Recently an out-of-towner asked me to name Baltimore's four-star restaurants, and I was tempted to mention the Helmand. But I knew what he expected: expensive places with elaborate decor, posh food and a big wine list. So I didn't.
The Helmand is that rarity, a restaurant that does what it sets out to do superbly. Of course, if Afghan food with its emphasis on vegetables and stews and flavors of yogurt, mint, cardamom and garlic doesn't appeal to you, then read no further.
Although it's not haute cuisine, the quality of the Helmand's food remains at a consistently high level. No eating place in Baltimore gives you better value for your dining-out dollar. All first courses on the regular menu are $2.95, while main courses are kept under $10. (Only one dish on the list of daily specials goes up as high as $14.95.)
You don't expect an inexpensive ethnic restaurant to have a decent wine list, but the Helmand does. Short but decent. And you might not expect such an appealing setting.
The two dining rooms are comfortable and romantic, with Afghan textiles decorating the walls, fresh white napery and flickering candles on each table. (The tables are, I admit, a bit too close together; but that's only a problem when the restaurant is very full. Then it can be quite noisy.)
You should start with tender aushak, delicate pasta pillows filled with chopped leeks. Two sauces complement them: ground beef and yogurt infused with mint. But it's a tough call. Also PTC outstanding are ethereally crisp, golden pastries filled with ground beef or leeks and covered with flavorful sauces. Sauteed pumpkin with yogurt-garlic sauce is the signature appetizer; it's delicious but sweet enough to end a meal rather than begin it.
I never get quite as excited about the main courses as the appetizers; but that's only because I've eaten so much by that point, including too much of the warm flat bread with butter melting softly on it.
The char-grilled rack of lamb, which I've heard is very good, is available only on Friday and Saturday nights. But I'm perfectly happy with dishes like baby eggplant stuffed with spinach in a sun-dried tomato sauce, or tender boneless chicken, tomatoes and button mushrooms in a sauce made of yogurt and sour cream. This last is served with fiery spinach and highly seasoned rice.
As good as these are, the most satisfying of our main courses was a moist and flaky sea bass, arranged in a sort of stew with slices of fresh ginger, tomatoes, raisins and red-skinned potatoes.
Often desserts at ethnic restaurants don't appeal to American tastes; but according to our waitress, some customers come to the Helmand just for the ice cream, which is served with dates, figs and mango. Other pleasing dessert choices are an unassuming custard with fresh cut-up fruit and berries, and a pretty little plate of pastries. If you haven't left any room for more food, at least have a cup of the strong and satisfying Afghan tea brewed with cardamom.
Where: 806 N. Charles St.
Hours: Open daily for dinner only
Prices: Appetizers, $2.95; main courses, $8.50-$14.95; major credit cards
Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *
Pub Date: 6/07/98