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HELEN: Amazing Dishes in Downtown Birmingham

Steve and I dined at Chef Rob McDaniel's former restaurant, SpringHouse, near Alexander City a few years ago, so we KNEW we were in for a wonderful experience when we read that he and his wife Emily had opened a new restaurant in Birmingham.

Chef Rob is the cousin of one of my good friends in Hartselle, Jane Ann Fields. He grew up in Haleyville, AL and is an alumnus of Auburn University's Hotel and Restaurant Management Program. He and Emily have three-year-old twins, so they are very busy people. He presents Southern foods in a fresh way and enjoys cooking over an open fire and foraging. Chef Rob has been nominated numerous times for the prestigious James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef: South.

Helen is named after Chef Rob's grandmother. The home she created with Rob's grandfather made an indelible impression on him, and he particularly remembers the indoor charcoal grill where she often prepared meats, particularly steaks. As a result, steaks and smoked meats are prominent on the menu.

The building at 2013 2nd Avenue. N. has had many former lives since it was built in the 1920's -- a law office and a dance studio to name a few. Since it is in downtown Birmingham, the valet parking is a welcome feature. It is a complimentary service, but the attendants appreciate tips, of course. If stairs are a problem, be sure to request a table on the ground floor when you make a reservation. And, speaking of reservations, they are somewhat hard to get, so plan well in advance.

You will enjoy the decor of Helen -- the personal items on display, the rich wood flooring, the hunter-green pheasant-themed wallpaper, and the pheasant print pillows lining the walls. Even the restrooms are lovely with cloth towels for drying your hands. Such a special touch.

The menu is all a la carte with shareable portion sizes for vegetables and other sides. The steaks are served already sliced, which also makes them easy to share. The idea is to order several things on the menu, so everyone at the table can enjoy a sample.

For our special dinner, we started with warm angel biscuits served with a whipped cane syrup butter. Oh my! That yummy, yeasty texture.

We also shared roasted Manchester Farms quail with McEwen & Sons corn grits, wild leeks and board sauce. So flavorful!

For our entree, we shared an 8 oz. Wagyu Coulotte, which is a top sirloin cap steak. Unbelievably tender!

For an accompaniment, we chose the Spring Vegetable Fonduta, which consisted of asparagus and baby carrots with a light cheese sauce.

I must give a shout-out to our server Miranda. She was friendly, knowledgeable, and very attentive. Good job, Miranda!

I encourage you to pick a date and plan a lunch or dinner soon at Helen. The lunch menu, by the way, is similar to the dinner menu but with fewer options. It does, however, include a burger that is said to be phenomenal.

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