Restaurant Review: Helen’s Place

After spending a good part of last week’s review railing against most of Spring Street’s eateries, I thought it was only fair to give the pricey, boutique eateries a chance to make a case for student business. I hadn’t yet visited Helen’s Place, so I thought I’d give it a try and assuage my own curiosity at the same time. I knew it was going to be a little pricey, so I skipped my usual Sunday night poker game with Morty, Dean Roseman and the gang – I couldn’t afford to lose big to Jean “Queen of Hearts” Thorndike, as I have so many times before, if I wanted to fit this trip into my budget.

Helen’s is located about three fourths of the way down Spring Street, in the space that upperclassmen will recognize as the former home of the Berkshire Market. Helen Aiken, its owner and a former Dining Services dynamo, is a pert and perky woman who, after working in our program for three years, decided her life should take a different, more exciting direction. Mass-produced institutional cuisine can be thrilling (see “Aunt Vickie’s brisket”), but I speak from experience when I say that the familiarity of three years breeds the contempt of a lifetime.

Aiken’s new establishment offers a wide array of intriguing sandwiches, wraps and salads on its everyday menu, as well as a daily special or two. Additionally, Helen’s offers catering and a gourmet market featuring free range chicken and fresh seafood.

Before addressing the quality of the food itself, it must be noted that the service is excellent. Every employee I encountered was amiable, polite and helpful, and Helen herself bustled about the room making sure that everything was running smoothly as the largely-adult lunchtime crowd filed in.

Helen’s notes on its business card that it is “more than a deli” – an accurate assessment. You will not find your run-of-the-mill Italian sub or meatball hero here. My first venture into the menu was a prosciutto sandwich on a baguette, flavored with a chopped sun-dried tomato spread. I ordered it to go, and it arrived in a smart looking black Styrofoam container whose pizzazz more than made up for its inability to be recycled. When I opened the container, my first reaction was visible and audible elation as I noticed the small slice of watermelon that had been included along with my sandwich. It gave a great first impression, but I can get watermelon at Stop & Shop. How about the prosciutto baguette?

The baguette was a nice size, but on first glance I noticed one potential problem: where’s the meat? There wasn’t a large amount of prosciutto relative to the size of the roll. I bit into the sandwich, and. . .ten seconds later, I was still biting into the sandwich. The baguette was a bit tough, and I really had to gnaw on it before getting the bite safely into my mouth.

With that accomplished, I could now turn my attention to its taste. The prosciutto was tender and well complemented by the sun-dried tomatoes, but I couldn’t help thinking back to my original concern, that the ratio of prosciutto to baguette was a little short. You buy a sandwich for what’s inside it, not the bread exterior, even if it does have a fancy French name. And watch out for that baguette, especially all you AARP members up for leaf-watching season. Dentures vs. baguette is like me in the ring with Mike Tyson.

Next up was the chicken Caesar wrap, not the most innovative offering, but a battle-tested veteran in the gourmet cafe world. This is something that you’ve got to get right, because everyone knows what to expect from a good chicken Caesar wrap: stuffed full of fresh veggies along with lots of crispy chicken, flavored with the right amount of sauce such that that neither the chicken nor the wrap itself gets soggy, and solid assembly – no one wants the wrap falling apart in their hands. In all of those categories, Helen’s version made the grade. There was a certain harmony contained within that wrap, and every bite felt just right, the way food does in daydreams or when shared with beautiful women. The chicken Caesar wrap is a definite winner.

By this time, my saffron seafood chowder had cooled slightly, so I moved on to try this daily special. The soup was filled with chunks of fish, crabmeat and vegetables, though there was at least as much seafood as there were veggies, if not more. That alone deserves plaudits, as many soups attempt to get by with a composition that leans heavily towards the vegetable side at the expense of what diners really want: the name ingredient. The chowder was water-based, not too thick, though a bit on the oily side. The saffron added a desert orange color uncharacteristic of a seafood soup, along with a pungency that verged on overpowering the specific flavor of the seafood itself. This is not necessarily negative, but it would be inaccurate to say that the chowder had the seashore flavor you would experience in a New England clam chowder. All in all, not a soup you will rave about, but nevertheless enjoyable due to its hearty composition and unconventional flavor.

The last item on my plate was a smoked salmon sandwich from Helen’s regular menu. This was served on a doughy, buttery bread with a glazed surface that bore a striking resemblance to the Jewish challah bread. The smoked salmon, or lox, was accompanied on the sandwich by cucumbers, onions and Boursin cheese, all in good proportion to one another. My personal obsession with quality lox notwithstanding, this was an outstanding sandwich. The salmon was sliced thinly and was the desired soft consistency. The cucumbers and onions were crisp to offset the more oily but tender salmon, and complemented its saltiness with their naturally fresh flavors.

The Boursin, applied sparingly, brought the parts together so subtly that it almost escaped conscious awareness, but it was crucial in mediating the contrasting flavors and textures of the sandwich’s ingredients. I enjoyed just the act of biting into this sandwich, as the bread sympathetically gave way in my mouth to the firmer vegetables, which in turn parted in favor of the salmon, and eating it was a pleasure. Definitely a must for salmon fans, and worth considering even if you’ve never tried smoked fish.

Helen’s Place is a high quality establishment serving up combinations generally inventive and satisfying in a relaxed and well-run atmosphere. That’s all, right? Not exactly. For the average student’s budget, Helen’s is a luxury, not an everyday eatery. Most sandwiches cost between $6 and $7, and once you add in the price of a drink and tax, Helen’s runs dangerously close to ten bucks for a meal. Considering Helen’s is geared mostly towards lunch customers, this is a little out of whack. The soup cost more than $3, though in its defense, it was more a bowl than a cup and included saffron, the most expensive spice in the world.

In fairness, Helen’s seems to be looking more towards Williamstown’s adult population than the college students, so you will have to judge for yourself whether the price is right for you. The food is, on the whole, well done, and you will have a fine time eating in Helen Aiken’s new venture. Despite her prior association with college Dining Services, neither “Voodoo” nor “Bob Marley” chicken are found anywhere on the menu. Thank goodness.