There has been plenty of chatter, lately, that Philadelphia's unique love and talent for BYOBs is starting to wane.
And there's no doubt some of our best - Bibou, Laurel, Talula's Table, Lolita, the Farm & Fisherman, Noord, and Kanella, to name a few - could go only so long in their successful life cycle before they needed to grow by adding a sibling restaurant, a tasting menu, a liquor license, or some combination of them all.
But just when you think the craft-beer pub or wood-fired pizzeria has become the new neighborhood restaurant concept of choice, along comes an unexpected delight like Helm.
It may be tucked between a vacant, weed-grown lot and a rusted-out former factory on the southern fringe of Kensington, but with every gorgeous plate of house-pulled burrata stuffed with charred ramps and mustard greens, every coffee-crusted leg of lamb dressed with urban-farmed turnips, and every giant monkfish tail for two emerging from the kitchen into this pleasant, airy little dining room, we are reminded of a beautiful Philadelphia truth.
Helm proves once again that genuine talent can overcome a lack of big-money backing to find an audience here, unlike other East Coast cities, where rents and liquor licenses boost the point of entry. When the chefs behind the stove are cooking with the fluid seasonality and contemporary ease of co-chefs and owners Kevin D'Egidio and Mike Griffiths, the 34-seat horsepower of a simple BYO - and a willingness to be a neighborhood pioneer - is all that's needed to focus on the food and shine.
And here's the evidence: $10,000.
That's the grand sum D'Egidio and Griffiths had in savings between them when the two decided to dive into this project, after years of honing their skills in top kitchens such as Fork, Lacroix at the Rittenhouse, Stateside, Will BYOB, Rittenhouse Tavern, and Tangerine.
"It was not a sensible idea," concedes D'Egidio.
But they also had plenty of help. Friends and family chipped in to paint, revamp the electricity, spruce up the bathroom, and rehab an overall "mess" of a space where, years ago, I'd once gone for Puerto Rican mofongo, and that afterward became a short-lived burger shop. An old boss, Jason Cichonski, sold them a used range cheap. They bought 32 vintage chairs on Craigslist for $100. They sanded and refinished hand-me-down mahogany tables.
With a small loan from a family friend for early operating expenses, the two hung their blackboard menus, loaded the dining room bookshelves with prized culinary tomes, began spinning the old-school record player (big on Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles), and then opened their doors in March to what seemed like instant success.
And the still rough-around-the-edges South Kensington address - likely Philly's next "it" 'hood and an easy draw for Fishtown's nearby hipsters - has not deterred the well-heeled BYO crowd from Center City that, D'Egidio says, brings someone new each night with "apparently the greatest wine collection on the East Coast."
I can understand why. The enthusiastic young front-house staff has the casual grace to serve those wines with eager curiosity and care.
But most important, Griffiths and D'Egidio have an instinct for wine-friendly dishes that have both classic appeal and clever modern accents that showcase hyper-seasonal ingredients plucked from urban farms just blocks away - La Finquita, Greensgrow, Urban Roots - as well as Lancaster and New Jersey. Eating here is the closest you'll get to tasting the new North Philly terroir.
First-of-the-season snap peas, favas, and mountain mint tumbled over a wedge of Valley Shepherd goat cheese. Just-picked yarrow, charred ramps, and long hot peppers supercharged the creamy buttermilk tang of a house burrata with a sneaky green herbal heat. Hakurei turnips still attached to their greens appear to have been barely kissed by the hot plancha on their way from La Finquita's field to our table, bending over superbly tender medallions of pink lamb edged in a pastrami spice roasty with coffee from ReAnimator at Master and American Streets.
And just when I think I'm over charred Brussels sprouts, they get minced into earthy fillings for tortellini streaked with the smoky ash oil of spring garlic tops, oozy crumbles of cheddar cheese curds, and the crunch of bread crumbs from La Colombe's nearby bakery. In a seasonal blink of two weeks, those tortellini were filled with sweet English peas.
Helm's kitchen wasn't flawless. A charred leek dish was fibrous and chewy. The malt-glazed chicken was outshone by its cabbage garnish, a thick wedge roasted for 18 hours to a startlingly melty, smoky brown.
But those complaints were minor in light of the major successes. A sublimely tender sous-vide-cooked skirt steak was lit by the spicy swagger of a charred jalapeño romesco. Jersey asparagus became a plancha-charred raft for a spoonful of soulful boar ragu crowned with a sunny raw yolk.
The seafood was especially well-cooked, including an oil-poached squid sliced into pink noodle-like ribbons over green puree of fennel fronds and crispy garlic chips. An even lighter poach preserved the delicacy of arctic char against the pop of green chickpeas in a light saffron cream lifted with fresh-shaved horseradish. A fermented red pepper Basquaise brings out the sweet-and-briny funk of a pan-crisped softshell crab.
The tour-de-fish-force, though, was a two-pound roasted whole monkish tail for two, sliced into a pair of thick loins of luxuriously tender white meat, with the deboned spine glazed in a Chardonnay caramel served on the side for nibbling. But once again, beautiful vegetables rooted the dish in place, this time the earthiness of sweet baby carrots turned three ways: the green tops chopped and frilly over a buttery orange sauce of reduced juice that had been broken with lemon to resemble roe, with a side of roasted whole baby carrots fragrant with cinnamon sticks.
The garden approach infuses the inevitably cheffy desserts, too. The sweet-tart ping of first-wave strawberries came below a marshmallowy pouf of elderflower meringue with a flute of honeysuckle-wild rose soda poured tableside (cute, but flat our night). The silky milk chocolate custard gets a savory kick from warm arbol chilies, earthy buckwheat sablé crumble, and a crunchy topping of fried sunchoke chips.
But for those who want a dessert for dessert, the warm gâteau Basque topped with beet-pink rhubarb sauce and a scoop of Chantilly flecked with foraged spice bush should definitely do the trick. It's one of the few dishes that should anchor this ever-changing blackboard menu for a while, though I suspect the hue of that sauce will also shift with the seasons.
Helm will continue to evolve, too, no doubt on an upward trajectory. But for now, it's all the better - and so is Philly - for the opportunity provided by its humble yet sophisticated BYOB roots.
Next week, Craig LaBan explores Jersey Shore eats from Atlantic City north to Long Beach Island.