For sommelier Evan Turner, the stakes couldn't be higher. If Helen Greek Food & Wine — Turner's eagerly anticipated restaurant that's set to open Wednesday (July 22) in the space formerly occupied by Kahn's Deli — doesn't find favors with diners, he has a drastic Plan B.
"This is it. We may open other ones or versions thereof, but this is it. Or I’m going to pitch myself off a bridge pretty much or move back to Greece or something," he says.
"I wanted to open up a small, chef-driven, Greek restaurant that cooks Greek regional cuisine."
For five years, Turner has skipped from restaurant to restaurant— a list that includes Branch Water Tavern, Flora and Muse, Vallone's and Table — while he looked for the right opportunity to bring Helen to fruition.
"I know that I basically committed career suicide in the last five years bouncing around, trying to do stuff to pay the rent, doing whatever, because I really wanted to do this," Turner says. "I wanted to do this. I had to do this. There was no other way for me. You could have walked up to me and said, ‘Here’s $10 million dollars. We want you to run a steakhouse and the wine program.’ I would have said no thanks. I wanted to open up a small, chef-driven, Greek restaurant that cooks Greek regional cuisine."
The long, narrow space in Rice Village, which is currently undergoing a transformation under the direction of Houston designer Erin Hicks (Brooklyn Athletic Club, El Big Bad), reminds Turner of the restaurants he worked at in New York's East Village. It also serves as the sort of intimate setting Turner has experienced during his time in Greece.
"I wanted to be some place that sort of felt like people could come and feel like it was an actual taverna . . . When you walk around here, you feel that. When I saw the space for the first time, I knew right away," he says.
"I wanted to be some place that sort of felt like people could come and feel like it was an actual taverna . . . When I saw the space for the first time, I knew right away."
To bring his dream to reality, Turner found a business partner in Sharif Al-Amin, the front-of-house veteran whose most recent posts were at Prohibition Supperclub & Bar and Radio Milano, and chef William Wright, who Turner met during his time at Table. Wright doesn't have any experience cooking Greek food, but Turner is confident the chef is up to the challenge.
"He’s incredibly talented, incredibly gifted, incredibly well-trained and has probably the greatest intellectual curiosity about food I’ve ever seen," Turner says. "He started doing some investigation himself and fell in love with it like I fell in love with it."
Together, Wright and Turner have crafted a menu that blends Texas ingredients with Greek preparations. While Helen will serve a few Greek classics like gyros, the restaurant intends to highlight lesser known regional dishes.
Rather than attempt to create what he calls "Greeklish" names for those less familiar dishes, the menu will simply list the ingredients and how they're prepared. For example, Helen's classic Greek salad blends local heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers and onions with Greek feta and olive oil. Similarly, stewed rabbit comes on a bed or orzo pasta and is topped with Myzithra cheese, which Turner describes as a sheep's milk cheese similar to Pecorino Romano. Snapper gets classic Greek touches of fennel and grape sauce but comes with preserved Meyer lemon and local peas.
All Greek All the Time
In contrast to the food, Helen's wine list will be "all Greek all the time." At 120 bottles, Turner thinks the only restaurant in America with more Greek wines available will be Molyvos in New York City. He cites a nikteri from Santorini, so named for the way its grapes are harvested at night, as one example of a Greek wine that's never been available in Houston before. Naturally, it provides a pleasant contrast to the rabbit's rich sauce.
The wines embody Greek traditions, but classic dishes like the gyro have been given a bit of a twist.
The wines embody Greek traditions, but classic dishes like the gyro have been given a bit of a twist. Turner explains that in Thessaloniki, the region in Greece that created the gyro, the dish is made with thinly-sliced pork shoulder that's seasoned with paprika instead of the beef and lamb mixture that's found at every Greek diner in America.
"We’ll be doing them with pork," Turner explains. "We’ll probably also make souvlaki sandwiches, which will obviously be either lamb or chicken. Both (the American and Greek gyros) are delicious, but we wanted to do the classic, traditional version."
Similarly, brunch at Helen will be an eclectic affair. Greek cuisine includes a variety of egg dishes, cured meats and fish preparations that Turner thinks will make for delightful Sunday sustenance, but he recognizes the menu will also have to accommodate the Houston brunch palate.
"We’ll probably take some spins on things like Eggs Benedict that will be easy for folks to get their heads around. We’ll have some breakfast-slash-lunch items that are used in Greece that we’ll rotate into brunch. But there will be bacon have no fear," he promises.
What's for dessert?
Dessert offers another opportunity for Helen to blend Texas and Greece. Rather than make a traditional baklava with pistachios, Wright has used Texas pecans. In a bit of a wink, the restaurant will serve the dessert as an ice cream sundae in a paper cup that's common at Greek diners on the East Coast.
"That way it’s to-go if you want to walk around the Village and enjoy a sundae," Turner explains. Of course, he's aware that diners have lots of choices for ice cream in the area.
"We’re planning on taking on the Baskin Robbins and Cloud 10 around the corner. We’re coming for you, baby. We’re coming for you," Turner says, laughing.
Even if Cloud 10 pastry mastermind Chris Leung probably isn't shaking in his clogs at the prospect of Helen poaching his ice cream business, diners should be quivering with anticipation at the chance to check out the newcomer. After all, no one wants to be responsible for Turner throwing himself off that bridge.
BY ERIC SANDLER (photos Eric Sandlers)