At the end of a meal at La Belle Helene in Uptown, the bill arrives to the table tucked inside a paperback copy of The Iliad. It’s an obvious joke given this French restaurant’s Helen of Troy namesake, but if your meals have been anything like mine, you’ll think that they’ve chosen to honor the wrong Greek author. I’ll get to that in a bit.
My first two visits were filled with food so bad that I had a very different title in mind when I began outlining this review. Something witty and acerbic that fell somewhere between American Horror Story and Roll of Thunder, Hear My (Moaning, Gurgling Death) Cry.
Before my third visit, I even told my friend to steel himself for just how awful things were going to get. But then two dishes arrived that night that were so good I questioned my own sanity. What was going on here? Did these dishes come from the same kitchen? It was culinary gaslighting.
This back and forth of triumph and defeat, of palates vanquished and reborn, is without question worthy of its very own Homeric epic. To some extent, the first part of that epic has already been told. Being new to Charlotte, I missed out on La Belle Helene’s first incarnation, but friends have regaled me with stories of their wistful memories of brasserie food and nostalgia.
When La Belle Helene closed last October – a victim of the pandemic that just won’t go away – and it was announced that 5th Street Group would take over and reopen, installing a Top Chef alum Chef Jamie Lynch at the helm, he seemed to be just the right hero the restaurant needed to resurrect its story and see part two of the epic soar to new mythological heights.
That is certainly the direction you think the story is taking when you walk inside. Nothing about the interior breaks the illusion that you’ve stepped through a portal into France circa some nondescript era. The endlessly high ceilings, the dramatic chandeliers, the tiled floors and curved leather banquette seating: these are design choices meant to evoke a Europe you may remember from a trip you took long ago, or at least the Europe seen in any random movie starring Meryl Streep as a cookbook author.
Same, too, with the bar, which runs the length of the restaurant and whose tall lit mirrors and ornately trimmed countertop suggest what The Great Gatsby might have been like had it been set in Paris. It’s as good a place as any to begin the night. Start by making your way through their list of solid, sturdy and confident cocktails.
The Capture of Troy would be a wise choice. This cocktail – made with pineapple rum, lime and bitters – is crisp and sparkling at first, but then finishes dark with a hint of incense, so much so that you may see yourself leaving this Parisian fever dream in one moment to find yourself outside overlooking an ancient battlefield and the next, alone and smoking a cigar under the stars. It’s as easy to drink as it is to pretend that you’re an integral part of this sometimes-Greek, sometimes-Francophile narrative.
But let’s be honest. When all you’re wanting is dinner, plot and artifice are hardly at the top of your list. You want good food. You will not find it here in the foie gras.
Prepared as a torchon, what’s supposed to be creamy, rich and transcendent comes out gritty, veiny and split. This is a direct result of poor technique and what happens when someone in the kitchen not only doesn’t clean the foie but also leaves it sitting out too long. To add injury to serious insult, the torchon was sliced not by a knife, it would seem, but rather mangled by a dull and rusty chainsaw. No bird deserves this fowl fate.
The beet marmalade on the plate might have helped were it actually a marmalade. I don’t think “beet batons” are quite the same thing, nor do I think the earthiness of beets, even if the beets had been properly prepared as advertised with acid and sugar, is the right flavor to match with foie gras, especially here when it is already so woefully under-seasoned.
Nor do I think the “escargot en croûte” on the menu is what actually arrives at the table. Putting aside the horror of the half-raw puff pastry I was served on one visit, “en” here apparently means “under.” But not for long, though, as the pastry caps are so lazily and flimsily placed on top that, should a server happen to walk by too quickly or should you happen to pound your fist on the table in disgust, they will go flying right off. Suddenly the snails have their own strip show. (This is to say nothing of the snails themselves, which were sourced from where? A can? They were so mushy and mealy and unpleasant to eat that I had to send them back.)
By now, if you’ve been following along, an unfortunate trend has emerged. At La Belle Helene, words normally associated with the menu in a traditional brasserie – “marmalade,” “en croûte,” “proper technique,” “delicious French food” – here do not purport to have the meanings you would expect them to.
Fish fares better, but also worse. In loup de mer barigoule, I could not have conjured a better piece of fish, its Mediterranean sea bass seasoned just so and cooked so its skin was crisp with all the tautness of the top of a tympany. But the braised artichokes in the barigoule were drugged and left for dead. I mean, that’s at least how CSI would explain their gray, lifeless hue. I myself no longer had the energy to rationalize these missteps.
Salmon a la plancha Basquais had the opposite problem. A hearty brew of red peppers and potatoes was vibrant, assertive and even exciting, tasting of spice or even chorizo. That poor salmon, though. Cooked on high heat with brute force, albumin oozing out, and not just mine. I had a quick look around the dining room at the other diners who had ordered this dish that night. Albumin sludge as far as the eye could see.
At least the ratatouille, which was plated to impress, was inoffensive – insofar as it was nothing more than vegetables, garlic and salt, and therefore had nothing to say. A cartoon rat, I have no doubt, could have infused this with more passion.
It comes as little comfort that the desserts are fun to eat, and in the case of the entremets, even fun to look at. La citron, appearing as an actual lemon, will be all the rage on Instagram for the foreseeable future, but I found the lemon jam inside to be too aggressive, though tempered some by a bed of white chocolate crumble. I much more enjoyed the petit gateaux au chocolat, stuffed with dark chocolate mousse and passion fruit cremeux, and all the little bits and pieces and textures and tastes hidden therein. Of the non-entremet choices, Paris Brest is the pastry equivalent of a nap.
Which makes it all the more infuriating that the same kitchen that treats foie gras and fish with a whole horror film’s worth of torture and eviscerations can also produce two dishes whose magnificence alone should be La Belle Helene’s calling card, instead of veins and white slime.
Crispy duck confit is one. There is a thrilling textbook perfection in how it’s cooked, which then turns emotional when you realize you’ve been expecting the worst and are instead presented with the best. The melted leeks and mustard underneath are intoxicating, and that banyuls jus – with notes of forest plants and dark berries – was captivating.
Boeuf bourguignon is the other. The beef was so tender I could cut it with my thumb. Red wine was reduced to something that was less sauce than it was a rich, dark lacquer. Most mesmerizing of all – roasted marble potatoes. What was that hint of cocoa I tasted on them?
If only the English language afforded more elegant connotations to “oomph” and “thud,” then you’d come close to understanding why I winced in delight as though punched in the mouth after each and every bite.
How is it possible, then, that these dishes could be so good in spite of everything else? Exactly what game is Chef Lynch playing at the literal expense of hungry, paying customers? Who knows.
Yes, it seems as I stated in the beginning, Helen of Troy be damned, that Homer is the absolute wrong Greek author to be inviting to the table at the end of the meal.
Far more apropos would be Sophocles – he of the Oedipus trilogy and chronicler of the Sphinx. For only the Sphinx could possibly riddle herself through the food here to come even remotely close to answering the question: Do two spectacular dishes make up for the countless other crimes against food being committed by the kitchen at La Belle Helene?