Certain places have the power of changing certain people, and in the case of Josh Boutwood, who describes himself as normally “very reclusive,” he becomes a little more extroverted when he’s at his degustation restaurant Helm. “When you meet me in my other restaurants, I’ll be a completely different person,” says the seasoned chef, “very introverted, my head is down, I probably wouldn’t even say hi.”
Which is most likely why “one of Asia’s most exciting young chefs” took his time making sure he gets exactly what he wanted for Helm’s new home. Boutwood just uprooted the restaurant’s four-year-old operations in BGC to move to a swanky third floor arrangement at The Shops in Ayala Triangle, one that allows him a bigger room to move around in, and comes with a breezy al fresco area where diners can have pre-game drinks (and post-dinner libations, too, I suppose).
“I told them everything I wanted,” the chef says, explaining how he worked with the team of designers also responsible for Ember, Boutwood’s Greenbelt dining spot. “From the ceiling to the floor to the bathrooms, I told them everything. I was very demanding for this project. I was a Karen.”
The new Helm is, like its predecessor, minimalist, standing on the colors black, grey and copper, with details inspired by the Japanese art of kintsugi, or assembling broken pieces of pottery back together with gold. The space’s overall look is dramatic and distinguished, but everything feels warm and laidback. That the place evokes the atmosphere of a theater is maybe no accident. It is, after all, where Boutwood gets to flex his not-often-seen entertainer side. And we are his audience—not here exactly to relax and chat, as suggested by the bar stools that force us to sit much straighter than usual (although the stools feel very luxurious), but to be amused, pleased, maybe even moved by food.
Unlike in Helm’s previous incarnation, the menu here is not anchored on a theme, or at least this inaugural one is not. Everything is based on what Boutwood and his team feels like putting out there at the moment, with only the adherence to using the best available ingredients as common thread, and the inventive ways the dishes are prepared.
And then there’s the chef’s fascination for the number 3.
Each item on the maiden 14-course dinner is represented by three main components. Our post-snacks soup is identified only as Mussel, Lemongrass, Chili, a mussel-based broth with little island droplets of dill oil, chili oil, and burnt garlic oil (the chef suggests to consume it in three sips). This is followed by Hamachi, Coconut Lime Leaf, Yuzu, where fish from Kagoshima is cured with salt, sugar and Szechuan peppers (another three!) and covered in a pristine white blanket of coconut film.
The easy standout, however, is the very satisfying, crunchy-on-some-parts, soft-and-rich-everywhere-else Fish and Chips starter, Boutwood’s ode to his British roots. The fish is tuna tartare wrapped in brik pastry; and to replicate the chips, says the assistant chef introducing the dish, powder was made out of potato skin.
Later in the dinner comes the trio called Seabass, Mussel Emulsion, Parsley—lightly poached Chilean seabass with a parsley and garlic sauce on the bottom and bright green mussel emulsion doused on top. “The wonderful shellfish flavors,” says Boutwood from across the vast quartz countertop where he serves our dinner, “cut through the richness of the fish.” (Yes, they do.)
The most excellent of the evening’s offerings, however, has got to be the Duck, Soursop, Black Pepper which delivers a slice of medium rare duck meat accompanied by a trio of delightful sidings, one of which is a guyabano gel whose brightness and sweetness make it the advance party to the next dish: Watermelon, Calamansi, Basil, a treat so satisfying and complex one would hesitate to call it just a cleanser of one’s palate.
This new Helm clearly upholds the very touchstones that made the OG Helm one of the most successful tasting menu restaurants in the country. It’s inventive, playful, loves dishes that are technically complex, and has a delicate but assured touch. No wonder Boutwood is most confident here. That he has a trusted staff of young cooks behind him doesn’t hurt either.
And if there is ever worry that this Helm will signal another kind of change in the guy, that he will be less of a presence in this new address—what with his two other restaurants and growing responsibilities as corporate chef of the Bistro Group—this inaugural menu should reassure fans that the guy’s hand remains very much the supreme force in the Helm kitchen. Just look at his beef dish, for example, or the Strip loin, Mushroom, Sunchoke. The way Boutwood executes his chosen cooking process for it may sound to some as bordering on obsessive, but the chef only seems amused by its slightly cuckoo quality: He gives each side of the beef a quick sear on a hot pan and then lets the meat rest for 10 minutes. Sounds simple enough, yes, and then he says he repeats this process over and over, for the duration of six hours. “Until we get this wonderful doneness of a medium rare on the inside.”
The process is a killer in labor cost, Boutwood says so himself, but since he’s still in charge of that “labor” in the meantime, at least for the strip loin—“As soon as I walk into that door,” he says proudly, “I go straight to butchering beef and cooking beef!”—there’s no need to alarm Helm’s finance books. And besides, it needs his personal touch turning over that precious slice of meat, he admits smiling, looking a little embarrassed for his little act of indulgence. He acts out the flipping of the beef like he’s turning the page of a fragile music sheet. “You gotta have the right feeling.”
[Helm is now at 3/L The Shops at Ayala Triangle Garden, Makati City. The 8-course tasting menu is at PhP 5,800 while the 12-course tasting menu is at PHP 8,800. Prices are inclusive of VAT; no service charge. To book a table, contact: 63.915.909.8647 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Helm by Josh Boutwood is open from Tuesday to Sunday, 6PM to 10PM.]