As I drove beside the elevated stretch of I-95 that leads to Pennsport's heart, I had stuffed burrata on my brain. And I wondered: Could the Helm effect strike twice?
It can be hard sometimes to know which comes first in Philadelphia: the groundbreaking neighborhood BYOB, or the neighborhood itself.
We have a long history of bold (usually cash-strapped) restaurateurs pioneering some forgotten corner of the city with a chalkboard menu and local heirloom turnips, then watching the rest of the world suddenly agree it's a swell place to go dine, drink, live, and invest.
Consider the Helm effect. A year and a half ago, two unknown young cooks with $10,000 in their pockets took over an empty Kensington storefront surrounded by vacant buildings and weedy lots (plus one bright taqueria, Taco Riendo, which had held the torch solo for years). They brought their blackboard menus and heirloom turnips. They spun vinyl records. The BYOB wine-erati came in droves. And the glowing notices followed, including a three-bell review and a nod for partners Kevin D'Egidio and Mike Griffiths as my co-chefs of the year for 2015.
I recently returned to that original bistro for a fantastic meal of sliced tuna with charred August peaches and a dreamy cauliflower tortellini in pork ragu. And, stunningly, just a year after their initial review, Helm's North Fifth Street building seemed to be at the nexus of an emerging universe. Kensington and nearby Fishtown had become Philly's next "it" neighborhoods for food and drink. Expensive new townhouses are rising from virtually every fallow lot. There's even a dog park in the works across the street - the ultimate gentrification stamp. Helm's rent, of course, had already gone up.
So one could understand why the prospect of a new sibling project in Pennsport called South Helm might stir excitement in the residents of that fast-evolving neighborhood in Mummers-ville, a rising destination for home-buying millennials, restaurant workers, and a last bastion of "still affordable" rents, according to D'Egidio. Established anchors like the Industry and Federal Donuts, plus the Dutch, recently arrived on Fourth Street, have shown the area's potential.
That explains why this duo agreed to take over the lease of a friend's former sandwich shop with 26 seats at Front and Morris. The chalkboard menu went up. Some wooden tables went into the bare-bones room - though no soundproofing, sadly, because, well - it's as noisy as the original. The co-chefs began swapping weekly shifts in the two kitchens, and they simply increased their produce orders to the local farms that fuel their veg-forward inspirations.
What they did not do, however, is simply copycat their menu in two places. This is good. And this is risky.
It's good because as creative young cooks, Griffiths and D'Egidio recognize positive things come from challenging themselves to keep evolving. It's also smart to create distinct identities between two places so they don't compete.
And the spirit that drives the cooking at Kensington's Helm - intensely seasonal with layered textures, bright acidity, and surprising combinations - guides the very best plates at South Helm, too. Their signature stuffed burrata, shifted now from Kensington's menu to be a fixture at South Helm, is as good as ever, a milky dome of fresh-pulled mozzarella stuffed with a creamy core of curds and sour cream, herbs, and spicy long hots, topped with a crunchy salad of charred radishes, corn, cucumbers, and lemony celtuce reminiscent of artichoke hearts.
Gorgeous heirloom tomatoes come sliced open and layered with a surprisingly creamy vegan "cheese" made from sprouted pine nuts, and topped with fermented fennel bits and charred shishito peppers. Sliced chunks of tempura-fried leeks are a brilliant milder riff on fried onions, their centers extra sweet against bitter endives and tart house-made goat's milk yogurt. A harissa-marinated flanked steak, cooked sous-vide for 30 hours to tenderness, is sliced into ribbons so thin they're more like beefy accents to a fresh salad of charred wax beans tossed in pureed green peppers and sherry vinegar enriched with garlic sour cream.
But creating something new when you already have a hit can also be tricky. And despite similarities, the concept at South Helm is different, with a more abridged menu that consists almost entirely of small plates vs. Helm's more traditional appetizer-entree format. There's also a larger dish for sharing – a now-popular format to lend today's small-plate concepts more heft – but only one, a stuffed veal chop, and it hasn't changed since the restaurant opened.
As a result, this menu feels a bit too limited, with dishes priced about the same as the original Helm's starters that come off here as spontaneous, but also less composed and focused, often simply piled high into bowls. There's deceptive complexity in the best, and the flavors are largely still good. But the meal as a whole can feel less cohesive, and some dishes exhibit some flawed ideas.
We loved the charred snap peas in buttermilk-dill dressing. But the fried oysters dropped on top seemed entirely superfluous, not to mention overcooked. Ditto for the shredded wads of smoked whitefish scattered atop thee otherwise awesome roasted carrots from farmer Jack Goldenberg, which came over a green puddle of spring onion sour cream.
The constant use of dairy as an accent (not to mention the bread crumbs scattered over every dish) became a tick that started to feel like a crutch used to harmonize disparate ingredients.
Visually, a broken goat cheese sauce over my first meal's rendition of the flank steak-bean salad was unappealing. Another curious dish - bucatini with soft-shell crab - relied entirely on a cream steeped with ground-up crustacean for flavor. It wasn't vivid enough for me, and more important, it ignored the greatest virtue of a soft-shell crab: the primal thrill of chomping into the beast whole.
Such complaints no doubt reflect high expectations based on the chefs' previous work, but they should also be taken in context. The service here is outgoing and informed. And for the most part, this food is delicious and affordable, with the small plates hovering below $14. So when you get a crispy whole quail stuffed with sausage set over smoked mushrooms and hakurei turnip slaw for $12, it's hard not to smile. Sliced lamb sausage fanned out over roasted eggplant and scarlet turnips (dabbed with silky smoked eggplant puree) tastes like a genuine bargain.
It's more than enough that, if I lived nearby, I'd be back often. But South Helm needs to increase its selection of larger share plates (beyond one) so repeat visits don't risk becoming a bore. For now, the lone choice - a one-pound veal chop stuffed with escarole and Swiss cheese - is a clever reimagination of the South Philly pile-it-on chop, deep fried as a roulade. The potato cake side, a crispy bar of 20 sheer layers, is a marvel of potato engineering. But at $48, the plate is uncharacteristically pricey.
D'Egidio says more affordable options - a chorizo stuffed Poussin and a lima-stuffed whole porgie - are in the works.
And I don't doubt they will be tasty. But the Helm effect is still in progress.
VERY GOOD (2 bells out of 4)
100 Morris St. (at Front St.), Philadelphia; 267-324-5085; helmphilly.com
Chef-partners Kevin D'Egidio and Mike Griffiths bring the same hyper-seasonal chalkboard menu and bare-bones BYOB mojo to Pennsport that helped them set the early tone for Kensington's rising culinary ambitions at the original Helm. Their smaller southern annex shares the local farm inspirations, outgoing service, and a minimalist – though noisy – decor. The vegetable-driven small plates are deceptively layered and nuanced, despite the casual presentation, but with only one large dish for sharing that hasn't changed much since opening (a cheesy stuffed chop), this promising follow-up is still a bit more limited early on than Helm's first act.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Tempura-fried leeks, burrata, green beans and flank steak, tomatoes with pine nut butter, stuffed quail, lamb with eggplant, carrots, Arctic char and squash, gateau Basque, summer berries.
BYOB Consider bringing some bright whites with good acidity and lighter reds, as this menu is rich in dairy accents but features few heavy meats.
WEEKEND NOISE A downside to the no-frills decor and tiny room is a big noise problem of 97 decibels when full that can make talking without screaming a challenge. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Tuesday through Friday, 5-10 p.m.; Saturday, until 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Small plates, $7-$14 (average three per person.)
All major cards.
Not wheelchair accessible. (Two steps at entrance and bathroom is small.)
Street parking only.