September 26, 2011
Chef Mark Helms to open new venture in East Sac

Mark Helms, the highly regarded chef who made Ravenous Café a destination for discriminating food lovers in the Pocket area, sold the restaurant a couple of months ago. But he wasn't sitting still or staying out of the kitchen.

What's Helms up to? We're about to find out as early as next Wednesday, when Helms promises to have his new enterprise up and running - in East Sacramento, just three blocks from his home. I spoke with Helms this morning and he told me he is putting the final touches on Juno's Kitchen & Delicatessen at 36th and J. The space is small and seating will be limited, so Helms says he will focus on takeout meals. If his track record is any indication, this won't be a run-of-the-mill deli.

Just as he did at Ravenous, Helms will combine top-notch ingredients with creative approaches to the cooking and presentation, with an overall emphasis on the kind of farm-to-table cuisine that showcases what's local, sustainable, and humane.

The chef is still working out the menu, which he says will change frequently based on what's available and what tickles his fancy. To start, there will be pasta, risotto, plenty of sandwiches, sourdough bread baked in-house and plenty of full entrees. Expect some of those sandwiches to feature things like Kobe beef and hangar steak.

I asked Helms about the state of the local restaurant scene, which has witnessed a flurry of closures in recent weeks. The enduring economic slump, he says, is making folks think long and hard about where they want to spend their money.

In many ways, that's a good thing. The economy seems to be making the distinction clearer and clearer between the good restaurants and the so-so. Those restaurants that do good work with quality ingredients are full most nights. The ones trying to cut corners are going to struggle.

"That's the whole idea of this restaurant. You've got to step up your game and be more affordable," Helms said.

But there's a big difference between affordable and cheap.

When I asked him about sacrificing quality to keep prices down, he shot back, "No way. It has to be top-notch. I'm against anything that's not sustainable and I would never use an inferior product. No sweatshop eggs or chicken or beef. When you get into commodity stuff, it's just not right and it's not consistent. It's better to have the good stuff."

At Ravenous, Helms was making all kinds of excellent dishes, including papardelle with roasted chicken and mushrooms, perfectly cooked steak using grass-fed beef, wonderful mussels done three different ways and, for the more casual diner, one of the very best burgers in town. Now, with his new joint a stone's throw from the newly relocated Formoli's, Helms just might make East Sac the epicenter for trophy burgers. Burger aficionados can go back and forth until they figure out which burger they prefer - Helms' creation or the reverential whiskey burger at Formoli's. I may have to get in on that myself.

Helms says he sold Ravenous because he wanted to have a restaurant closer to home. Now he can run home faster than he can boil an egg. The higher profile in East Sac will also give Helms a bigger stage, even if his new place is tiny. As good as Ravenous was, it was hidden away in a part of town far from bustling midtown and downtown. The new location looks like a good fit, even if the chef's fans in the Pocket will have to make the drive to enjoy Helms' fine cooking. Ravenous is now owned by Wade Sawaya. I have yet to dine there since the change in ownership, but I am looking forward to visiting soon.

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