I won't go into a long history lesson but much of Vietnam's culture is heavily influenced by its long history with France. Everything from the architecture (French Colonial), to the language (French origin words, i.e., xa lát from salade, pho mát, from fromage) and of course the food (baguettes, coffee, pate). When I heard Café Hélène, touted as Vietnamese cuisine with a French twist, was opening in Midtown, I wondered what exactly that meant. It's such a natural combination so I was excited to see what they would bring.
Café Hélène is on Main at the corner of Rosalie. At first glance it is an odd location but it's a location that should benefit from all of the new residential construction in Midtown, it's proximity to the rail line and the HCC building. The restaurant itself is very modern, a lot of natural light and red tones, high booths and tall communal sized tables. There's even an outdoor covered patio and a small bar serving wine and beer.
On my first visit there, there was only one other table seated in the restaurant for lunch on a Saturday but on my second visit on a weekday, I could see that many of those working in nearby buildings had caught wind of the month old restaurant. Counter service is quick and the service extremely friendly -- from the moment we walked in to the moment we walked out the door there were always warm smiles and thank yous.
The menu consists of all the standard Vietnamese options, banh mi, pho, rice platters and the twist is the addition of a few French items such as a classic Vichyssoise, a Salad Niçoise, and desserts such as a Gran Marnier cake.I opted to stick with the Vietnamese side of things on my first couple of visits.
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I ordered the Cơm Bò Lúc Lắc- Flame Broiled Filet Mignon ($10.95) with fried rice. The meat was tender and the onions and peppers still slightly crunchy. The rice was my favorite part of the dish. It had a homey, no fuss, quality to it, akin to the kind of fried rice my dad would make at home, just eggs, peas and carrots and a lot of garlic. The Cơm Sườn Nướng - Char-Grilled Bone in Pork Chop ($7.55) was also very good, the char and sweet savory glaze on the meat was perfect. I also noticed and appreciated that the fish sauce wasn't for wimps - It had plenty of red chili sauce.
My grilled pork sandwich was the only slight disppointment. The bread wasn't crunchy, a problem that would be easily solved by toasting it longer.The carrots could've been pickled longer as I hardly tasted them and the cucumber was so thin it hardly made an appearance. The meat had the same char and glaze as the porkchop but was a little dry. But the mayonnaise, oh that mayonnaise, I could've eaten spoonfuls of. Like the fried rice, it had a homey quality to it. Full of flavor but still light. It reminded me of my helping my aunt make homemade mayonnaise as a kid. She would have me slowly pour the oil in until it was a perfect consistency. Overall, the sandwich just seemed to be too dry and felt lacking in something I couldn't quite put my finger on. All the ingredients were there but it didn't come together in that perfect, satisfying way.
I think Café Hélène has the foundation to do well. The food is good enough to compete with its neighboring Vietnamese restaurants. It's nice to have so many good options in the area, especially one with such wonderful service, that plays French music in the background. I definitely plan on going back and trying the French "twists".