Vegetables and art star at stylish Helen's

June 27, 1996|By Laura Rottenberg | Laura Rottenberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The literal-minded will trundle over to Canton expecting a matronly proprietress named Helen to usher them out to a table ensconced in a verdant courtyard. Well, there's no Helen and there's no outdoor dining, but don't hesitate to stop in at Helen's Garden Cafe. The menu features healthy vegetarian dishes (committed carnivores can partake of poultry), and even vegan fare, made without butter or eggs. If this sounds a tad too virtuous, just peek at the inviting offerings displayed in the big glass case. You'll buy by the pound, to eat in or take out.

Though O'Donnell Square already teems with appealing casual eateries (Amicci's, Nacho Mama's et al.), owners Tom Looney and Ed Scherer have carved out a niche for their stylish little restaurant and takeout business. The cafe's downstairs has all the trappings of a chichi specialty-foods shop and coffee bar -- boutique honeys, teas and jams sparsely dot the shelves; the heady smell of dark-roasted coffee beans mixes with that of Belgian chocolate; and gooey pastries beckon from under glass. A winding wooden staircase leads to the second floor where, barring a little specialty-foods overflow, a charming dining room sports about a half-dozen tables.

Showing their backgrounds in residential renovation, Looney and Scherer have created an airy, minimalist-chic space that showcases regional artists' work. Painted ornamental screens, a collection of wind chimes, moody black-and-white photos and a school of whimsical bronze fish are all for sale. And evidently diners come to buy: During our visit, a stunning canvas by protest artist Sue Coe was whisked away.

After buying a bottle of wine at the shop across the street -- Helen's has no liquor license -- we conferred around the refrigerated case full of dinner options. Minutes of negotiation yielded one clear decision: try everything. Exceptionally reasonable prices make this a doable proposition.

Scherer graciously settled us in and brought two big platters arrayed with our dozen picks. Fragrant basmati rice and lentils filled big roasted red bell peppers. Other wholesome rice and legume dishes included Spanish rice dotted with toasted slivered almonds and kidney beans enlivened by onion and a zingy vinaigrette.

But the real standouts were the vegetable presentations. Slow-roasted chunks of beet, zucchini, onion and carrot were served jumbled together. These could be seen again nestling in juicy roasted portobello mushroom caps and smothered with Gruyere cheese. New potatoes were baked to a golden brown, while cumin-scented Turkish carrots were perfectly steamed.

Less successful items were a humdrum trio of marinated artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, and hearts of palm; a dry herbed chicken breast; and a bland twice-baked potato.

For dessert, we passed over nice-looking fruit salad in favor of more decadent options. We made short work of homey chocolate chip cookies, small caramel nut tarts and sophisticated poppy-seed pound cake. Chef Tom Looney (his mother was the eponymous Helen) warned us about baked goods he thought "only a vegan could love." He needn't have feared. We ate the eggless carrot cake with gusto, even if it was good for us.

Pub Date: 6/27/96

Helen's Garden Cafe

2908 O'Donnell St.

(410) 276-2233

Hours: Open Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

Credit cards: Major credit cards

Prices: Dishes $2.50-$4.75 per half pound

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