Kabobi is a charming, more casual spinoff of Afghan gem The Helmand

For The Baltimore Sun

Going to The Helmand in Mount Vernon is a dining rite of passage for many Baltimoreans. We're proud of this Afghan gem that has been in our midst since 1989.

Now, there's a spinoff — Kabobi from The Helmand — near Johns Hopkins Hospital in the Middle East neighborhood.

The two Helmand restaurants, operated by the Karzai family, share the same soul and many dishes — including the beloved pumpkin appetizer, kaddo borani.

But the new location, which opened in January, has a fast-casual approach.

Actually, Kabobi has a split personality. There is a counter, where diners order food to eat in or take out, and — a few steps down — a chic, modern dining room with soaring ceilings, a wall painted to resemble abstract silver-and-blue minaret towers, and individual and communal tables. The lower level offers full-service dining and a bar.

Owner Qayum Karzai said he wasn't looking to open another Helmand restaurant, but after he was approached by a developer, he realized the merits of establishing an offshoot. The original restaurant is always busy, he said. The Karzais also own Tapas Teatro, Pen & Quill and B Bistro.

The recently introduced dinner menu at Kabobi includes entrees like lamb with basmati rice and chicken kabobs, while the counter menu has various wraps and bowls. Both sides offer appetizers, soups and salads.

We sat in the lower level at dinner time and enjoyed the bold surroundings, familiar Afghan food and giant windows showcasing the street of pedestrians. This new, vibrant version of The Helmand is a great alternative to its older sibling.

Scene & Decor When we went recently during happy hour, only a few customers were camped out in the lower level. I have a feeling that once this place is discovered, there will be a crowd. Even though this is a big, open space with exposed ceiling ducts, the dining room with dramatic painted walls and bare tables is inviting and congenial.

Appetizers We never get tired of eating the wonderful kaddo borani ($4.95), the popular pan-fried and baked baby-pumpkin appetizer drizzled with yogurt garlic sauce. The sabzy starter ($4.95) was also very good. It looked like a jazzed-up creamed spinach, with the leafy greens sauteed with onions, rhubarb, garlic and a touch of cinnamon. We had a small basket of naan ($2.50), which is different from airier Indian naan. The captivating bread is thicker, denser and cut into rectangles.

Entrees One of the staff members recommended the kabuli with boneless chicken ($13.95), and we're glad we followed her excellent suggestion. The delectable pillow of luxurious rice and boneless chicken chunks was mixed with a spicy tomato and herb sauce and adorned with julienne carrots and raisins. A side of soft turnips was a nice addition. The dwopiaza ($14.95) was an enticing, fragrant saute of lamb tenderloin cubes, vinegar-marinated onions and yellow split peas served with pallow rice (a seasoned Afghan dish) and a side of turnips.

Drinks In the dining area, several wines by the glass are available from the bar, including a Tempranillo ($9) and chardonnay ($8), and a limited selection of beer in cans and bottles, such as Union Duckpin ($5). A specialty cocktail listed on the menu wasn't being offered on our visit. (Our waitress said it would be available soon, but she wasn't sure exactly when.)

Service Our friendly waitress was knowledgeable about the cuisine.

Dessert The delicate, house-made baklava ($3.95) with honey and walnuts was a luscious version of the Middle Eastern pastry. The fereny ($3.95), an eggless cardamom pudding, was a soothing ending to the meal, featuring an array of fresh fruit, including strawberries, kiwi and mango, decoratively arranged on top.

Kabobi from The Helmand

Backstory: Owner Qayum Karzai opened the fast-casual side of Kabobi from The Helmand in January. The full-service dining room with a bar started serving sit-down meals in March.

Signature dish: The kaddo borani appetizer

TVs: No TVs at this time, though there may be some in the future, Karzai said.

Where: 855 N. Wolfe St., near Johns Hopkins Hospital, Middle East

Contact: 410-327-2230, helmandkabobi.com

Open: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. (or later) Monday through Friday, depending on whether people are in the dining room. Happy hour is 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. those days.

Credit Cards: All major

Reservations: Accepts reservations for six and more

Bottom line: The Karzai family are experienced restaurateurs, and their expertise shows at this fabulous Helmand offshoot.

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