Like many people, I’ve grown to love working from home. Get me settled in with the holy WFH trinity of coffee, couch and cat, and I’ll happily put in at least eight hours at the coalface of my laptop’s touchscreen.
But when a friend and former colleague was hired at Northeastern University’s Portland-based Roux Institute this year, she started clipping and forwarding job postings to my inbox. “Join me!” she’d email each week from Portland’s rapidly developing Foreside waterfront. “I don’t think you realize how nice it is down here. Right now, it’s a construction site, but it’s only going to get better.”
Until recently, I wasn’t tempted. Plaster dust, office squabbles, shared bathrooms, no cats … none of it appealed. But there’s one sure-fire way to lure me in: Introduce restaurants into the conversation. “We’ve got the new Speckled Ax for morning coffee, Navis Café for breakfast and lunch, and for everything after, Helm.”
She had my attention.
Since early 2020, Helm Oyster Bar & Bistro has been flitting around at the back of my consciousness. One of my most vivid memories from the first weeks of the pandemic comes from walking past a Helm pop-up event at Tandem Coffee & Bakery, peeking through the fogged-up windows and setting myself a smartphone reminder to make a reservation when the restaurant officially opened.
Little did I expect that I’d hit “snooze” on that reminder every week for nearly two years. But the wait was worth it.
I had been hearing positive reports from friends who had tasted executive chef and manager Billy Hager’s flavor-driven dishes, plates that hew not so much to culture or tradition, but to highlighting nuances in local ingredients — mostly seafood. “There’s so much excellent food infrastructure here in Maine that we want to support. Those simple ingredients have got to be the focus for us,” Hager said. “But it’s true for beverages, too. Wines are low-intervention. Drinks are seasonal and unique, but they’re all also lighter.”
That description matches my experience with the cocktail I tasted on a recent visit. In Helm’s fruity, Robert McCloskey-themed Blueberries for Sal ($15), a double-dose of base spirits (mezcal and tequila) gets an exhilarating tickle from cocoa and warm spice added via a few dashes of molé bitters. Bar manager Gunnar Perkins draws your attention with the drink’s subtle tartness, but never so much that you ignore what’s on your plate.
To be fair though, neglecting your meal at Helm would be impossible, from buttermilk panna cotta nearly ($10) topped with aromatic Meyer lemon curd and strewn with fractured, foamy shards of honeycomb candy; to a crudo of Glidden Point scallops ($15) – so fresh and firm you can see the striations of the muscle ripple batik-patterned alongside purple daikon and spicy, Japanese-inspired citrus kosho.
Only my order of Johnny cakes ($20) was not fully up to snuff, and perhaps only because the miniature cornmeal-and-flour pancakes were so buttery that, when eaten with crème fraiche and chopped chive, they masked the delicate flavors of the trout roe topping.
Our attentive server seemed to know this was a minor issue when she set down the plate and caught sight of the melted butter pooling around its perimeter. “Definitely a dish for people who like a lot of butter!” she fitted. “Let me know if you want a little extra bread to sop it up with.”
By “bread,” what she actually meant was extraordinary house-made brioche. Hager prepares it himself, along with all of Helm’s breads and sweets. “Yes, it’s just me and my chef de cuisine Dana Woodward behind the breads and desserts,” he said. “It’s pretty rich. In fact, it’s about 75% butter by weight. I’ve used it in some iteration at Helm since we opened.”
Until the restaurant makes its next seasonal menu-change, you can find thick-cut slices of that brioche, toasted and slathered in (you guessed it), more butter, and served alongside my favorite dish of the evening: an ultra-slow- baked chicken liver mousse appetizer ($13). “We do something totally different with that mousse than what you’d expect,” Hager told me. “We bake it in a tureen with shallots, apples, thyme, some Calvados and bring out the richness really slowly, until it almost gets to the point of tasting like something else.”
That something else is foie gras. And spread generously on a triangle of brioche with a licorice-scented compote of Burke Hill Farms blueberries, star anise and red shiso, Hager’s mousse will fool you into thinking you’re eating foie, except at a fraction of the cost and ethical ambiguity. That illusion can be further enhanced by accompanying the dish with a glass of Le Clos des Jarres “Insouciance” ($13), a red Caladoc/Merlot blend that crackles with chocolate and allspice on the finish.
The mousse stands out as the dish most emblematic of Helm’s aesthetic – a blend of complexity and minimalism that requires tremendous thought, but which reads as effortless sophistication.
That sense extends beyond the plate to the AIA Maine Design Award-winning interior. Although the entire building that houses Helm is a new, steel-and-glass structure, curves and corrugations convey an organic familiarity to the minimalist dining room. Wood ceiling slats not only echo back those nature-inspired patterns, but also dampen sound in the remarkably quiet space.
Admittedly, when I learned that Helm was opening just a few blocks from raw-seafood titans Eventide and Scales, I questioned whether the area really needed another moderate/upscale restaurant in the same category. But where Andrew Taylor and Fred Eliot roar, Billy Hager whispers.
Indeed, I can’t even imagine Helm’s excellent steamed pollock ($28), with a (quite literally) zesty tapenade of shallots, capers and griddled Meyer lemon pith and peel, on the menu of either of its competitors. Served with tender poached fingerling potatoes and blanched broccolini, the dish is light enough to eat every night of the week, but still feels hearty. That’s no mean feat.
When I emailed my friend to rave about the pollock and to let her know how much I had enjoyed my recent dinner, she borrowed a line from 90s-era apartment advertisements – billboards designed to entice exhausted commuters to live closer to their offices. “If you worked here,” she replied. “You’d be eating dinner already.”
WHERE: 60 Thames St., Portland. 207-613-9918. helmportland.com
SERVING: Wednesday to Sunday, 4:30-9 pm
PRICE RANGE: Starters: $13-$22; Main dishes: $27-$32
NOISE LEVEL: Ritzy shoe store
VEGETARIAN: Some dishes
GLUTEN-FREE: Some dishes
RESERVATIONS: Strongly recommended
BAR: Beer, wine and cocktails
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
BOTTOM LINE: Another seafood restaurant near the Old Port? When it’s this charming and understated, yes, please. At Helm, executive chef Billy Hager seems to draw out nuances in fish, shellfish and vegetables that make each dish feel both approachable and intricate. “It’s a place where you can come in for a half-dozen oysters and a glass of wine, or you can make a whole night of it,” Hager said. Either way, Helm is worth a visit, especially if you order stupidly rich chicken liver mousse with toasted triangles of homemade brioche and a sweet-spicy Blueberries for Sal cocktail. Sip as you admire the swanky, yet comfortable, award-winning dining room. As a harbinger of what’s in the forecast for Portland’s eternally under-construction Eastern waterfront district, Helm Oyster Bar & Bistro is exactly the Sailor’s Delight we’d hope to see.
Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of five recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.
Contact him at: [email protected]
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