Rob and Emily McDaniel have a hit restaurant on their hands in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. Reservations are a hot commodity, and the reasons are crystal clear after your first visit.
Location: Helen, 2013 Second Avenue North, Birmingham, Alabama 35203
Menu: Chef Rob McDaniel brings a love for smoked meats, foraging, and Southern dishes prepared in untraditional ways to his new restaurant. The menu changes frequently, so if you have your heart set on a certain dish, be sure to call ahead to be sure it’s going to be available. An interesting approach to the menu at Helen is that it is completely a la carte. The portions are sized to be shareable, and steaks are served already sliced with the intention again to share. Open-grill cooking and fresh, regionally sourced produce highlight the restaurant’s offerings.
Angel Biscuits with whipped cane syrup butter are probably the most popular items in the Beginnings section of the menu. These biscuits are made with yeast, and the demand leads to numerous pans going into and out of the oven every day. The words “smoked” and “grilled” are applied to the Crispy Pork Belly, the Fish Dip, the steaks, lamb, pork chops, poultry, and seafood. Vegetables and salads, in the section known as “From the Soil,” are prepared with a light touch, fresh herbs, and delicate sauces. Dessert choices include a caramel pudding with pecan cookies, a gingersnap cheesecake, and a coconut tart with chocolate ganache. The wine list is extensive with beer also available by draft or in cans. A temperance drink is prepared with assorted juices and rosewater lemonade.
I personally sampled an 8-ounce Wagyu Coulotte, which had been smoked first then finished with a crustiness of sea salt. The Spring Vegetable Fonduta with asparagus and carrots was the perfect accompaniment. My meal started with those amazing Angel Biscuits and Manchester Farms Quail with grits and leeks. Everything was cooked to perfection and artfully presented.
The lunch menu is similar to the dinner menu, but with fewer options in each category. Diners will find a grilled sausage dog, a pork chop sandwich, and a hamburger with two meat patties and all the fixings among the choices.
Thoughts: Chef Rob comes from Haleyville, Alabama, and his wife Emily is from Birmingham. This is the part of the state that they truly understand. Emily has a background in marketing and hospitality. Her job at Helen is managing the hospitality side of the business and the front of house staff. Chef Rob earned a degree from Auburn University in restaurant management, and then attended culinary school at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. For five consecutive years, he has been a semi-finalist for James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: South category. For ten years before opening Helen, Chef Rob was the Executive Chef at SpringHouse in the Russell Lands/Lake Martin area of Alexander City, Alabama. The McDaniels are also parents of twin girls who are preschoolers. Those girls receive a child’s eye view of the restaurant business on a regular basis.
The restaurant is named for Chef Rob’s grandmother, and her colorful portrait is a highly visible part of the decor. Grandmother Helen had a huge influence on her grandson, particularly with the memorable meals she prepared for her family on an indoor grill. Also included in the decor are framed personal items, pheasant print wallpaper and pillows, hardwood floors and original brick walls. All of that combines to create a homey, comfortable, inviting atmosphere. The building itself dates back to the 1920’s, so the vintage qualities add to the elegance. There are two levels for dining, so request the first floor if stairs are a problem. Valet parking is a wonderful amenity because of the scarcity of parking in downtown Birmingham. The service is complimentary, but attendants appreciate tips.
It is remarkable that Helen has been so successful in spite of opening in the middle of a pandemic. With seating at 50% capacity and a high demand from the public, reservations must be made well in advance. All of the staff members were noticeably following CDC guidelines. They hope to increase to 75% capacity in the coming weeks and look forward to 100% capacity as soon as it’s allowed.
All members of the staff, from the valet attendants to the greeters and from all the waitstaff I observed, were friendly and eager to please. Even the restrooms were tastefully decorated. My husband and I were there for an anniversary dinner and were very pleased with the entire experience. I predict the opening success will continue to build in the days ahead.
Price range: Appetizers are $9-25. Salads and sides are $8-12. Entrees are $18-70, and desserts are $10-12. Ang
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