Afghan Food? Go For It

DINING OUT

September 27, 1992|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Helmand, 806 N. Charles St. (410) 752-0311. Open every day for dinner only. Major credit cards accepted. No-smoking area: no. Handicapped accessible: yes.

Why I don't know, but some of Baltimore's most interesting ethnic restaurants are concentrated in the 800 block of N. Charles St. If you let me cheat a little and count the Bombay Grill -- in a building on Charles but with the entrance off Madison Street -- there are Sichuan, Thai, Vietnamese, Afghan and two Indian eating places.

I've had good meals at most of them; but my favorite is the Afghan restaurant, the Helmand, for a variety of reasons. The food is well-prepared and accessible to American palates, the setting pleases, the service is excellent and none of the dishes costs over $10.

It surprises me that more people don't know about the Helmand -- or they forget about it -- in spite of the fact that it's always gotten high marks from local restaurant critics since it opened three years ago. Baltimoreans (I guess) haven't gotten used to saying, "Gee, honey, I feel like Afghan tonight."

But if you do happened to feel like Afghan tonight, you could start with a first course of baby pumpkin ($2.95) baked and then pan-fried, the delicate flavor enhanced by just a bit of sugar. It's served with a tangy yogurt-garlic sauce. The dish tastes better than you would believe from my description, and it's very pretty as well.

Every starter I've tried at the Helmand has been a success. Afghan ravioli ($2.95), which can also be had as a main course, is one of the best. The tender noodle triangles are filled with chopped leeks and bathed in a spicy tomato and ground beef sauce drizzled with tart, minty yogurt.

Eggplant sauteed with fresh tomatoes ($2.95) is probably my favorite first course. I love the contrast of textures and flavors, the spicy-hot vegetables cooled by yet another yogurt sauce. Yogurt, mint, lemon, cilantro, cardamom and garlic are flavors that run through most of the dishes. (A caveat: If you don't order carefully, dinner could be repetitious -- with yogurt sauce on everything, or every dish flavored with cilantro.)

Main courses follow the same themes. Spicing can be fiery, but never heavy-handed; you can always taste a variety of intense flavors. If you like stews, try dwopliaza ($9.50), tender chunks of lamb cooked with onion and yellow split-peas and served with pallow (Afghan rice pilaf).

A kebab of marinated chicken ($9.95) was the best of our main courses. Chunks of white meat were marinated and then charcoal-broiled, but not overcooked, so they were marvelously tender.

Almost as good was Koufta challow ($8.95), fat meatballs made of ground beef and lamb, seasoned with turmeric and hot pepper, and served over rice in a tomato sauce with raisins and green peas.

To my mind, beer would go better than anything else with food this highly spiced and sharply flavored. But if you want interesting wines by the glass or bottle, the Helmand has them. One of the surprises is the wine list, extensive for an inexpensive ethnic restaurant. Just settle back and drink your wine with the Helmand's warm whole wheat flatbread before you start your meal proper.

About the only thing that didn't work for me was something described as an Afghan-style mixed green salad with lemon-mint dressing. The reality turned out to be lettuce, pale tomato and cucumber with a dressing that tasted like lemon juice and not much else.

OK, I have to admit it: I also wasn't wild about the desserts. They cost $1.95 and involved such ingredients as homemade cheese covered with candied carrots and raisins, and sweetened ricotta, the texture of mashed potatoes, with pistachios.

I've left till last a description of the setting, but the serene dining rooms are a real drawing card. Even after three years they are as fresh-looking under the soft lighting as when they were new -- the white walls with dark trim hung with rugs and ethnic costumes, the glazed brick, the white napery. Candles and fresh flowers grace each table.

If there's a chocoholic among you, you'll have to get your dessersomewhere else, but otherwise I think you'll be happy with dinner at the Helmand. Especially when you get the modest check.

! Next: Rudys' 2900

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