FIRST LOOK: La Belle Helene
by Cathy Martin
On a Thursday evening in early May, the streets of downtown Charlotte felt almost … normal. The Charlotte Knights baseball team was back in action, families frolicked in Romare Bearden Park and the dining room at La Belle Helene was buzzing with enthusiastic guests.
The French brasserie quickly became the talk of the town after opening in 2018, with its stunning interior featuring dramatic oversized chandeliers, antique mirrors, cozy brass accents and curved leather banquettes. It was run by food service company Elior North America’s Constellation Culinary Group, which suspended in-person dining at the restaurant last spring amid the pandemic and permanently shut its doors in October. Charlotte’s 5th Street Group, the team behind 5Church Charlotte and Sophia’s Lounge, relaunched La Belle Helene last month as “a refined brasserie serving French classics with a modern sensibility.”
Partner and Chef Jamie Lynch is no stranger to French cuisine, having worked at Le Cirque 2000, Café Boulud and Tocqueville in New York City before moving to Charlotte in 2002. At La Belle Helene, the Top Chef alum has reimagined mainstays from the restaurant’s previous iteration while adding several original dishes.
On the menu, you’ll still find rotisserie meats — garlic and herb chicken, porchetta, and duck a l’orange — along with new takes on foie gras, escargots and French onion soup.
The meal starts with cream-cheese puffs — cheesy bite-sized pastries that will whet your appetite for the meal to come. Hors d’oeuvres range from moules de PEI (mussels in a saffron and Dijon broth) to steak tartare with pea greens Caesar. The oeufs Mimosa — a French version of deviled eggs topped with delicate caviar pearls — has already become a staff favorite, my server tells me. LBH’s take on the classic ratatouille — thin slices of zucchini and squash with a bright tomato “stew” atop an eggplant base — is served chilled and finished with a drizzle of basil oil for a light and zesty starter.
Seafood lovers will find oysters, jumbo shrimp, Alaskan king crab and chilled Maine lobster, along with entrees like Carolina trout amandine; salmon with sweet peppers, sherry vinegar and a red-pepper emulsion; and loup de mer Barigoule — Mediterranean sea bass served over a bed of artichokes, bacon lardon, pearl onions and carrots with a light sauce.
Boeuf Bourguignon is a heartier dish of braised short ribs, red wine, carrots, pearl onions, mushrooms and marble potatoes.
Pastry Chef Michaela Moehring’s desserts don’t disappoint. Order La Citron and get your camera ready — crack open the lemon shell and watch the lemongrass mousse and lemon confit pleasantly ooze over the plate, playfully mimicking a cracked egg. The petit gâteau au chocolat — chocolate cake filled with dark chocolate mousse, orange chiffon and passion fruit cremeux — is sized perfectly for one, and the Madame Charlotte cake is made with layers of homemade ladyfingers, rose water, raspberry and lemon. Even if you skip dessert, you can still look forward to a little something sweet — bite-sized, melt-in-your-mouth madeleines are a delightful surprise at the end of the meal.
When it’s time to pay the bill, you’ll notice something new at LBH and other 5th Street Group properties. In April, the restaurant group led by Lynch, Patrick Whalen and Alejandro Torio debuted a kitchen-tip initiative: Patrons will find a line on receipts to add an optional gratuity for kitchen staff. In addition, the 5th Street Group raised its minimum wage for all employees to $15 per hour.
For all its elegance, the vibe at La Belle Helene is upbeat and unstuffy, with jeans-clad servers, champagne cocktails and lively music creating a convivial atmosphere that’s — dare we say — fun. And that’s something we could all use a little more of this year. SP
La Belle Helene is open Tuesday-Saturday from 5 p.m. to close, with indoor and patio seating. Lunch and brunch will be added at a later date. Reserve a table at labellehelenerestaurant.com or at OpenTable.
Featured image by Catch Light Studio