oily consistency was a constant reminder that we were really eating fatty duck's liver. Minus one pamper point.
The staff allowed us our leisure. While they took turns puffing, we meandered through the New York strip with garlic green beans ($23), seared sea scallops over saffron braised endive with sweet corn and mushrooms ($24) and a superb rosemary grilled rack of lamb ($23). This lamb was drizzled with a Burgundy demi and accompanied by mustard spaetzle (sort of like mustard dumplings) and sherry-glazed vegetables. Creative yet uncomplicated, that's what it's all about, and each entree rode this line effectively. We finished with the Flaming Fudgesicle ($6.50), a slice of chocolate pate served in flaming rum. Had we not been sitting in the front of the room we would have licked the plate. Properly pampered, we waddled out.
My friend and I took in a couple of other places while he was here, but I noticed him gazing longingly at Helen's when we drove past a day or two later. Mission accomplished.
Helen's is a special place. It's the type of restaurant where you go to celebrate something, if only good friendship. At a time when nouvelle cooking is being exaggerated into absurdity, the kitchen at Helen's is exercising a welcome degree of restraint. If you haven't been, I highly recommend you go see what all the fuss is about. S
2527 West Main Street
Tuesday-Saturday 5:30 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.