It’s a rare delight when a restaurant under-promises and over-delivers on its food. At Helen Greek Food and Wine, 2429 Rice Blvd, Houston, TX (832) 831-7133, what arrives on the plate often surpasses the modest menu description. In a sense, Helen has been 34 years in the making. Non-Hellene 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.
Turner has worked as a sommelier in several well-regarded restaurants across the city of Houston for years, but it’s been a saga of ups and downs. 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 co-mmercial real estate market. The second was getting the restaurant funded. Turner ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise capital, but he 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 restau-rant (which re-emerged as Table on Post Oak after Sch-mit’s departure), general manager at Radio Milano and the opening restaurant general manager at Prohibition Su-pperclub & 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 cui-sine. Turner became impressed with Wright’s work there during his own brief stint at Table as a general ma-nager 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 served in most other Greek restaurants in Houston. 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 whe-n 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 Gre-ek 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.
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.)