It seems as if just about every review of the Helmand starts out with some blurb about how it is the worst date place in Baltimore - not because it's a horrible place (which it is not), but because there is just so much to see and sample there that you and your date will never get to schmoozing over each other!
Well, I've never gone on a date there, but they're probably right anyway.
There is a reason why Baltimore Magazine and Baltimore's City Paper keep gushing about the Helmand. Heck, the City Paper just named it Blatimore's Best Middle Eastern Restaurant of 2006 (even though Afghanistan is in South Asia). The food is yummy. What can I say? It just is! And with Afghan food on my mind, I headed downtown to Baltimore's premier Afghan restaurant. Oh, I forgot to mention: the Helmand is an Afghan restaurant, run by the brother of Afghan president Hamid Karzai, no less!
Mind you, the Helmand is not Baltimore's only Afghan restaurant. The Afghan Kabob, further south on Charles Street, is a favorite lunch place for many office- and cubicle-dwellers downtown. Their aushak (a kind of meaty ravioli in a yogurt-garlic sauce) is tasty, and the place is cheaper than most.
First I went to buy some tickets for a performance (more on that when it happens), then I trudged on over to the Helmand. I was not immediately seated - the place is pretty busy at 9:00 on a Friday night. The owner asked me if I would like to wait at the bar while a table was readied for me (so now there are only two degrees of separation between Hamid Karzai and myself!). As I sat down at the bar, gazing at all the liquors, beers and wines, one thing started to puzzle me, as it always dows: if this is an Afghan restaurant, and if Afghanistan is a Muslim country, exactly why do they serve alcohol here? Just something I have frequently wondered, because there really is no national wine or beer of Afghanistan. Who could drink it?
As I was ushered to my table, I took in the scenery, again. There are lots of Afghan textiles, pictures and assorted tchotchkes decking the walls of this dimly lit restaurant, and there were so many people there! A waitress still came by forthwith and asked if I would like something to drink. Feeling a little funny ordering beer in, again, a restaurant that serves a Muslim cuisine, I ordered the iced tea. I'm just like that, and I guess only I am like that, because the wine was certaqinly flowing at all the other tables. Ah well, I would have a Guinness later, somewhere else...
Not to break the checkbook, I ordered one appetizer and one cheaper entrée with my iced tea - the kaddo borawni for my appetizer and the mantwo for my main course. As I waited for my food to come, the waiter brought some flat bread - usually hot, but this one time it was not - and some butter. It is a tasty way to wait for your meal, but don't fill up on it. Your meal will not be small.
Next came the kaddo borawni, which I have eaten a few times here. A note about this aperitif: it is steamed pumpkin in a yogurt-garlic sauce, and it is the rave of much of Baltimore. I bit into it, and rememberd why: the pumpkin is soft and sweet, and the yogurt sauce is tangy. I eat this slowly so it'll last longer (a picture of it is on this link to the Helmand's page. Note the pumpkin covered in a tangy yogurt-garlic sauce). The price was right, too, at under $4.
Soon enough, my mantwo came out. I wasn't as crazy about this, but that's just my taste, because it is still good. This is a pasta-like pastry (okay, it's a pasta - another dumpling). The Helmand's official description is:
Homemade pastry shell filled with onions and beef. Served on yogurt and topped with carrots, yellow split peas and beef sauce.
But I still think it's a pasta. The ground beef filling was tasty, and there was a scant yogurt sauce. I got more of my fill of yellow split peas, which I guess I'm not completely crazy for. But I still enjoyed the dish, don't get me wrong. The price of it was good, too - a mere $11.95. Next time, though, I may just order their wonderful dwopiaza, a lamb dish with onions and rice (I woould not be surprised if pallow and pilaf share the same linguistic origin).
With the iced tea (I got two, but was only charged one, I think that was intentional, or else I would have said something), plus tax, my total came to about $18. With tip, it came to around $21.50. And that's after the waitress accidentally gave me the wrong change - when I brought it up, she gave me the right change, with no hassle. The folks here are friendly and happy to please you. As you will find out when you go there, as I trust you will!