The Helmand

$$$$ ($15-$24)

Editorial Review

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 9, 2003

In a time when culinary complexity has become an X-treme competition, it is both a relief and a sort of philosophical vindication to point to a cuisine that is as simple and as satisfying as Afghan fare. And when the execution is as deft as it is at Baltimore's venerable Helmand, it need make no excuse for its lack of elaboration.

Even in the increasingly vital arts and eats neighborhood of Mount Vernon Square, the Helmand has remained a standout (in more ways than one: The line of hopefuls often stretches out the door). In fact, its main claim to fame inside our Beltway, that owner Qayum Karzai is brother of the current president of Afghanistan, thus giving it a romantic air of aristocracy in exile, has almost been forgotten by those inside I-695, happily overshadowed by the consistent quality of its cooking. (The family also owns three other restaurants in the United States.)

The Helmand has several advantages over more modest Afghan establishments, and its fully staffed kitchen is only the first. The restaurant is good size but not outsized, with a full and elegant bar and a few smaller tables in one room and the main dining room alongside. The decor is fairly plain but pleasant (white linen, exposed brick walls, a few bright textile hangings) and the volume levels are moderate. The wine list is not long but smart (the house white is an elegant little Graves). And the service is swift, attentive and suave. If, as must be conceded, the flatbread is not as irresistible, or as generous, as that at the Afghan Restaurant in Alexandria, it may be one of the few shortcomings of the menu.

Banjan borwani, pan-fried eggplant baked with tomatoes into a sort of Afghan ratatouille, is lovely and without any hint of overripe bitterness, and the natural acidity is further balanced with yogurt. Kaddo borwani, a similarly long-cooked sugared baby pumpkin, is a signature dish here; it's an unusually sweet version, almost glazed, even with its own drizzle of yogurt. Some people might find it cloying as the sole appetizer, but it balances something such as the mantwo, beef-stuffed pastries topped with a beef and split-pea sauce, or the various lamb dishes (though it's really hard to beat the spanky cilantro sauce).

Aushak, the Afghan version of ravioli, is particularly comforting here: noodles of smooth but substantial texture stuffed with blanched leeks, bedded in yogurt and topped with a minted meat sauce. Like many Afghan kitchens, the Helmand offers vegetarian versions of aushak (topped with a pea and carrot sauce and served with basmati rice), mantwo (topped with sun-dried tomatoes and peas) and bowlani, the equivalent of potato and leek samosas, plus a number of other vegetarian recipes as well as a vegetarian specials list on weekends. Among the nicest veggie entrees is the dolma, baby eggplant stuffed with sabzi (sauteed spinach), and simmered with sun-dried tomatoes and bell peppers.

One of the most popular specials, actually a Friday and Saturday night regular, is the chopan, a half-rack (three ribs) of chargrilled lamb rubbed in spices and mint, carefully trimmed of fat and just pink in the center, served with a tomato and onion salad. In fact, lamb, the mainstay of Persian cuisine, is uniformly good here and clearly of high quality, with a clean, barely gamy aroma. It's available as a kebab, as lawand sauteed with tomatoes and mushrooms and in two casseroles, one tangier (dwopizaz, with onions, yellow split peas and a dash of vinegar) and the other sweeter (kabuli, spiced rice tossed with chunks of lamb, raisins and carrots). And while the most prominent flavorings in Afghan cooking are the typically Persian mints, thymes, brown spices (cardamom, cumin, coriander, cinnamon) and dried or candied fruits, the green chili hook of the koufta -- lamb and beef meatballs seasoned with sun-dried grapes, turmeric and paprika -- might surprise you.

While seafood is not so familiar on Afghan menus, the Helmand of the title is, in fact, a river in the south of the country, and the restaurant offers grilled tuna and poached salmon on weekends.

Rice is the jewel of the Middle East, and the Helmand's chelow, the plainer basmati, is unobtrusively fine, distinct, firm and dry. The pallow (pilau, i.e., pilaf) is flavored with brown spices and a little slicker.

The Helmand offers only three or four desserts, including the admittedly "nontraditional but very popular" chocolate layer cake, but the cardamom-spiked vanilla ice cream is really nice, a sort of Afghan bombe layered with dates, fresh mango and dried figs.