Stepping foot into Helen in the Heights, it felt as though the ghost of recently-booted Arthur Ave still hovered nearby. Even though sister restaurant Helen Greek Food in Rice Village shares many of the same features — exposed brick walls, soaring ceilings and dark furniture — it's easy to see how well the Italian predecessor fit the building's aesthetic.
There’s even a callout to Arthur Ave on the cocktail menu — “Don’t worry folks, this one ain’t going anywhere” reads the menu of the Arthur Ave G&T, an herbaceous, grapefruit-infused version of a gin and tonic. It’s a nice nod to days gone by while looking forward to a hopefully bright and long-lived future — and we embraced the new with a Juicy Karpuzzi. Delicately herby and fruity with a delightful watermelon shrub and cucumber tequila, the concoction is fizzy and refreshing: the perfect drink with which to welcome summer.
The re-branding of the new Helen took only a few quick weeks after all, with the doors reopening in mid-April. Of course, you'd never find ouzo-drenched halloumi cheese fried and set ablaze tableside at Arthur Ave, all booze-oozing charm. Neither would you find feta-brined roast chicken, shrimp saganaki, and a variety of souvlaki and gyros that make up Helen in the Heights' more casual menu. A wider variety of dishes at lower price points is meant to emulate a Greek taverna rather than the more upscale dining of the sister restaurant.
During a visit for some happy hour bites on an early Friday evening, we stuck to a variety of the smaller plates in keeping with the slightly more casual vibe.
Our friendly server raved so enthusiastically about the gulf calamari that we couldn’t help but order it. It quickly arrived at our table, but we got so caught up in discussing other menu items that by the time we finally dug into the calamari, it was lukewarm and missing the spunk of a freshly fried dish. Generous squeezes of the gorgeous charred lemon just seemed to sink into the greasy chickpea flour-based batter without adding any significant acidity, though a little ramekin of creamy, dill-flecked dipping sauce was a bright and fresh accompaniment. The same batter reportedly adorns the highly regarded zucchini chips, though we were too fried out to order them post-calamari.
Though slightly compressed, Helen in the Heights still offers an impressive selection of its all-Greek wine menu, and there's a bonus: Everything listed is offered by the glass or by the bottle. Mixed drinks are presented as "food-pairing cocktails," and since the Juicy Karpuzzi we ordered was suggested to be paired with the dolmades — stuffed grape leaves — or cos salad, we asked about the dolmades. However, our server politely steered us away from them (the restaurant isn't able to purchase fresh grape leaves economically, and the swiss chard version just isn't the same, she said).
Next came the cheese saganaki, which our server informed us was not only delicious but came with the added bonus of a dramatic presentation. Saganaki refers to the small frying pan in which any number of Greek appetizers can be prepared. Luckily for us, the most commonly known variety in the U.S. is cheese saganaki, a bronzed slab of cheese that may or may not arrive lit on fire (even though Greeks generally opt for a simple pan searing and serving, sans serving with fire).
My previous experience with saganaki had been limited to bites from a gorgeously caramelized, briny chunk of fried halloumi served on a platter at a Greek friend’s house. At Helen, however, we got to experience the flaming variety.
“Was it on fire when you got it?” our server asked upon returning to our table to find the small cast-iron skillet filled with three bronzed medallions of halloumi. When we admitted that it was not, she took it back.
“I like lighting things on fire,” she assured us. She returned with a small bottle of ouzo, an anise aperitif, and a lighter. One generous douse of ouzo and a few clicks of the lighter later, a small flame erupted — a breed of flame that may cause your neighbors to look over, but thankfully not the type that will make you fear for your eyebrows.
Once the flame died out, we forked the halloumi onto our plates along with a few of the (many) triangles of pita stuffed into an accompanying dish. Beautifully fried, the halloumi had an excellent texture but the overriding flavor was the sweet anise-spiked notes of the ouzo, fighting with the brine and slight ooze of the cheese (perhaps thanks to the redo of the fire-lighting). The pita had char marks that indicated it had perhaps been freshly grilled, but the overall quality was unexciting.
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The greens-and-cheese pie is Helen’s version of spanakopita and a dish that is served at both locations. For $12, the small pie that arrives seems a scant portion, but the filling is incredibly rich. Three cheeses (feta, kasseri and kefalograviera) unite to create an ultra-creamy mixture that weaves through a generous amount of wilted greens encased in a flaky phyllo crust.
We were full after just three small plates, though we kept eyeing the servers bringing mason jar after mason jar of the dip trio (diner's choice of eggplant, tarama, tipiti, chickpea, tzatziki, skordalia and olive) and several plates of gyro with golden mounds of triple-fried fries. Service slowed slightly over the course of our meal as more groups continued to filter through the door, leaving the restaurant bustling by the time we left.
While our admittedly cheese-heavy sampling of the meze offerings didn't leave me dying to return to Helen immediately, the overall package and apparent popularity garnered thus far leave me with high hopes for Helen and the future of Greek food in Houston. Is the service and atmosphere worthy of a date night or gathering of friends? Yep. Will wine lovers enjoy navigating the adventurous all-Greek wine menu (and, for that matter, the fun cocktail list)? Definitely. Will I be returning to sample a disproportionate amount of the dessert menu (custard-filled phyllo bougatsa and bourbon baklava soft serve, I'm looking at you) next time? Absolutely.