BY DAVID WANG
Having narrowly escaped the wrath of the piqued waitstaff at Metro, where our editors intriguingly decided to make up for a negative review in this space by selecting the restaurant to host the RECORD’s annual Fall Banquet, your humble reviewers have both sworn off negative reviews for a minimum of one week.
But fear was not our only motivation: The more subtle but equally powerful desire to suck up to the newly powerful also impelled us to pay homage to the Karzai family. Hamid Karzai, of course, is the interim prime minister of Afghanistan. His brother Mahmood, known as “the Danny Meyer of Afghanistan,” or “the Hamid Karzai of America,” owns a group of restaurants across the country, including Cambridge’s very own Helmand.
The verdict: Helmand, an Afghan restaurant located just a few blocks from the Cambridgeside Galleria, easily ranks second only to Taco Bell as the best place we’ve visited this year. (It would also rank as the most topical place we’ve visited this year, but Taco Bell’s plans to build an Express location in the Pentagon merit that title as well.)
Helmand has much to recommend it before you even taste the food. The main dining room is attractively laid out and fronts on a stone hearth where you can watch the bread bake. (There is also a smaller room in the back with tables for two.) The service is friendly, if somewhat leisurely. Given the atmosphere and the popularity (the restaurant was nearly full when we arrived on Monday evening), you’d expect the prices to be as high as Prince Harry at a deadhead revival, but in fact they are quite reasonable as well.
The food was almost uniformly excellent. The thin bread was served with three sauces, of which my favorite was the cilantro-jalapeño — not so spicy that the taste overwhelmed, but, like the paradigmatic Fire Sauce, spicy enough to leave a pleasant hum in your mouth. The standout among the appetizers we sampled (each $3.95) was the sweet baked pumpkin (Kaddo Borawni); but we also enjoyed leek-filled ravioli (Ahak), a side of sautéed spinach (Sabzi), and a basic green salad with pomegranate dressing.
The entrees were a bit more uneven, but still very satisfying. The best was the Theeka Kebab ($12.95), a broiled and deliciously spiced steak; my only complaint was that the portion was a little on the small side, as it disappeared faster than Enron documents in an industrial shredder. But I also particularly liked the Koufta Challow ($8.95), essentially a meatball stew in a hot tomato sauce. Mourgh Challow ($9.95), a curry chicken dish served in a small stew-pot, recommended to us by sometime-“He Said”-gadfly Giselle Fahimian, was perfectly adequate but a little on the dry side and had the honor of being the only dish not entirely devoured by our party. Least impressive was the Ma-he Dagee ($10.95), a sautéed swordfish, which was tasty but again somewhat dry.
The celebration of terroir in a restaurant should raise alarm for the uninitiated. The pride of heritage is often just an inviting disguise — but disguise nonetheless — of the peculiarities of distant peoples: the inclusion of what are otherwise thought inedible things, the conspicuous absence of utensils, the abundance of pungent spices enough to overwhelm the signs of putrefaction, or, at the very least, the layering of fats to sate an appetite much grown in times of privation. Helmand — the name derives from a southern province in Afghanistan — is therefore a surprise in its delightfully delicate cuisine.
The difference from run-of-the-mill “ethnic” restaurants was immediate upon entrance. The decoration was beautiful (if a little boring), the furniture good and the atmosphere formal. Our dinner started with lightly salted flat bread, to be dipped with three different sauces: white yogurt, red pepper and green cilantro with jalapeño. The menu made some distinction between appetizers and side dishes, but we ordered both for starters. The pumpkin in the kaddo borawni was pan-friend and then baked, so its texture was soft but not mushy. Dressed lightly with a yogurt sauce, the kaddo was topped with a ground beef sauce — an unusual combination to be sure, but both the beef and the pumpkin blended naturally together in a light, creamy sweetness. Equally wonderful was the ahak, ravioli filled with leeks, served on a sauce of garlic and yogurt, but tempered by a hint of mint. The only miss among the appetizers was the salata: an ordinary mix of greens, drenched in a mysterious red dressing that was far too sweet, with none of the tang of the pomegranate that it was supposedly made from.
The entrées fulfilled the promise held out by the starters — a welcome change from the numerous restaurants nowadays that secretly believe themselves to be tapas bars or dim sum palaces. The chowpan was a half-rack of lamb, deeply marinated in spices, and grilled to a dark, juicy tenderness. The koufta challow were beef meatballs sautéed and then served in a creamy sauce of tomatoes, hot peppers and green peas. By turns sweet and spicy, the meatballs were wonderfully complemented by the currant rice (the challow).
There were misses in the entrees as well. The chicken was adequate but unexciting, and the swordfish was over dry. But then, it is only our fault to expect great swordfish from the kitchen of a landlocked country.
The desserts put the final delicate touches to dinner. “Our cake,” whose name should have tipped us off that it would be something like house wine, was the only indifferent selection. The baklava was more mille-feuille than fruitcake, honey-sweet without being treacley. The feereney (pudding with fresh fruit) was creamy, but also light like a fresh-out-of-the-oven soufflé. My favorite was the sheerberaing, a rice pudding. Rather than dominating the dish, the cardamom and pistachio, ground to a power and sprinkled in the middle, provided a cleansing fragrance: a fitting denouement to an evening reminding us that those distant lands are not connected to our lives only through tragedy.