On the wake of the September 11 attack and the abhorrent ethnic violence and prejudice that arose in American against Middle Easterners and South Asian, we decided to make a point of showing our support to our Afghani neighbors by going to an Afghani restaurant for dinner last Friday night (late September 2001). Besides, we love Afghani food and it had been quite a while since we'd had any.
I decided on The Helmand in San Francisco because I read quite a few good reviews of the place. The food was said to be very good, the portions plentiful, and the ambiance a little bit more upscale than your typical ethnic restaurant. I made reservations the previous Tuesday, and it was a good thing I did, as the restaurant was packed that night, and when we left (around 830), there were several people waiting for a table.
The Helmand is located in a seedy area of San Francisco, close to sex clubs and the like. Still, it does not feel like a dangerous place to be at night - there were plenty of teenagers hanging out by the video arcade across the street. Parking in the area can be a problem, however. There are a few small parking lots that charge about $15 - though The Helmand will validate for a $5 discount at the one in the same block.
The restaurant itself is pretty nice. As promised, it had an upscale feel to it, with pretty blue tablecloths and matching chairs, and large pictures of Afghani scenes ornately framed on the walls. A couple of cupboards displayed an Afghani suit and other items. The wait staff is nicely dress, and dishes are brought in a rolling cart; this, the pale color of the walls and the dim lighting give the restaurant an aura of being old. Then again, that might just be my fancy. The only significant problem with the ambiance is the ceiling. It looks like your typical office ceiling, with recess lighting, and it's just ugly and too flat. I think they could much improve it by covering with fabric (though I don't know if that would be a fire hazard). It really disturbs the effect.
The service was OK, though not as competent as we would have liked. We never had the opportunity to ask for more of the delicious fresh Afghani bread after we consumed the first basket, and our waitress seemed to disappear after we got the bill. Perhaps they were overwhelmed by the full house. Neither our waitress nor the bus boy were Afghani - not that it mattered. The pacing of the dishes also had some problems. Our appetizer came very soon after we arrived. We skipped dessert, but we still only spent about 45 minutes in the restaurant. Still, we did not feel rushed and the evening was quite relaxing.
The food was good, but not outstanding. Satisfying, but not the stuff that dreams are made of. The portions were well-sized, we were certainly not hungry after the dinner, but they weren't as large as we had been led to believe. It was quite well priced, however, with most appetizers for about $5 and entrees in the low teens.
For an appetizer Mike and I shared the mantwo, small, soft pastry shells stuffed with beef and topped with yogurt, yellow split peas and a beef sauce. They were pretty good, Mike in particular enjoyed them. As a main dish, Miked ordered the Qaubili Pilau (I don't remember how they spelled this dish at The Helmand), this is a wonderful rice dish with stewed lamb covered by aromatic spiced rice. Traditionally, the pilau is then topped with candied carrot and raisins but they had run out of these that night, so it came unadorned. The lamb was very tender and yet flavorful, and the rice was very good. It tasted subtly of cinnamon and other spices, and the long rains were nicely separated. However, it was not as good as the version of this dish I made last year (you can find the recipe here).
I had the Theeka Kabab, large pieces of beef marinated in spices and grilled. The kabab was very good, it was subtly spiced so that the flavors did not overwhelm the meat, but rather complimented it. The kebab was accompanied by the same pilau (minus the lamb) Mike had, of which I ate every last grain, and lentils, which I skipped. All in all, I was very pleased with this dish.
Desserts included baklava, firnee (a pudding I made last year that left much to be desired), rice pudding and pistachio ice cream. None of these sounded too appealing, so we skipped dessert. We also didn't try the wine - we were pretty tired that night, but I took a look at the wine list. It consisted of mostly popular, low-end wines, mostly priced in the 20's.
All in all we enjoyed the evening. We might go back, though we probably want to explore other Afghani restaurants in the Bay Area first.