A full plate of style and good cooking

Restaurant: Helen's Garden is quirky in a good sense, and offers some bargains on Wednesday and Thursday nights.

Sunday Gourmet

January 23, 2000|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Helen's Garden won't appeal to everyone. It's just a little too quirky. But if it's your kind of place, you'll love it: Here good food counts as much as style.

And Helen's has style in abundance. Tom Looney and Ed Scherer, who owned a high-end renovation company before they became restaurateurs, gutted a Canton rowhouse and created a handsome bar downstairs and two charming dining rooms at the top of a steep, winding staircase.

It's a bit too shabby chic for my taste (why not paint those steps), but I know how stylish shabby chic is. And I love the coziness of the small spaces, the walls painted in different colors as a backdrop for the work of regional artists, and decorative touches like tiny stained-glass dragonfly lamps on each table.

This is a family-run business, with a sister waiting tables and Mom baking desserts. (Alas, the latter was down with the flu the night we were there; more about that later.) I was impressed by the good-natured efficiency of the service. We never had much of a wait, although I should add the restaurant didn't get crowded until we were almost ready to leave.

If you like bargains, the time to eat at Helen's is Wednesday or Thursday night. This is an example of how the place is good quirky, as opposed to bad quirky. Wednesday nights all entrees on the menu are $10, except for a few asterisked ones in the $19-$24 range. Thursday nights six entrees, three from the menu and three specials, are $9.95. (Why not $10? I didn't ask.)

The eclectic menu emphasizes seafood, but there's plenty else to choose from, such as grilled pork chops and chicken kebabs. Sandwiches, burgers and salads are also on the dinner menu.

For a restaurant of this size and funkiness, Helen's has a surprisingly good wine list. In fact, a wine tasting was taking place at the bar the night we were there. With each entree is a suggestion of a wine by the glass and another by the bottle.

Our dinner started with warm pita and seasoned olive oil to dip it in. Each of our appetizers was better than the last, beginning with a suave sweet potato soup, lighter than the usual thick puree, with complex flavors of ginger and mint, and a confetti of other vegetables.

Smoked salmon was wrapped with rice, slivers of Japanese radish, pickled ginger and wasabi in black cones of nori (seaweed) to create Helen's version of temaki. On the side was a sesame noodle dish made with corkscrew pasta.

Best of all our starters were the golden-edged pan-fried scallops, barely cooked and arranged with interesting greens, slices of mango and a remoulade-like dressing.

Good appetizers aren't always predictors of good entrees, but in this case they came pretty darn close. One of the $9.95 specials this evening was boneless grilled duck breast -- slightly charred but still pink and juicy -- over spinach leaves, with asparagus spears and a sweet-tart mango salsa. Lose the slices of winter tomato, and this would be a flawless dish.

A whole boneless brook trout, the flesh delicately white and flaky, was encased in a buttery pecan crust. More could be done with the looks of this dish -- the fish was draped over a huge mound of garlic mashed potatoes, and the pretty grilled vegetables were hidden. But you couldn't fault the flavor.

Of the three entrees on the menu marked down to $9.95 for the evening, one friend chose the pasta Bolognese (normally $14). The linguine's sauce tasted more like a spicy marinara than the traditional version with a touch of cream. Still, it was a fine red sauce studded generously with Italian sausage and more of those good grilled vegetables.

Helen's has always been known for its desserts -- even at the beginning, four years ago, when it was a mostly vegetarian gourmet carryout with only a couple of tables upstairs. Too bad the pastry chef had the flu. We had to make do with coffee cake, peanut butter pie and chocolate pecan pie. The coffee cake was OK, but really tasted more like breakfast food, and the chocolate pecan pie didn't have the luscious richness we expected. But we fought over the peanut butter pie, all fudgy chocolate, whipped cream and swirly peanut butter, like a glorified Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.

HELEN'S GARDEN

Food: *** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 2908 O'Donnell St.

Hours: Open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch and dinner, Saturday and Sunday for brunch

Prices: Appetizers, $4.95-$8.95; main courses, $15-$25

Call: 410-276-2233

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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