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After 20 years, The Helmand still entices and delights

Now a Baltimore dining classic, The Helmand has changed just enough to keep diners satisfied

By Richard Gorelick, The Baltimore Sun

12:22 PM EST, February 24, 2014

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Aushuk, check. Kofta challow, check. Kaddo borwani, check.

The everlasting pleasures at The Helmand are still in place, and still wonderful.

For the uninitiated, aushuk are soft, pillowy squares of ravioli-like pasta, filled with meltingly soft leeks, served on a shallow pool of minted yogurt and topped with a mildly spiced ground beef sauce. The kofta challow (challow means "rice") is a luscious entree of lamb and beef meatballs seasoned with turmeric and paprika in a tomato-based sauce with hot green peppers and green peas.

And the kaddo borwani is, arguably, the most beloved appetizer to appear in a Baltimore restaurant in the past quarter-century. It's a simple, and simply beautiful, serving of sauteed baby pumpkin seasoned, very gently, with sugar, and served with a yogurt garlic sauce.

If you haven't been to The Helmand for a while, you'll find the core menu, and the basic dining experience, much like you left it.

I can think of few restaurants that have changed, fundamentally, as little as has The Helmand, the Afghan restaurant now in its 25th year of pleasing rooms full of diners in Mount Vernon.

Rather, I can think of few restaurants that have changed so little and that I'd still care to visit on a Saturday night.

On a recent visit, we took a closer look at the list of specials, some of which are only available on weekend nights. The prices are higher here, but if you tend to fall back on your Helmand favorites, try one of them. We loved the zardalu challow, a stew of tender lamb chunks with sun-dried apricots, fresh tomatoes, garlic, turmeric and chili peppers. This is The Helmand's cooking at its very best, when an unusual balance of flavors is in complete control. Consider, too, the feather-light and velvety sea bass, stewed in ginger with sun-dried baby grapes.

And if you're looking for a perfectly grilled half-rack of lamb chops, with the slightest, teasing crust over lean, flavorful meat, you'll want to order the chowpan, which just might be the best lamb chops in town.

It's hard to remember a Baltimore dining scene without The Helmand and without its owner, Qayum Karzai, the elder brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. (Qayum Karzai is now running to replace his brother in April elections.) Before coming to Baltimore, Qayum Karzai had opened a Helmand in Chicago (now closed), a forerunner to the restaurant in Baltimore, which opened in 1989. He has since opened B in Bolton Hill and Tapas Teatro in Charles North.

The Helmand has struck me as the kind of restaurant you'd find in a progressive university town. (One of Karzai's brothers — the one who's not the president of Afghanistan — operates a Helmand restaurant in East Cambridge, Mass.)

Furnished with woven rugs, decorated with enamelware, teapots and traditional Afghan garments and dressed with white tablecloths, the main dining room remains a model of quiet elegance. The service is efficient and brisk but not brusque.

Know that the there are more tables now in the side dining room, and the tables closest to the entrance are not your best choice for comfort, especially when the weather's cold. When making your reservations — and you should — ask for the main dining room.

The pace of a meal at The Helmand can proceed more quickly than you'd like. Food comes out more quickly than you'd expect, and it might dawn on you, after a few visits, that The Helmand is a high-volume restaurant dressed in fine-dining clothes. That's not a reason not to go, but just something to keep in mind.

Absolutely relax, after your entree with a strong cup of Turkish coffee, and, my favorite, cardamom-scented vanilla ice cream with bits of mangoes, dates and figs.

Just know that if your dinner takes longer than 90 minutes, you're likely keeping some very eager diners waiting in line.

Change is what keeps a restaurant relevant and interesting. This is true even of restaurants like The Helmand, where the focus is on a specific regional cuisine. Diners have become more sophisticated about world cuisine and expect more from restaurants.

But the Helmand always was sophisticated. It hasn't had to suddenly start using locally grown produce because it always has. The recipes haven't been reformulated to make the food lighter and brighter. From the start, The Helmand has been a destination for diners who care about what goes into their bodies.

richard.gorelick@baltsun.com


The Helmand

Rating: 4 stars

Where: 806 N. Charles St., Mount Vernon

Contact: 410-752-0311, helmand.com

Open: Dinner daily

Prices: Appetizers: $5.25; entrees: $13.50-$16.95

Food: Refined and elegant Afghan cuisine.

Service: Experienced and brisk.

Parking/accessibility: A paid lot is adjacent to the restaurant in addition to on-street parking.

Children: There is no children's menu.

Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation is fine throughout the restaurant. There is a television at the bar with its sound turned off.

[Star key: Superlative: 5; Excellent: 4; Very Good: 3; Good:2 ; Promising: 1]