Black flags are flying off the bows of Helm Rittenhouse, snapping in the fall breeze from the restaurant's second-story corner perch, where it surveys the bustling intersection at 19th and Chestnut. And though they're admittedly subtle, they nonetheless draw the gaze upward.
What is that roasty come-hither aroma coming from its open windows? The fresh-baked scent of warm mini Parker House rolls and a heady gratin of cauliflower with Époisses cheese? That's more than enough for me to sidestep the cheerful hay bales and pumpkins in the foyer to climb those stairs.
One could easily be blinded by the grow-light glare of a Snap Kitchen store on the building's ground floor, or by the beer neon windows promising a cheap buzz at the Drinker's Pub next door. And I can only wonder whether a lack of visibility and obvious signage there helped contribute, along with several other issues, to the sad foundering last year of once-promising Aldine in that same space. Second-floor restaurants are a tough sell in Philadelphia, no matter how talented the chef.
The chef duo behind new Helm Rittenhouse — Kevin D'Egidio and Mike Griffiths — certainly bring a solid pedigree to their latest venture, having cultivated a devoted clientele for their spontaneous farm-market-driven cooking at their original Helm, the BYOB hit in Kensington, and a South Philly branch in Pennsport that closed to make way for this more ambitious venture with a liquor license uptown. Their food has always been worth the special trip. Hoisting the banners to announce their arrival in a new neighborhood can only help.
And so, too, do the hunger-stirring aromas that come from the open kitchen at the rear of this airy space of wood tables and city view windows where D'Egidio, tag-teaming with Griffiths for two-week shifts at each location, turned out an ever-evolving a roster of small plates during my visits that were inspired by local fall bounty, foraged mushrooms, and a cheffy sense of indulgence that often ranges into the unexpected. There isn't just stinky Époisses in that cauliflower dip, but also raclette to give it the proper ooze as you dip a fluffy, salt-crusted nub of warm-baked roll into its molten heart. Another dish seemed somewhat unlikely for its pairing of sweet potatoes and chicken rillettes, but it worked because the charred hot crunch of Okinawan potatoes offered the perfect contrast of texture and temperature to the creamy mince of potted chicken and the subtly layered spice of espelette chili oil and pickled Anaheims.
This address, with its 70 seats and liquor license, is no doubt a big step up for the Helm duo, who've helped pioneer emerging neighborhoods to the north and south with tiny BYOBs but always wondered whether they had it in them to swim in Rittenhouse's upscale waters, where they once worked together at Lacroix. They've still got work to do to refine the bare-bones drink program of produce-infused cocktails (corn cob-ade, pear mules), indie Euro wines, and craft beers, though a new director for that end is on the way. (Meanwhile, don't miss the excellent dry local "modern" ciders from Dressler Estate, including a still version that tastes like delicate wine).
They've done some light construction to partition off the bar area a bit more distinctly. But D'Egidio and Griffiths haven't done much in terms of design to compete with the neighborhood's flashier rooms. They've more or less taken over Aldine's space as a turnkey operation and preserved its laid-back vibe as a gastro-hideaway from the hubbub.
What Helm lacks in designer flash it more than makes up for with the welcome sense of value it brings to a neighborhood already saturated with upscale options. Helm's menu of small plates never tops $16; most are less, and three make a meal. And it never skimps on big flavors or creative ambition. A snappy link of house-made duck leg sausage rich with foie gras is an all-bistro move over a mound of green lentils but with the woodsy surprise of smoked artichoke hearts. Blue cheese is whipped into an airy custard for a novel lighter take on a classic pairing with sweet fall figs and prosciutto, served both as silky slices and crisped into chips. The chef's ultimate test — a tiny à la minute omelet — arrives in its own darling little pan, a perfect half-moon fluff tinged orange with the spicy funk of house-fermented hot sauce. Even better, it's set beside a Parmesan-creamed pile of shredded chicken of the woods mushrooms foraged by chef de cuisine Jon Adair.
This crew loves to hunt for their own ingredients at half a dozen spots across the Mid-Atlantic. So our server can be forgiven for getting a little carried away by that DIY spirit when he described the lima beans as "locally foraged," too. (Does that mean D'Egidio plundered his neighbor's garden, I wondered, since limas don't grow wild?) The black trumpets with that dish, however, definitely were foraged, but they must not have been prime, because they were lost in the puree of ricotta stuffing of a flank steak braciole in spicy marinara. Even more disappointing was a slow-braised dish that sounded in concept like it should be a fork-tender home run, but that instead was unpleasantly chewy.
I love the spontaneous "cook what we love" ethos of the Helm universe in general. And the spirit of chef collaboration there reminds me in a way of a slightly less refined Hungry Pigeon. The sheer volume of dishes and steady pace of menu change, though, means some dishes aren't always as polished as they could be.
A chicken-fried pork belly was, even in theory, a redundancy of over-the-topness, a fatty cut that hardly needs the distraction of a deep-fried crust. But the meat inside wasn't particularly tender, either. Some gnudi dumplings made with local polenta clashed against a spicy crab sauce that was a hint fishy. A beet terrine over polenta made for a stunningly pretty stripe of crimson over corn porridge. But the feta cheese filling layered between the beet sheets was jarringly salty.
For those handfuls of disappointment, though, there were multiple successes. And, in general, they're conjured up more for the pursuit of come-hither comfort than any high-concept tweezered preciousness. D'Egidio's plating style can most accurately be described as "piles of stuff marked with scattered crunchies." But when it works, which it usually does, it's hard to stop digging.
Beneath the vibrant green streams of tarragon-fennel sauce that flow between three beautiful scallops (at $16, a real deal!), there are cuminy nuggets of chorizo sausage and a charred wedge of roasted fennel. The bowl of "cassoulet" was unlike any version of the dish I'd ever encountered, a somewhat mushy mix of black-eyed peas blended in with silken shreds of braised veal and … Asian pears? But the sweet-tart pop of fruit on top lent the dish a beam of fresh-fall clarity.
Some dishes need little explaining, like the addictive tempura-fried leeks drizzled in house goat yogurt, a grown-up onion ring hit they've (thankfully) brought along from their now-closed Pennsport location; and the latkes made from sunchokes with sunflower seed puree, poblano peppers, and cultured cream that are essentially potato pancakes with a CSA swagger.
The Helm crew has an endearing soft spot for elevating peasant staples like cabbage, which they slow-roast whole for 18 hours until the exterior turns black and smoky while the center becomes irresistibly soft and sweet. Serving a wedge of it beneath a mince of cherrystone clams and rendered bits of crispy pepperoni took the whole thing to another, unexpected level of savor.
Likewise, few cooks can interpret fall roots with as much gusto as D'Egidio, who turned out one of the best homages to celery root I've ever eaten, layering noodle-fine shavings of the confit-cooked root over a deeply caramelized celery root Parmesan cream scattered with the briny pop of fried capers and brown butter. A multidimensional approach to chestnuts was used for the corzetti pasta coins made of chestnut flour, which would have been phenomenal if their sauce of chestnut ragout with chunks of squash had not become overly thick and pasty. The heady perfume of raw matsutake mushrooms shaved over top, though, was worth the $14.
A love of mushrooms helped elevate the tilefish, too, the earthy snap of foraged maitakes echoing the pan-seared crunch of the fish's crispy skin over a medley of green favas and chickpeas in a puddle of basil brown butter. Local chanterelles, paired with the sweet burst of blueberries and the hot pique of serrano chilies, gave one final salute to the late-season flavors of summer in a dish of agnolotti filled with sweet corn pudding. A fresh tortellini filled with milky house-pulled burrata was another pasta winner, tumbled into the gamy richness of a ground lamb ragù — but some unexpectedly chewy coins of undercooked eggplant seemed like a totally unnecessary false note.
The desserts are simple but fresh and homey. The apple pie was pure fall warmth, and was garnished with peanut butter caramel and fresh birch root ice cream flecked with chocolate chips that could be a feature in itself. A tart lemon bar was sandwiched between a gluten-free crust of chocolate crumble, toasted coconut, and a sweet layer of fresh Concord grape jam. Helm's signature dessert, a gâteau Basque, was served with goat's milk pastry cream and pecans toasted in blackstrap molasses.
With the black flags of Helm Rittenhouse fluttering just outside the windows behind me, and the street life of Chestnut Street streaming just below, I took another forkful of gâteau and thought: If this restaurant can't lure a crowd of hungry souls up to the second floor with its affordable, scratch-cooked seasonal plates, I'm not sure what can.
1901 Chestnut St., 215-982-1671; helmrittenhouse.com
The chef duo behind Kensington's Helm has opened a branch near Rittenhouse Square, taking over Aldine's second-floor perch and, with few renovations, transforming it into a casual destination for interesting small plates, $16 or less, driven by seasonal produce and cheffy inspirations. Caulilfower-Époisses gratin with mini Parker House rolls? Sunchoke latkes? House duck sausage? Yes, yes, yes. Except when the spontaneous menu produces odd combos and concepts that need more refining. Consistency here is not yet as solid as the original BYOB, and the group's first liquor license is also a work in progress. There is nonetheless a spirit of affordable ambition here that is a plus for a neighborhood better known for high-end dining.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Okinawa sweet potato and chicken rillettes; blue cheese custard with figs and prosciutto; celery root with brown butter; fried leeks with goat yogurt; cauliflower- Époisses gratin; duck sausage with smoked artichokes; tile fish; sunchoke latkes; scallops with chorizo and fennel sauce; corn agnolotti; burrata tortellini with lamb ragu; gâteau Basque; lemon bar.
DRINKS There's a small list of affordable independent wines with a Euro focus; craft beers; and cocktails with a seasonal kitchen influence, including a light but refreshing corn "cobb-ade," ginger-pear mule, and other simple drinks that could use more finesse. That might be coming after an early shuffle in the beverage staff settles, hopefully soon. Meanwhile, don't miss the excellent "modern" ciders from Downingtown's Dressler Estate, both the elegant sparkler and the still version which tastes like dry apple wine.
WEEKEND NOISE The long room can hit a lively 83 decibels when full, but tends to be mellow enough for easy conversation. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)