Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 10 p.m. Friday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday. Prices: Dinner for two with appetizers, drinks and desserts costs $60 to $80 including tax and tip. Cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express.
Someone had a lovely dream about what this little restaurant could be, but no one in the kitchen seems to be able to make it come alive.
The ideas are really appealing: a tiny, pretty dining room, spare but romantic; mauve walls and large abstract canvasses; bare marble-finish tables and turkish lamps that cover the ceiling with lacy webs of light.
The menu is eclectic, jumping from Hungarian to French, and unusually small, with fewer than a dozen entrees. The first time we came for dinner we loved the thought that the cooks were going to lavish all their care on just a handful of special dishes.
But from the first roll (which one night was rock-stale) and glass of budget champagne (which one night was totally flat), a guest is led to believe that the kitchen is not in control. Some dishes will be quite good, some will be not good at all and others will be okay but overpriced.
If you want an appetizer, order the German stuffed cabbages -- finger-shaped rolls with a good, old-fashioned-tasting gravy, so good they should be a main course. We also liked deep-fried Camembert, but $5 for one walnut-sized chunk of cheese flanked by a few pear slices is too much. The hors d'oeuvres sampler sounds appealing, with a smattering of stuffed cabbage, sausage and other tastes, but the portions are so small that the price works out to about 50 cents a bite. The only appetizer we'd recommend in addition to the stuffed cabbages is goulash soup, which tastes like the old-time beef stew that your grandmother used to make.
Entrees are just as erratic. On the good side: Hungarian goulash, big chunks of beef in a roasty, faintly sour gravy; it comes with a wonderful German tradition, squiggly, chewy little spaetzle noodles, and beautiful red cabbage sauteed with bacon fat. Also try the large steak with green peppercorns, charred, crusty and tender, or possibly mussels and pasta with wine and garlic -- except that it's overpriced at $12.50. Beyond those, we can't recommend anything. The wiener schnitzel, veal fried in a batter, was inedible one night. With such likable goulash, you'd think the sauerbraten would be good, too, but it isn't. And chicken fricassee was one of the worst dishes we've ever eaten -- dry shreds of chicken in a tasteless white sauce that looked and felt like paste. A special on one night, Cornish hen with tarragon, was delicious, but the special on another night, stuffed brisket, was dried out.
Helga's would be delightful as a tea room or as a pastry shop because the kitchen shines with its desserts -- simple tarts with layers of apples and delicate pastry, or rich, bittersweet chocolate cakes, or cold orange slices tossed in sweet Grand Marnier with bitter slivers of peel, or whatever else the pastry cook has whipped up that day. Save room, for it's the best part.