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Helm is at the nexus of an emerging universe

Helm is among Craig LaBan's best of Philadelphia.

The chalkboard at Helm.
The chalkboard at Helm.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

It can be hard to know which comes first in Philadelphia: the groundbreaking neighborhood BYOB, or the neighborhood itself.

We have a long history of bold (cash-strapped) restaurateurs pioneering some forgotten city corner with a chalkboard menu and local heirloom turnips, then watching the rest of the world agree it's a swell place to go dine, drink, live, and invest.

Consider the Helm effect. A few years ago, a pair of talented but unknown young cooks with $10,000 in their pockets took over an empty Kensington storefront surrounded by weedy lots and a rusted-out factory. Mike Griffiths and Kevin D'Egidio brought their blackboard menus and heirloom turnips from nearby urban farms. They spun Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash, and Ray Charles on the old-school record player. They pulled fresh burrata and stuffed it with just-picked yarrow, charred ramps, and mustard greens; rubbed legs of lamb with coffee roasted blocks away at ReAnimator. And with bowtied general manager Justin Manne lending a dapper polish to the otherwise no-frills (some might say cramped and noisy) 34-seat room, the BYOB wine-erati came in droves.

Two and a half years later, Helm's North Fifth Street building seems to be at the nexus of an emerging universe. Kensington and nearby Fishtown have become Philly's "it" neighborhoods for food and drink. Expensive townhouses are rising from virtually every fallow lot.

And at a visit shortly following their opening of a second BYO in Pennsport, South Helm, the Kenzo original showed no sign of slowing. I savored the summer sweetness of charred peaches against meaty ribbons of tuna and fennel over a capery fish tonnato sauce. Superb octopus simmered tender in tomato juice with burned onions took on extra depth from a silky puree of charred eggplant. Crisp-skinned porgy fillet hovered over beer-stewed seafood with snappy lima beans. Delicate oil-poached cod contrasted the zesty-ness of a Caesar salad buzzed up into a bright-green sauce, snappy Ninja radishes, and the sweet-tart ping of pattypan squash in molasses agrodolce. Roast duck came lacquered with a sweet pilsner malt shine. And Helm's irresistible riffs on brassica-filled tortellini — once with charred Brussels sprouts, yum — found another stuffing winner with silky cauliflower tossed in a hearty pork-shank-and-corn ragu.

As I devoured a warm gâteau Basque glazed in August blueberries beneath a pouf of spicebush-scented Chantilly, it was clear these cooks could succeed at most any venue in the city. A third project, the new Tierce, brings their vision of a bruncherie to the old Pickled Heron space in Fishtown.

But the fact they could launch this budding empire on their own in a single BYOB with little more than talent, $10,000, and a dream — and also help jump-start a neighborhood resurgence — is part of what makes Philly's dining scene so special and unique.