A piece of Afghanistan in the heart of Cambridge
RESTAURANT REVIEW: Helmand Restaurant
I ate at Helmand with my mom, after hearing great many things about it and wanting to eat somewhere special for parent’s weekend. The restaurant is situated in a quiet corner of East Cambridge, only two blocks from the Charles River. Interestingly, the place is owned by Mahmood Karzai, brother of Afghan president Hamid Karzai, and he seems to know what he’s doing. Helmand has a perfectly balanced atmosphere that is elegant without quite crossing the line to being fancy; the tables are covered in white tablecloths, but I felt completely comfortable in my t-shirt. The dining room is bright and medium-sized, with all sorts of Afghan treasures arranged around the perimeter.
When we arrived, we were promptly escorted to our table, and menus followed shortly thereafter. There were many options, but the selection was not overwhelming, either. The fare at Helmand is authentic, and includes an array of vegetable, lamb, fish, beef, and chicken dishes, seasoned with ingenious combinations of mint, yogurt, cilantro, cardamom, and garlic, just to name a few. If you’ve never had Afghan food before, it is somewhere between Middle Eastern and Indian food, but leaning slightly to the side of Indian. In order to get more variety, we decided on three appetizers and one entrée.
The fist edible item that we received comes standard (and free) at Helmand—warm, freshly baked Afghan flatbread. In terms of flavor, it is very similar to naan, and is accompanied by three different sauces: cilantro, red pepper, and minted yogurt. Honestly, the bread is a terrible business model on their part, because it is so good that the customer is likely to be full of bread before even placing an order. However, I pushed myself to have just enough self-control to maintain my appetite for the items that we, or more realistically, my mom, actually had to pay for.
In a few short minutes, our waiter returned with our appetizers: aushak, banjan, and kadoo. The aushak, an “Afghan ravioli filled with leeks and scallions, served on a mint-yogurt topped with ground beef sauce,” was decent. Something about the crunchy interior didn’t quite do it for me, but it was satisfactory nonetheless. Or maybe the other two appetizers were so good that in comparison I couldn’t appreciate it as much. Our second appetizer, “pan-fried eggplant seasoned with spices, then baked with fresh tomatoes, served on yogurt garlic mint sauce” AKA banjan, was, simply put, fantastic. Texturally, it worked completely, and the cool yogurt sauce mellowed rich spices.
My favorite appetizer was the kadoo, described by the menu as “pan-fried then baked baby pumpkin seasoned with sugar and served on yogurt garlic sauce, topped with ground beef sauce.” What actually came to the table, however, was so much more than that. It was sweet, intricate, and wholly delicious. The meal was worth it just for this, but there was more to come.
Next to arrive on the scene was our entrée, a dish called lamb lawand. The dish consisted of a tender leg of lamb topped with a rich sauce of spices and garnished with cilantro. Something like leg of lamb could easily have been undercooked, but ours was impeccable in texture and distinctly flavorful, in spite of all the powerful flavors struggling to overpower it. Moreover, it went perfectly with the included side of rice, and there was also some cooked spinach that would put Popeye to shame.
Before long every last square inch of our plates had been cleared, and dessert seemed to be the only sensible next step. We ordered cream pudding topped with assorted fresh fruit, and a homemade cardamom and pineapple cake with homemade ice cream. The pudding was fresh and low-key, which cleverly put emphasis on the fruit. In comparison, the cake was much richer, and came adorned with pomegranate sauce. Adjacent to it was a scoop of ice cream with a dusting of crushed pistachio, and nestled in between the two structures were some dried figs and fresh pineapple. Best of all, neither of the dishes were too sweet, allowing for the more subtle flavors to come out in each bite. Just before leaving, we each ordered green tea with cardamom to keep us warm. Overall, it was a great meal, and as my first time eating Afghan food, I was left with a pleasant taste in my mouth (literally). The price was by no means affordable, but considering how good everything was it was quite reasonable. As a college student it is at the limits my price range, but I will definitely return to Helmand whenever my parents are in town.
Food (taste): A
Food (presentation): B+
143 1st St
Cambridge, MA 02142
Neighborhoods: East Cambridge, Kendall Square/MIT
– Article & Photos by Gabriel Spieler