A few nights ago, I went to dinner at The Helmand, a famous Afghan restaurant in Baltimore. I had heard about The Helmand and how amazing it was from many people, and when I did a little research on it I found that it had won Best Middle Eastern Food in 2004, 2005, and 2006 in The City Paper's Best of Baltimore, plus a whole host of other awards. When my dinner plans with law school buddies Veronica and Kerry were solidified, I was excited to say the least.
When we first arrived, we had to wait a bit for our table but were soon seated at a prime table in the middle of the dimly lit and ornately decorated dining room. Our waitress came and took our drink orders (I got a glass of Chardonnay; Kerry and Veronica got glasses of Beaujolais) and then gave us a basket of bread and butter. In my usual blogger mode, I whipped out my camera and began snapping shots (although as you will see, it was very dim so my pictures are not great). Then, suddenly a friendly man (a manager of the restaurant, maybe?) came up to me and said "Would you like to see how the bread is made?" FINALLY, someone thought I was a real food critic or writer or something equally important! It was such a rush! The three of us were guided to a corner of the restaurant behind the bar, where the man explained what another man, the breadmaker, was doing. First he took a ball of dough from a container (maybe it was rising, maybe just resting) and rolled it out into a large sheet, about the size of a full sheet pan, and about half an inch thick. Then he folded the dough over a rolling pin and carefully placed it in a wood-burning oven. During the time it took to bake (about three minutes) the baker popped a few bubbles that were forming in the bread with a long metal skewer-type tool. Then he took the bread out, posed for a picture, and proceeded to cut it up into small pieces for the bread baskets. So cool! Clearly this man has made a lot of bread - he made it look so easy! We were totally honored and thrilled to have gotten invited to see the bread-making. We're practically famous...
Anyway, when we returned to our seats, we got down to business and began perusing the menu. I really enjoyed dining with Veronica and Kerry because they are good eaters - they'll try anything, and they love to SHARE. So, in the spirit of sharing, we decided to get five appetizers and three mains and share the wealth.
For our appetizers, we ordered:
- Kaddo Borawni, pan-fried and baked baby pumpkin seasoned with sugar and served on yogurt garlic sauce
- Aushak, Afghan ravioli filled with leeks and served on yogurt-mint topped with ground beef sauce
- Banjan Borawni, pan-fried eggplant seasoned with fresh tomatoes and spices baked and served on yogurt garlic sauce
- Mantwo, homemade pastry shells filled with onions and beef, served on yogurt and topped with carrots, yellow split peas and beef sauce
- Shornakhod, potatoes, chickpeas and spring onion salad served with cilantro vinaigrette dressing
Banjan Borawni (pan-fried eggplant with tomatoes)
Shornakhod (potato, chickpea, cilantro salad)
Kaddo Borawni (baby pumpkin)
Aushak (leek ravioli with ground beef sauce)
Mantwo (pastry filled with beef and onions, with beef sauce and yellow split peas)
All of these dishes were so amazing! But, we had to pick a favorite, and it was a tie between the Kaddo Borawni (the sweet pumpkin with yogurt garlic sauce) and the Shornakod (salad with potatoes and chickpeas). The pumpkin dish had been recommended to me by Xani (her only words of advice: "Get the pumpkin thing!") and it was so delicious - it was sweet with a little bit of salt from the sauce, and the pumpkin was very delicate without being mushy. Also, very seasonal with Halloween coming up! The chickpea and potato salad was AWESOME. It was really fresh and light but still substantial - like I could eat a whole big bowl of it for dinner if given the opportunity. In addition to the cilantro vinaigrette, the salad had a cilantro paste on top, sort of like a pesto, and it was so intense and flavorful, and DELICIOUS. I want it right now.
After our yummy appetizers, we moved on to mains. Veronica requested that we have at least one lamb dish, and that we did! We ordered:
- Dwopiaza, seasoned tenderloin of lamb cooked with onions, sauteed with yellow split-peas and tossed with onions lightly marinated in vinegar; served with pallow
- Sabzy Challow, spinach sauteed with chunks of beef and Afghan seasonings; served with challow
- Koufta Challow, combination of lamb and beef meatballs seasoned with sun-dried baby grapes, paprika and tumeric in hot green pepper, great peas and fresh tomato sauce; served with challow
The mains were also quite delicious. The Dwopiaza had chunks of lamb which was marinated and nicely cooked, which was served with vegetables and a cilantro sauce on the side. It was also served with pallow, which is rice that is seasoned with spices (the only one I could clearly detect was cinnamon) and that was so delicious and unexpected.
The Koufta Challow was also quite good. The meatballs were yummy and the rich tomato sauce served alongside made a great accompaniment. This dish was served on challow, which is rice seasoned with savory spices and herbs. It did not have as much of a distinctive flavor as the pallow but that was okay since the meatballs and sauce had a lot of flavors going on.
The Sabzy Challow was my favorite main dish. It sort of reminded me of the Indian dish Palak Paneer (you know, the one with the spinach and cheese - yum!). The spinach was so delicious, and the beef was really flavorful and tender, and a little bit fatty. Also served with challow, it was absolutely fantastic!
Though we were just about ready to fall asleep from fullness, wine, and happiness, we took a gander at the dessert menu. Saying "I'm just curious to see what they have" is the kiss of death! After a bit of a debate, we ordered the Afghan Ice Cream, which was vanilla ice cream with dates, dried figs, fresh mango, and spices. It was delicious and unique, and just the right amount of sweetness to end the meal. In addition to dessert, we needed some caffeine. Veronica ordered a Turkish Coffee, Kerry got a cappuccino, and I got just straight up coffee. Yummmm...
Afghan Ice Cream
It was a delicious and super-fun meal! The only criticism we had of the experience was that our waitress was not very friendly and seemed a bit bothered with us, especially when we were not ready for her to take our order (too much chatting!). It's unfortunate that she was such a sourpuss because everyone else we encountered (manager who took us to see bread baked, baker man, host, other waiters) was very sweet and gracious. Too bad! I would definitely go back though, no doubt about it. I need those chickpeas!
Thanks to Kerry and Veronica for being such fabulous and patient (while I snapped my pics) dinner companions! You guys are the best! We love the Helmand! (Especially because they thought we were important!)