The word “passion” gets tossed around a lot by food writers. It’s not enough for chefs to merely care about a cuisine, they must be passionate about it. Farmers are not simply enthusiastic about heritage pigs and heirloom parsnips, they’re filled with passion. The poor word is so overworked it’s losing its edge. A known offender, I recently vowed never to use it except as defined by Webster’s: “intense, driving, or overmastering feeling.” Not long after, I was in Houston dining at a new place named Helen, when someone at our table asked principal owner Evan Turner how he came to open a Greek restaurant, given that he isn’t Greek. “Well,” he said, “I lived in Greece for seven years when I was young. My father was an English teacher, and by the time I left, in 1988, when I was eighteen, I had fallen in love with the country and its culture, especially with the food. Ultimately I went into the wine business, but I knew that someday I absolutely, positively had to open a Greek restaurant. You could have sat down with me and said, ‘Here’s ten million dollars to open another type of restaurant,’ and I would have pushed the check back across the table and said, ‘Sorry. It has to be Greek.’ ”
That, my friends, is passion.
The offspring of Turner’s love affair with the country is a small venue near Rice University loosely modeled on a taverna. The setting is a long, narrow room with red-brick walls and high ceilings, where designer Erin Hicks has chosen upholstered banquettes and fancy mirrors to give a touch of elegance; exposed ductwork and industrial metal chairs keep things casual. Presiding over the kitchen is 27-year-old William Wright, who met Turner last year when they both worked at Table on Post Oak. With a fervor of his own for all things Mediterranean (the graduate of New York’s International Culinary Center previously cooked at Michelin-starred restaurants in Sicily), Wright has come up with a menu that draws on Hellenic classics but doesn’t hesitate to have a little fun with tradition.
“All the dishes are meant to be shared,” explained our server, “and the kitchen sends them out as soon as each one is ready.” We were starving, so that suited the four of us fine. I definitely wanted the squash fritters. My friends zeroed in on the dolmades. The waitress touted the trio of dips, which I privately thought would be ho-hum. But when they came, with a sesame seed–crusted baguette, I was never so happy to be wrong. The first of the three spreads was charred eggplant—melitzanosalata—which was like a lighter, more textured baba ghanoush. The garlicky mashed chickpeas were a kissing cousin of hummus, but fluffier, with pungent cracked coriander on top that gave them a fragrant, holiday-ish note. But the surprise was the ktipiti, a bright-orange yogurt-and-Greek-cheese combo blended with sweet red peppers. Turner, who happened to be walking by, said he had taken to calling the addictive stuff Greek queso.
Since we had his attention, we asked him to help us choose a wine. He had been deeply involved in putting the all-Hellenic collection together and says it is the second-largest in the country. The reasonably priced 2013 Malagouzia he suggested for us—a white wine made from an ancient but newly revived Greek varietal—completely lived up to his glowing description: “gorgeously aromatic, redolent of white apricot and citrus, with a beautiful clean finish.”
If you were of a mind to, you could easily make a meal of the appealing small plates. The next arrival, spiky golden-brown fritters, looked rather like baby hedgehogs (the well-fried zucchini-matchstick patties were good, but as I had expected, the best part was the accompanying fried squash blossom, so generously stuffed with creamy cheeses that its little seams were about to split). Not long afterward, the dolmades appeared, wearing emerald jackets of fresh collard greens (a blessed relief from dolmades’ usual wrappers, apparently made from pieces of army surplus pup tents masquerading as grape leaves). Even more brilliant, the typical epoxy-like filling had become a blend of fluffy white rice, corn, pine nuts, and golden currants, all set off by a limpid pool of lemon-egg sauce.
But as appealing as it might be, a dinner of all snacks would not provide enough protein to, say, run a marathon or break into a Greek line dance (not that we intended to do either). So we looked on the right-hand side of the menu to check out the main courses. And, Texans that we are, we went for the ribs, in this case, peppery, meaty lamb ribs stacked on a platter like kindling. We grabbed and gnawed, then polished off the underlying bed of orzo and al dente greens (dandelion, mustard, and collard). Turner, stopping by on his perpetual-motion rounds, signaled a thumbs-up: “Every Greek grandmother wants you to eat your greens!”
At this point, a substantial platter unexpectedly appeared—who ordered this?! Apparently we had, and it’s a testament to the kitchen that we avidly consumed most of it. The name of the dish, Stewed Chicken and Okra, hardly did justice to the tender fowl, cut into pieces and bolstered with falling-apart potatoes under a russet-hued tomato sauce. It didn’t seem so much Greek as universal, a dish with comfort cooked in. For dessert, we couldn’t pass up the feta mousse, a more-savory-than-sweet creation accompanied by a voluptuous poached fig. And, in a final act of valor, we agreed to vote on a proposed menu addition, a pistachio almond cake embraced by chocolate ganache. Our verdict: it should stay.
Houston has never lacked for Greek restaurants. Names like Zorba the Greek’s and Athens Bar and Grill, where legend holds that sailors and locals once danced on the tables, echo through the decades. Others, like Niko Niko’s, are still going strong. But I think it’s fair to say that there hasn’t been one quite like Helen, where tradition and modernity meet on an equal footing. To open any restaurant requires a massive act of will. To depart from the tried and true requires an even greater commitment. You could say it takes passion. Noah Webster would approve.