For the past five years, Evan Turner has endured person after person—friends, acquaintances, peers in Houston's tightly-knit service industry community, colleagues in other cities' food and wine scenes, you name it—telling him that Helen Greek Food & Wine would never happen. And for the past five years, the sommelier-by-trade has tenaciously held onto his dream of a traditional Greek taverna transported to Houston, where regional Greek dishes would be updated with a Gulf Coast twist and where diners could experiment with bold, unusual Greek wines and casual Greek fare made with fresh, seasonal ingredients. Partners came and went, spaces too, but never Turner's commitment to doing Helen his way.
"I feel a little bit like Odysseus," jokes Turner, who spent seven years living in Greece during his formative years. Odysseus, the legendary Greek king, took 10 equally legendary years to return home after the end of the Trojan War—the journey for which Homer's Odyssey is so named—though Turner completed his own odyssey in only half that time. Helen Greek Food & Wine is scheduled to open at long last on July 22 in Rice Village, tucked into the shotgun-style space that housed Kahn's Deli from 1984 until the deli closed earlier this year, with plans to be open by 11 a.m. most days, serving food all day long until 10 p.m.
Kahn's cherry-red doors have been painted a seafoam green and Helen's name is now on the marquee outside, but when I visited last week the restaurant itself was still under construction. Interior designer (and noted cookbook author) Erin Hicks flitted around taking measurements for the tall mirrors that will climb up the towering brick walls of the dining room, while Turner's business partner (and director of operations) Sharif Al-Amin worked quietly on stacks of spreadsheets in one corner.
The kitchen, however, was already busy turning out test dishes under the watchful eye of young chef William Wright, who first met Turner while the two were working at Table on Post Oak. The two share more than a passion for introducing Houston to the huge variety of regional Greek dishes that have been heretofore unexplored; their historically-minded dispositions are even similar, with Turner at one point expounding on the 19th century Greek War of Independence that sent Greek chefs out into Europe to learn from the continental chefs of that time (moussaka and its very French béchamel sauce being one example of that cross-cultural infusion), and, later, Wright enthusing about the recipes held within the famous Apicus manuscript from late 4th century Greece ("You can see how some of them have barely changed in all that time," he marveled).
The dishes I sampled last week showcase the pair's dedication to setting Helen apart from "traditional" Greek-American fare in the US, which has what Turner calls "a staple canon" of highly Americanized dishes like gyro made from beef (and maybe a little bit of lamb). Helen's gyro will be made with marinated pork shoulder—beef is rarely eaten in Greece, after all—and its moussaka will feature crawfish, taking advantage of the Gulf Coast's unusually long season this year. When the crawfish is no longer in season, a new moussaka will be rolled out. Its baklava is made with Texas pecans in lieu of pistachios or walnuts, and is served as a sundae with vanilla ice cream that Wright also makes himself, as with everything else on the menu.
Traditional Greek staples such as seafood, cheese and eggs will be heavily integrated into the menu, which will be split into three sections: small mezze plates to enjoy solo or at the bar, taverna-style; larger dishes meant for splitting between two people; and family-style dishes such as a roasted half-chicken with fried okra and field peas that's topped with dill and a cinnamon-tinged sauce (in Greece, "baking" spices such as nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon are frequently used in savory applications as well). The seafood is coming from Houston's favorite Greek fisherman Frixos Chrisinis while the cheese comes from Houston Dairymaids. Brunch will feature a litany of Greek egg-based dishes that are so numerous, says Turner, he could feature a different brunch menu for months without repeating anything.
But while the seafood, cheese, eggs and other produce may be local, Turner is proud of the fact that his wine list is entirely Greek—and, in fact, will be the second-largest Greek wine list in the nation upon opening. This was a sticking point for previous investors, who felt that Houston's wine-drinking populace would shun a list that didn't include at least one California cab or French chard. As a lifelong advocate of Greek wines, Turner naturally disagrees, though these days he's joined in larger and larger numbers by established wine writers and sommeliers who are discovering that assyrtikos and xenomavros are as elegant and interesting as Argentinian torrontés and Italian barbarescos.
Despite this overall national shift in attitude towards Greek wines, Turner admits that it would have been difficult to get large quantities of them to our own domestic market if it weren't for fellow sommelier Sean Beck, the beverage director at Hugo's, Caracol and Backstreet Cafe. After a tasting session in which he fell for a batch of Greek wines, Beck used his buying power between the three restaurants to get the big Greek wine distributors to start selling their wines in Houston in earnest. "I couldn't have done this if it weren't for Sean," says Turner, who was pouring a sturdy white nikteri from Santorini, its assyrtiko grapes harvested by night so as to avoid the scorching Greek sun, the day I visited.
In fact, says Turner, if it weren't for the city's notoriously supportive community, he may have never opened Helen at all. For every person who told him Helen would never happen, he found others who believed in his dream—others like Beck, like Al-Amin, like Wright—and who were up for an odyssey of their own.
Needless to say, the chance to take a journey like this, opening a restaurant the likes of which Houston (let alone most of the US) has never seen, was alluring to those who, like Turner, want to keep pushing forward, further establishing the Bayou City as a dining destination that defies categorization. "I couldn't have done this anywhere else but Houston," says Turner. "I wouldn't have had a snowball's chance in July."