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Down by the River 

The Helmand

Wednesday, Dec 13 2000
Stepping through the door of the Helmand, you wouldn't think it was one of the best restaurants in San Francisco. Instead, you might take it for the lobby of a small hotel: A few chairs surround a dark wood coffee table strewn with magazines, and what looks like a broom closet turns out to be a bar. Down the hall, a display of more than a decade's worth of restaurant reviews from publications local and national leads you to a quiet, boxlike, almost unpleasantly formal dining room, reminiscent of the private banquet hall of some reclusive foreign despot, or perhaps a black market eatery built in a windowless Kabul office building during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The ceilings are low and look made of styrofoam, and the walls are flat white and adorned with gold leaf-framed portraits that ache with old-fashionedness. A bearded, turbaned fellow passes silently through a back room. You see an elaborate, uncomfortable-looking Afghan costume aging slowly behind glass.

Or rather, you're probably assuming that's an Afghan costume, because chances are you don't know dick about Afghanistan, or even what a Helmand is. And then, a step closer to the kitchen, it hits you: the amazingly sultry smell of lamb. Lamb shanks baked with raisins, glazed carrots, and long, slender, chewy grains of rice laced with cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cumin seeds; grilled leg of lamb sautéed with yellow split peas; charbroiled kebabs of marinated lamb; steamed leg of lamb sautéed with vinegar; chunks of lamb sautéed with spinach and "Afghan seasonings." "Afghan seasonings" can mean just about anything given Afghanistan's location on the old Silk Road, at the heart of Asia, a land traversed by merchants, nomads, and figures of history such as Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the poet-Mogul Babur, and the ruthless, warmongering Persian Nadir Shah.

By the time dinner's over, you may realize you now love Afghan cooking, a sort of fusion of Middle Eastern, Indian, Pakistani, and east Asian cuisines informed by centuries of refinement. You may still not know that a Helmand is a river that flows from the Hindu Kush toward Iran, but that might not matter, because, for one thing, you can always look it up when you get home, as I did, and what's more, the thing that may strike you is that every single dish you tried -- nay, every bite of every dish -- was truly and undeniably superb.

According to my tally, I've reviewed 59 restaurants for this newspaper thus far: Perhaps three have delivered as solidly as the Helmand, and not one of them serves aush. For those not familiar with the cuisines of central Asia, aush is a soup that in some sense epitomizes the myriad influences on Afghan cookery. A dense, succulent beef broth contains thick, udonlike wheat noodles curled around a cloud of mint-yogurt sauce, topped with a bright orange dab of slowly simmered, spice-rich minced beef. It may be the best soup I've ever had, this aush -- strong and sharp, with firm, luscious noodles juxtaposed against burning herb and three distinct levels of savor.

And the remarkable thing about the Helmand is that the aush, for all its splendor, may not be as good as the banjan (more about that later).

Even more remarkable is the Helmand's location -- North Beach's bustling, neon-saturated Broadway -- which makes the white tablecloths, fresh flowers, and sedate elegance you find inside seem all the more bizarre. Dishes arrive on wheeled carts; twangy, banjolike Afghan music rules the sound system; and though I can't guarantee this, the friendly manager may drop by to note your choice of wine, perhaps a bold, dusky Red Bank shiraz. This same manager may chide you for taking a smoke break between courses -- but gently, as if to say he cares. A man may even try to sell you a watch out front, but don't buy one; instead, save your money for dinner.

As is customary in Afghanistan, most dishes at the Helmand are rich with oil, so that everything benefits from a smooth, moist-looking sheen. The art of slow cooking -- and, even better, cooking things twice -- reaches the apex of possible accomplishment here, and makes the words "you must" seem infinitely applicable. For example, you must order aushak, Afghan-style ravioli stuffed with leeks and huge, peppery, diced Chinese chives, served over garlic-mint-yogurt sauce and topped with minced beef. You must order aush, of course, but also save room for the banjan -- thin, deeply seasoned slices of pan-fried eggplant baked with fresh tomato, the whole so tender that the eggplant seems to dissolve on the tongue like melting snow.

Then, you absolutely must use warm, wheaty naan bread to wipe up the leftover banjan juice before moving on to the traditional Afghan mantwo, savory, pot sticker--like dumplings stuffed with beef and shredded onion, topped with yogurt, split peas, and still more beef. Or, as in the case of my friend Michelle, who doesn't eat meat, you must look no further than the right side of the menu to find equally well-crafted vegetarian versions of many dishes. Thus, the kaddo -- pan-fried, baked baby pumpkin with yogurt-garlic sauce -- can be served with beef for carnivores, or no beef for Michelle; the kaddo's silky texture and delicate, honey-molasses undertones resonate for hours after the last bite.

Though I haven't tried everything at the Helmand -- no sautéed okra, no chick pea/potato salad, no lamb/mung bean/ black-eyed pea soup -- I hope to remedy that at the soonest possible convenience. In the meantime, I've enjoyed six entrees, and all were huge and perfectly executed down to the sides of vegetables and ubiquitous heaps of baked rice. The fish of the day, qourmay ma-he, translated as buttery, pan-fried sea bass sautéed with an electrifying blend of ginger, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, whole peeled tomatoes, radishes, potatoes, black pepper, chilies, and mint. We found the same sizzle, sans flesh, in the vegetarian kourma: green beans, carrots, cauliflower, turnips, and potatoes sautéed with onion, tomato, garlic, and cilantro, then served with a goodly helping of spinach sautéed with garlic and pepper and a single, lightly vinegared baby carrot.

Like meat? The seekh kebab -- charbroiled leg of lamb marinated in a garlicky purée of onions and sun-dried baby grapes -- penetrates the taste buds with pure, animal pungency, and comes with luscious, melting chunks of eggplant, a grilled tomato, and, for contrast, a chilled, poached pear. Koufta is the richest food imaginable -- an intensely flavored, sun-dried tomato/meatball stew with green beans and peas, underscored with a shimmering dose of fire from a fresh chili that, when bitten, produces a hyperatomic blast that may or may not knock you bodily out of your seat. Then comes chanpendaz (marinated, grilled beef tenderloin), a full-fledged Afghan jamboree: juicy, smoky, top-quality beef; grilled peppers, tomatoes, and onions; silky puréed lentils; whole, piquant barleycorns; and a mound of perfectly al dente rice laced with pockets of lightly bitter sautéed spinach.

Still, my favorite was the chowpan, or Afghan-style rack of lamb, which was frenched (i.e., trimmed) a bit differently than is customary here in the West. A medallion of meat dangled from the tip of each unusually large rib bone, with bits of fat, meat, gristle, and black pepper clinging to the ribs. The medallions were amazing -- intense, gamy, the definition of lambiliciousness -- while the bones offered a crisper, greasier, more concentrated nibble you simply must experience before departing this life. A side of heavenly sautéed eggplant (see above) and cumin/nutmeg/cinnamon/cardamom/ black pepper baked rice over lavash bread set the stage for yet another crescendo: Once I'd finished the rack and gnawed the bones clean, I rolled the rice, eggplant, and a hearty slathering of yogurt-mint-cucumber raita into a sort of freestyle Afghan burrito.

Oh, and one last thing: You must order dessert. Possibilities include feerny, a creamy rice pudding topped with fresh kiwi, strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries, or bucklawa, soft phyllo stuffed with a doughlike blend of puréed almonds, walnuts, pistachios, cinnamon, and cloves, then drizzled with honey-caramel sauce, one of the finest desserts I've had all year.

Put simply, these guys just don't seem to miss.

Go to the Helmand now.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin


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