Walking into The Helmand is an experience in and of itself: The restaurant is dimly lit, and a cozy aura immediately wraps itself around you and your companions. This year, the restaurant is celebrating a wonderful 33 years of premier Afghan cuisine in Baltimore. The restaurant was named after the auspicious Helmand River, which delivers nourishment to the dry terrain of Afghanistan. The Helmand, similar to this river, aims to provide an abundance, but in this case of intense flavor, aromatic scents and lavish service.
With Valentine’s Day approaching, I can say with confidence that this beautiful atmosphere will spark feelings of love and joy (with plenty of space for intimacy). However, I must admit that I did not dine at this establishment with any ideas of romance in my mind. Instead, I ventured to this restaurant with a group of friends, intrigued by the promise of an authentic Afghan culinary experience.
As a student hailing from Dearborn, Mich., I have been exposed to Afghan cuisine from a young age. As such, my expectations were rather high when entering the restaurant. I vividly remember telling my friends about the dishes I wanted to try, with a feeling of homesickness settling in my stomach.
Unfortunately, my status as a vegetarian limited me in the options that I could try. Fortunately, my friends are not vegetarian and were very willing to give me their opinions on the various meat-based dishes that The Helmand offers. The restaurant staff are also willing to alter certain dishes to make them vegetarian. In fact, they have an entire section of the menu dedicated to vegetarian dishes: vegetarian mantwo, vegetarian platter, vegetarian aushak, dolma murch, vegetarian dolma, mushroom lawand and vegetarian korma.
I greatly enjoyed the vegetarian aushak, though I expected that I would not like the mint. To my surprise, the mint in the yogurt blended perfectly with the leek-stuffed Afghan ravioli. This savory blend of ingredients ended up being extremely filling. However, it was a bit more pricey than I was expecting for the amount of food I received. Therefore, I would recommend setting aside some money in advance for this restaurant.
However, I found myself becoming quite partial to the yellow split peas that accompanied many of the meals. I would also like to emphasize that the soups were hearty and delicious. Each one had a smooth aftertaste, and all of them melted like butter in my mouth. I highly recommend the vegetarian aush, which contains homemade noodles, their token mint yogurt side and a distinctive vegetable broth.
The soups were very calming (an adjective not typically associated with food) and were crafted to supplement the flavors delivered by other bigger meals, such as the mantwo and the banjan borwani. The banjan borwani, according to my friend majoring in Writing Seminars, Helena, was creamy, tangy and similar to “the warm memory of spring.”
My other friend Evangeline absolutely devoured the mantwo, exclaiming that the dish was savory and hearty, with the flaky, buttery pastry lovingly encasing the rich, warm onion-and-beef filling. Sahithi sang the praises of the lamb lawand, a juicy, succulent and tender dish exploding with a savory flavor that beautifully contrasted the sweet pomegranate tang of the salata salad. However, she did note that it was the most expensive dish that we ate.
The finale of the meal arrived in a stunning haze of cool and refreshing ice cream. The Helmand’s Afghan ice cream is a serving of cardamom vanilla ice cream with dates, figs and dried mango. The fragrant flavors echoed the notes of summer, and the dates and figs worked wonderfully against the aromatic dried mango. The cardamom vanilla ice cream was light and served as a perfect end to our night. I will conclude this enthusiastic review with my resounding endorsement of the establishment and encourage all of our readers to spend time on Valentine’s Day to enjoy a sweet meal, filled with stories of its own.