It’s a rare delight when a restaurant under-promises and over-delivers on its food. At Helen Greek Food and Wine, what arrives on the plate often surpasses the modest menu description. Take, for example, the Greens-N-Cheese pie. Instead of being a small, pie-shaped tart, it’s a fluted, browned artwork of delicate phyllo pastry made to form a wreath around the filling. A molten mixture of cheeses — kefalotyri, feta and mizithra — shot through with dark flecks of chopped greens playfully peeks out of the sides.
The grilled feta brined chicken is equally surprising. Even in a half order, there’s an ample pile of wing sections. Helen uses a whole lot of feta, so rather than throwing out the salty brine it comes in, the kitchen cleverly uses it to marinate the chicken. The result is moist, flavorful meat that becomes even more complex when touched with a bit of the accompanying thick lemon sauce. Thin slices of confit fingerling potatoes add delicate, crispy texture to the mix, resulting in a plate full of fun finger food for grownups.
In a sense, Helen has been 34 years in the making. Proprietor Evan Turner fell in love with the culture and cuisine of Greece at age 11 when his father’s teaching job led them to move there. The youngster wasn’t happy about the move, nor was he pleased to be dragged out after a long flight for a welcome dinner with a table full of strangers. At the restaurant, a kind server recognized how unhappy young Turner was and encouraged him to eat a bite of pita with ktipiti, a creamy, spicy dip made of feta, yogurt and peppers. In a single bite, Turner suddenly changed his mind about Greece.
Just as it made him fall in love with a country, the ktipiti can start diners on a path of infatuation with Turner’s restaurant. Cheesy, salty and spicy with Calabrian chiles and sweet with roasted red peppers, it’s like the Greek version of pimento cheese. It’s the best one of the trio of dips, but that’s not to say there’s a loser among them. There’s a smoky roasted eggplant dip (similar to baba ghanoush) and a hummus-like creamy chickpea spread.
Turner has worked as a sommelier in Houston for years, and it’s been a saga of ups and downs. He’s worked in several well-regarded restaurants across the city, but some closed during his tenure, including Branch Water Tavern and Flora & Muse. Opening Helen has involved its own share of trauma. The first hurdle was finding the right kind of space in Houston’s competitive commercial real estate market. The second was getting the restaurant funded. Turner ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise capital, but wasn’t able to draw enough contributions.
In a curious way, the Kickstarter succeeded after all. It drew the attention of Sharif Al-Amin, who has also been a fixture in Houston restaurants, most notably as service director at chef Philippe Schmit’s eponymous restaurant (which re-emerged as Table on Post Oak after Schmit’s departure), general manager at Radio Milano and the opening restaurant general manager at Prohibition Supperclub & Bar. Al-Amin became Turner’s investor and a working partner at Helen.
Rounding out the Helen’s triumvirate of leaders is earnest young chef William Wright, who was most recently at Table as chef de cuisine. Turner became impressed with Wright’s work there during his own brief stint at Table as a general manager and sommelier.
Wright may be on the fast track to acclaim. Under his guidance, the kitchen is sailing out one flavor-packed dish after another. Take, for example, the Gulf shrimp saganaki. It’s hard to say which part is better: the big, firm crustaceans or the spicy pool of capered tomato sauce they rest upon. There are plenty of soft wedges of pita provided to scoop up the sauce, and yet guests may end up calling for more to get every last drop. (Feta lovers are going to adore Helen, because there’s more of that fresh, salty cheese here, too, as well as tiny cubes of a harder cheese called kasseri.)
First-time visitors might gravitate to the Make Your Own Gyro menu item as a familiar option, but should be aware that Helen’s are not exactly like the gyros most other Greek restaurants in Houston serve. Instead of being shaved from big, rotating cones of a homogeneous pork and beef mixture on a spit, the meat here is slices of marinated pork shoulder — an improvement, if you ask us. It’s absolutely at its best when charred a bit on the edges, and comes with soft rounds of pita, gorgeous red tomato wedges and a smooth tzatziki sauce as cool as a cucumber.
There is one area where Helen completely breaks with Greek tradition: desserts. That’s for a very good reason. In Greek cuisine, the same three ingredients are seen over and over again in desserts, with just minor changes in configuration: honey, phyllo and nuts. Breaking with tradition means that Helen also gets to break out the creativity. The Texas pecan baklava sundae ties Helen to its home as well as its country of inspiration, with toasted bits of pecan, honey-saturated layers of baklava and chocolate sauce with a heaping helping of cinnamon on top of house-made vanilla ice cream. It’s served in a classic paper cup known as the Anthora. Anyone who’s ever watched a cop drama set in New York will recognize the blue cup with the Greek key design and the “We are happy to serve you” slogan on the side.
During the upcoming holidays, Helen should set up a table of coffee and desserts for sale out front, because it would be really cool to see all the Rice Village shoppers walking around with these.)
The sundae is a real crowd-pleaser. On the flip side, Helen’s feta mousse with olive oil and thyme shortbread has gorgeous texture but very little sweetness. It’s interesting, but as a more savory dessert it doesn’t satisfy the hankering for a little dulcet note to end a meal. (On the other hand, having a dessert wine alongside, like the St. Barnabas Commandaria Agios Konstantinos, will fill that need, so perhaps that’s the right answer.)
The shotgun space can get quite noisy when full — which it is almost every night. Rice Village has clearly embraced this newcomer. A wooden wine rack installation between the bar area and the main dining room actually helped cut the noise down a great deal, but it can still get loud.
On the other hand, that long, narrow shape means that help is never far from any diner. Service is congenial and enthusiastic, and the staff’s descriptions of Helen’s unique dishes are very helpful. Of course, wine recommendations and samples are easy to obtain, too, as might be expected of a place run by a sommelier.
Speaking of wine: Helen has the second-largest inventory of Greek wine in the United States. For most Houston wine lovers, these represent brand-new adventures. The grapes have unfamiliar (sometimes even unpronounceable) names but very familiar flavors, and can be terrific values. Take, for example, the rounded, slightly fruity Zinfandel-like Fteri Agiorgitiko for $53 a bottle or the $39 2007 Moraitis “Reserve” blend of white Mandalaria and red Monemvasia grapes from Paros. It could easily stand in for a good Gamay or even a Côtes du Rhône.
Evan Turner has been a sommelier. Now he’s also a fledgling restaurant owner as well as a storyteller. Turner has a story for just about every dish and every bottle of wine, and Wright, Al-Amin and the rest of the staff are there to help tell these tales. The timing is right. Houston is ready to listen — and taste the results.
Helen Greek Food and Wine
2429 Rice, 832-831-7133. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays.
Collard green dolmade $3
Squash blossoms $7
Trio of dips $12
Greens-N-Cheese pie $13
Grilled feta brined chicken (half order) $14
Broken pasta $15
Shrimp saganaki $18
Make your own gyro (half order) $20
Texas pecan baklava sundae $7
Feta mousse $8