At Helen in the Heights, the Food Complements the Cocktails

Not the other way around.

By Alice Levitt June 21, 2017 Published in the July 2017 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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The Ancient Collins and Love & War  at Helen in the Heights

Arthur Ave, the “red sauce” Italian restaurant in the Heights from the Helen Greek Food & Wine team, lasted just a little over half a year. In April, director of operations Tim Faiola and James Beard Award–nominated chef William Wright switched to what they do best: Greek food, rechristening the space Helen in the Heights.

There were lessons to be learned from the spot’s original incarnation. Bar manager Josh Bearden says that cocktails didn’t sell well at the previous restaurant. “This was an opportunity to take a step back and think about what people did not like,” he says.

When the restaurant was reborn, Bearden came up with his own novel approach to the drinks list: The menu is now dominated by what he categorizes as food-pairing cocktails, with suggestions for dishes they might best accompany. The result? “A lot of times on Fridays and Saturdays, we sell more cocktails than glasses of wine,” he says, something that’s almost unheard of in restaurant bars. In fact, the numbers have been staggering.

At Arthur Ave, Bearden says, he’d been running a cocktail bar, when he should have been operating as a restaurant bar. “I realized what happens when people get hired to do cocktail programs at restaurants is, they just want to do the same classic cocktails everyone else is doing,” says the barman, who cut his teeth at Julep. “And that means they’re not really thinking about how it relates to the food.”

How is his new approach different? Behold the Ancient Collins, designed to pair with the pastitsio, a comforting casserole of bucatini with spiced ground beef and Béchamel. To complement the baking spices that flavor the meat, Bearden uses tentura, a syrupy cinnamon-and-clove-flavored liqueur crafted in the Greek city of Patras. The bitter orange of aperol and the “summer syrup”—Bearden’s orange cordial with coriander and citric acid—combine with lemon to cut through the heavy Béchamel and pair nicely with the dish’s tomato sauce. Lemon and soda give it a buoyant fizz.

The word Bearden uses most often to describe the drinks on the new menu is “lovable,” and the appropriately named Love and War is nothing if not that. The 19th-century French apéritif known as strawberry byrrh is the centerpiece of the drink, which also gets a fruity flush from lemon and homemade grenadine, or pomegranate cordial, as Bearden prefers to call it; herbaceous amaro adds another layer of interest. How to pair it? The menu suggests, “orzo salad, son!,” filled with mint and tangy manouri cheese.

Drinkers won’t suffer from sipping their way through a portion of the menu in a single sitting. Bearden conceived the cocktails as shims, or sessionables, sufficiently low-alcohol to allow for a safe flight of flavors. The idea is to have fun and not take things too seriously. “You’re not here to have my cocktails,” the barman asserts. “People come here for pastitsio and moussaka and zucchini chips.”

Maybe. But they’re definitely not complaining about the drinks.

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