The Helmand is the type of restaurant you hope never changes and never closes. The restaurant has been serving the Baltimore community for over 20 years now, so clearly they have gotten the formula right. I ate at the Helmand for the first time earlier this year, but I really can’t imagine this restaurant has strayed away from its laurels, despite dining trends constantly changing.
Both the menu and the restaurant are simple and rustic, with a touch old world charm. The interior mirrors this motif, with exposed Mt. Vernon brick walls, which have random Afghan novelties hanging on them. The restaurant is split into two different dining rooms, both of which have white linen tablecloths draped over the tables and fresh flowers on each.
The menu is a bit small, but there are typically nightly/weekly specialties to supplement the usual menu. I would advise you start with several small plates for the table. They are all somewhat small and only $5 or less, so go wild! The aushak is ravioli filled with leeks and then topped with ground beef, yogurt sauce and dried mint. This isn’t the typical yogurt sauce you get in a cheap Greek restaurant; it’s rich but with a velvety texture and doesn’t have that sour after taste. The meat sauce, while so basic, has such a depth of flavor from cumin and other traditional Mediterranean spices. Another delicious appetizer is the signature roasted baby pumpkin (kaddo borwani) topped with more of their yogurt sauce with a bit of garlic. The slightly sweet pumpkin essentially melts in your mouth, with the garlic yogurt sauce to contrast the sweetness.
As good as the roasted pumpkin is, perhaps the simplest appetizer might also be the best – the banjan borwani. The banjan borwani is pan fried eggplant, then baked with fresh tomatoes and topped with the yogurt sauce. The result is a perfectly roasted soft eggplant that has a slight smoky flavor. To find eggplant this good you would have to go to the Mediterranean. The yogurt sauce is clearly a running theme in all appetizers, but trust me, it doesn’t get repetitive as it truly compliments each dish.
The best way to describe the various entrees in the menu is to think of Indian dishes, prepared using more Mediterranean spices. For example, the sabzy challow has sautéed spinach which is then stewed together with tomatoes, chilies and chunks of beef. The spinach wasn’t very pronounced but worked well with the viscous spicy stewing liquid and fall apart pieces of beef. Add the signature cilantro sauce and it cools the dish just enough to create a perfect harmony with all the bold flavors. The kabuli pallow is the Afghan rendering of a pilaf, but much better. The long grain rice is seasoned with cumin seed and cardamom, and then cooked with tender chunks of lamb and dried fruit. The dish comes out a bit too sweet for me, but if you add the cilantro sauce, it makes this dish another star.
That evening we also sampled the seekh (beef tenderloin) and chicken kabob, which are some of the less intricate entrees, but still delicious. The chicken kabob sounds like the most boring thing on the menu, but it was unbelievably good. The kabob has large chunks of white meat fresh chicken lightly seasoned and then grilled. The chef cooks the chicken perfectly, until juicy and tender. The seekh kabob is pieces of beef tenderloin also lightly seasoned and grilled to a charry perfection – not as good as the chicken, but still very good.
The dessert menu is small but displays some traditional offerings. One of my favorites was the Afghan ice cream, which is made in house with pieces of dried figs and mango. The ice cream has a mellow flavor and soothes the otherwise spice-filled meal. The Helmand also offers several Middle Eastern pastries, such as baklava, a flaky, sticky, sweet and delicious end to a spicy meal. Of course, what kind of Mediterranean meal would ever be complete without Turkish coffee? The Turkish coffee is prepared in the traditional manner and served in a small espresso cup.
The Helmand doesn’t disappoint in any phase of the meal. From the simple, yet stunning, appetizers to the bold entrées, you really can’t go wrong. You could make a perfect light meal out of just a handful of appetizers, which would only run you about $20. The prices though, in general, are very reasonable for such a good restaurant located downtown. To complement the great food and good prices is the impeccable services. Just moments after you order appetizer and drinks the small plates will start coming out in a staggered manner with entrees to follow soon. The only fault I can find with this restaurant is that some appetizers and entrees are a bit repetitive. After eating here three times, some different entrée options would be a welcome addition, but then again, all the classics on the menu are classics for a reason.