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Helmand serves consistently good Afghan fare

Sun Restaurant Critic

Since the Helmand, Baltimore's favorite Afghan restaurant, opened at the end of the '80s, it's been the go-to special occasion restaurant for the budget-conscious. Of course, it's also been the go-to restaurant for folks in the neighborhood who want a cheap-but-good meal after work, or for anyone who likes ethnic cuisines, or for vegetarians, or for lamb lovers, or for couples on a first date. You get the idea.

This means the Helmand's two dining rooms are almost always crowded, and it's foolish to assume you'll get a table if you walk in without a reservation.

Even with a reservation, it's best to go at an off hour. The tables are claustrophobically close together, and when the restaurant is full to capacity, the Helmand is impossibly noisy. The weeknight we were there, the staff pushed two small tables together to seat the four of us. One of us was seated on the end of a banquette and one beside him on a chair noticeably lower. To make room for the wait staff to get by, one place was set cater-cornered at the end of the table. The one of us seated on the side facing the banquette had trouble being part of the conversation. It was awkward.

Without all the people, if that ever happens, the softly lit dining rooms would be charming and serene. The white-clothed tables are handsomely set with fresh flowers and candles. Afghan textiles decorate the white walls. There are dark woods and oriental rugs. The restaurant feels comfortable, settled and inviting.

The wait staff does the best it can under the conditions -- in fact, this time they did remarkably well. In the past, I've felt rushed at the Helmand. The food arrived too quickly, as if they were anxious for us to eat up and move on. This wasn't true on my last visit.

The Helmand's menu isn't quite the bargain it once was (well, what is?), but most entrees are still less than $15. True, you now have to pay for the warm flatbread with butter, but it's well worth it. Wines are mostly priced less than $30. That's bottles, not glasses.

But all this wouldn't have made the Helmand such a success story for more than 25 years if it weren't for the food. I've always thought the appetizers were the best part of the meal; luckily you can order some of them for your main course. My favorite is probably the aushak, soft Afghan "ravioli" filled with leeks over yogurt flavored with fresh mint. You can have them with either a ground beef sauce or a vegetarian topping of split peas and carrots. I can't decide which I like better.

A bowl of the vegetarian aush, a heart-warming soup made with housemade pasta, fresh vegetables and more of that wonderful yogurt-mint sauce, is hearty enough for a supper, if you get a basket of bread with it.

Pan-fried eggplant and tomatoes, baked and served with yogurt-garlic sauce is also fine. It doesn't come as a main course, but it inspired me to try the baby eggplant stuffed with spinach next time.

Of all the appetizers I've tried, only the baked baby pumpkin doesn't interest me much, although everyone else seems to love it. Sprinkled with sugar and baked, it's simply too sweet to be appealing as anything but dessert, in spite of its yogurt-garlic sauce.

There was only one special that evening, a salad of organic greens. I could have used more avocado than the one slice arranged on the slice of tomato, but once tomatoes are in season, it will be well worth ordering.

If the specials include char-grilled lamb chops (usually on the weekends), that's what I would order for an entree. The lamb stews don't thrill me as much. My second choice would be the lamb kebabs or tender marinated chicken kebabs. A special the night we were there paired the chicken with tuna kebabs, but I prefer the chicken alone.

Bell peppers stuffed with vegetables and beans and cooked in a tomato-rhubarb sauce should have been wonderful, and would have been if they had been cooked until the peppers were soft, not still slightly crisp. That was the only sign I saw that the kitchen was rushed.

Pieces of sea bass, on the other hand, would have benefited from less cooking, although I should have known better: The menu says they are "stewed in ginger." Mine were missing their sun-dried grapes and tomato; they came with quarters of potato and spinach.

The Helmand has remained remarkably consistent in the years since it first opened. It's still a great bargain, a place where people always have fun. And in one way, it has improved over the years: The first time I reviewed it, I complained that the desserts were the low point. Now there's a choice of chocolate cake with chocolate ganache, organic dried fruits and nuts, an Afghan pudding with fresh fruit (fairly tasteless, I have to admit), a couple of lovely little Middle Eastern pastries, and my favorite, vanilla ice cream with cardamom and chopped figs, mangoes and dates.

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