First Taste: Helen’s—Veteran Caterer Offers Home-Style Fare
Rockville restaurant provides sincere service and hearty entrées
Cheese-filled wontons with a dollop of Helen's guacamole. All photos by Laura Hayes
Steve Tyrell croons “Give Me the Simple Life” in Helen’s on a dreary Tuesday. I can’t help but tap my toes and nod because eating in Helen Wasserman’s dining room is a return to a time when hearty appetizers preceded meat-and-two entrées—before small plates became popular—and servers introduced themselves earnestly with Powerball-winning smiles.
Sincere is the best way to describe the Rockville Pike restaurant that replaces Addie’s after a trying, two-year construction process that could have squashed anyone’s spirit. But not Wasserman’s, because she’s faced many make-it-work moments while running her catering business for 35 years and counting. “A cake could topple over on the way to a job,” she says. “Somehow you work through it.”
Now with an elephant gray exterior instead of curry yellow, Helen’s opened April 19 with an intimate dining room, ample al fresco seating, and a menu that flaunts flashes of Asia, the Mediterranean and Latin America.
Sirloin beef sliders with Cheddar cheese wrapped in flaky puff pastry
It’s hard to argue with a meal that begins with something that oozes, so I start with golden brown wontons. They release jalapeño-spiked cheese when pierced and come with Helen’s signature guacamole that should make Bethesda’s Gringos & Mariachis nervous. Sirloin sliders disguised as mini beef Wellingtons in puff pastry also ooze cheese, but they sit like hockey pucks once eaten, making for a too heavy start especially if fries or mac and cheese co-star.
Both beginnings feel like bar food—an odd juxtaposition with my cloth napkin, crisp sauvignon blanc and smooth jazz soundtrack. The entrées are more of a match. Take grilled lamb chops with pickled eggplant and herbed yogurt for example, or a Maryland jumbo lump crab cake with shrimp sauce, farro and green beans. The crab cake satisfies with faultless seasoning and an obvious lack of fillers.
Helen's Ultimate Ratatouille with farro and a touch of honey
Wendy Dubit, the first editor of the magazine Wine Enthusiast, curates a small wine list that hits the major varietals at price points that tempt tables to start uncorking bottles. Save for one sparkling selection, none surpass $40 and nearly all are available by the glass. Usual-suspect beers that need no introduction are available for $5 or less, and staff will whip up classic cocktails for $12 while their signature drinks are in development.
It’s no shock that I’m the lone diner for the majority of my meal because Helen’s was in soft-open mode, and Facebook currently serves as its sole web presence. Weekends tell a different story. “We were full because of reservations, but walk-ins still came and we had to turn people away,” relays my server who has worked with Wasserman for three decades. He’s speedy enough to make Helen’s a reliable dining destination before heading to a show at the nearby Music Center at Strathmore.
While the 28-seat dining room is charming enough, wait for a day that isn’t soggy to score a table on the wrap-around porch shaded by a tree. It’s more attractive than the other outside area—a tented front porch that resembles a setting for a foul-weather wedding.
Go, wait or skip
Go. Helen’s is the kind of place you’re drawn to pull for, and it has the plates to back it up. The food is more home-style than a five-star molecular gastronomy experience, but who doesn’t need a break from the show sometimes?
Helen’s is open for dinner from 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Saturdays; and 11:30 to 8 p.m. Sundays. Brunch available until 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Closed Mondays.
11120 Rockville Pike, Rockville; 240-403-7007; www.facebook.com/helensthebar