Given Afghanistan's location between Iran and Pakistan, the country's obviously had a little less than good luck in terms of foreign relations. But with a cuisine that artfully negotiates the line between Middle Eastern and South Asian cooking, it's an arid land rich in flavor and culinary technique. That's what The Helmand, one of Baltimore's most reliable and delicious restaurants, has banked on for some 25 years, and if anything, the place has only improved over time. Set in the city's historic Mount Vernon district the affordable, small-table restaurant offers simple décor and traditional Afghan wall hangings.
The menu is where the comforting innovation lives. We have loved this place for years, and the first thing a newcomer must try is the kaddo borwano, rich baby pumpkin baked until tender in a unique yogurt-garlic sauce, versions of which appear in many other dishes like the aushak, which is a warming beef-and-leek ravioli accented with mint. As with many a great Indian restaurant, the naan bread here is soul food by itself, and we often can't ignore the special lamb chops or dwopiaza, lamb tenderloin with yellow split peas and onions accompanied by pallow, a typical Afghan rice baked with butter and spices. But it's the freshness of the Helmand's produce – eggplant, spinach, tomatoes, used in many a veggie entree – that always surprises visitors. That's because the owners also preside over their own organic farm, and why we'll often forgo some meat for the dolma murch, stuffed bell peppers containing a variety of veg and beans cooked down in a sauce with notes of rhubarb and sun-dried tomato. Think of it as a no-guilt way to allow for the restaurant's signature cardamom ice cream served with dried figs, dates, and fresh mango.
Yes, the Helmand, which has an unofficially connected sister restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is owned by members of Afghanistan's large, prominent, and controversial Karzai family, but this is a peacefully apolitical place borne from a dedication to a cuisine that few people in America have tried, one that consistently offers a family feel for which you will likely return. [helmand.com]