Houston certainly doesn’t lack for outstanding restaurants that burst onto the scene, but Helen Greek Food & Wine made a particularly memorable impression since it opened a year ago. From its intimate location in Rice Village, the restaurant has racked up serious acclaim, including being named the best new restaurant in the state by Texas Monthly, earning a semifinalist nomination for America’s Best New Restaurant from the James Beard Awards, and, just last week, earning a spot on Eater’s list of the country’s 21 Best New Restaurants.
On Friday, the team behind Helen, led by owner Sharif Al-Amin and executive chef William Wright, will unleash their eagerly anticipated follow up.
Arthur Ave Italian American will, as its name implies, serve classic, red sauce Italian American fare that’s inspired by the street in the Bronx for which it is named. Open for lunch and dinner, Wright’s menu features dishes like clams casino, chicken parmesan, and New York-style pizzas with a foldable crust. Whereas that cuisine has typically been associated with iffy ingredients and suspect cooking techniques, Wright brings a chef’s approach that attempts to elevate the classics.
For example, the mozzarella used in the Caprese salad will be pulled to order from fresh curds and that cheese is surrounded by heirloom cherry tomatoes and topped with aged balsamic vinegar. Similarly, the chicken parm features a half-chicken that’s brined in water that contains actual parmesan rind and is coated in house-made breadcrumbs before being pan fried (as opposed to deep fried). Sure, it’s $29, but the hearty portion could easily serve as an entree for two.
Just as the food has been designed to evoke nostalgia, the decor has a similarly comfortable feel. Designer Erin Hicks (Helen, El Big Bad) spent a week in New York soaking up inspiration from Italian restaurants across the city. Some of the retro touches include vintage advertisements that adorn the walls; the wine crates covering the ceiling of the intimate, four seat wine room; and stencils created by local artist Matthew Tabor for one wall of the private dining room.
On the beverage side, CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Bartender of the Year winner (2015) Lainey Collum has signed on as beverage director and will provide an Italian-inspired twist on classic American cocktails. Pax Americana proprietor Shepard Ross has consulted on the wine list, which allows Arthur Ave to benefit from his decade-plus experience operating in the Heights at Glass Wall.
Eager to learn a little more about the restaurant, CultureMap turned to Al-Amin and Wright for some insight into their decision to open in the Heights, how Wright settled on Italian-American cuisine, and, of course, what’s next.
CultureMap: Why did you decide to open in the Heights?
Sharif Al-Amin: We picked the Heights for this reason. I’m a neighborhood restaurant guy. I believe neighborhood restaurants are the best restaurants, because (they) have neighborhood support. I never went to Rice Village before we opened Helen, and now that neighborhood supports it. Other people do, too, but they found that passion and they found what was going on with us.
The Heights is very interesting to me. Never really thought about it until we found a beautiful space and we said, look, this is perfect for us. We saw the people, the love, the culture of the people in this area. When we talked about it with the other partners, we (realized) this is perfect.
CM: William, why did you decide to serve Italian-American food instead of regional Italian food?
William Wright: Most of my experience is in regional Italian food, but living in New York City, I fell in love with this bastardized aspect of Italian cooking. It was always looked down upon. When it came time to open this restaurant and create this concept, I started thinking about it. You know what, everyone’s doing regional Italian cooking. There’s so many places that are have blown up in the last two years. What I thought would be interesting is to take food that was created in America by Italian immigrants and add what I learned in Italy back to it. Refresh it.
It all just fell into place. Everything happened the right way. We thought it would be interesting, new, dynamic for the city of Houston. That’s what we really want to do. We want to open restaurants that are very decisive, direct concepts. Things that we think the city lacks. In doing so, we want to build the whole city up.
CM: How much pressure do you feel to live up to all the acclaim Helen has received?
SAA: The way we see it is this. When we opened Helen, we got such a great collective group of people who loved what they did. We just wanted to open a restaurant. We were happy. We put our passion into it. It worked.
When it came to Arthur Ave, it hasn’t changed for us. We’re still here. We love what we do. We put in the hours, we have fun with it. We’re always excited. Chef is always talking about the food. I’m running around just doing what I do. With Lainey Collum adding to the team, we feel like we have this great dynamic.
The pressure? We feel like we always have pressure. We work with our backs against the wall, because that’s how we work. We want to succeed, and we want to bring a new culture.
WW: We started Helen with nothing at all. Equipment that barely worked, the tiniest kitchen. We were just happy to have a restaurant. It was just about let’s survive. Let’s do whatever it takes. We have the same mentality here.
To go back to your question, there is a lot of pressure. I think this concept may be a little more challenging because, with the Greek restaurant, with Helen, we were representing a food that not a lot of people understood, not a lot of people are familiar with it. We were doing different versions of that. With this type of food, everyone has an opinion about it. Everyone knows pizza. Everyone knows pasta.
This time around, they’re already going to have preconceived notions. Our job now is we have to pass those. Hopefully, if you have a memory of a chicken parm, we can elevate it. That’s all we want to do. The food is simple, clean. There’s very few elements in each dish.
CM: What has it been like working with Shepard Ross?
SAA: I have the highest respect for Shepard Ross. He’s been in the game for so long. Everything he touches turns to gold. For me, I love to listen to people who have been doing this. Listening to old school (guys like) Michael Cordua, Tony Vallone: these guys have been doing what I have for the longest time. They’ve seen it go on.
I was fortunate to get Shepard at a good time. Evan is great, but I think Shepard would give it a push that we wanted. Being in the Heights at Glass Wall for 11 years, he understood what the Heights people like to drink. Bringing him in was a no-brainer to me.
CM: You’ve now opened two restaurants in a year. What’s next?
SAA: I knew this was coming. I want to get Arthur successful so that we’re here for the long run. Two restaurants in one year. Arthur Ave was something we were going to do three years from now. We were talking with our investors. It just kind of happened. Right place, right time, right everything.
Time will tell what we do in the future. We want to create, like chef said, these restaurants where they’re staples. They’re here for 20 years. We want to express our happiness and love for the restaurant business.
Portions of this interview have been edited for length and clarity.
Arthur Avenue Italian American is open Monday through Thursday from 11 am to 10 pm; Friday and Saturday from 11 am to 11 pm; and Sunday from 11 am to 9 pm.