After reading a post last week by Emily of A Cambridge Story in which she recreated a rice dish she ate at The Helmand, an Afghani restaurant in Cambridge and then checking out their website, I became intent on trying out The Helmand for myself. Most of the dishes feature meat or vegetables in a rich spiced sauce served atop aromatic baked rice.
The staff at Helmand were extremely gracious and welcoming. After we were seated, our server brought us traditional Afghani flatbread, fresh and warm from the stone oven right in the dining room. Throughout the meal, you could see one of the restaurant staff pulling large slabs of the bread out of the oven. The bread is served with three dipping sauces – red pepper, cilantro, and yogurt. The cilantro sauce contains walnuts and vinegar as well. It was phenomenal mixed with the yogurt: together they became an acidic, tangy, and rich topping for the bread, and yes I do use the word topping because I liberally spooned it on top.
The Helmand offers several vegetarian appetizers and entrees. I decided to go with the Special (which is not a special in the traditional term, it is always on the menu). The Special includes baked pumpkin, pan-fried eggplant, sauteed spinach, and okra sauteed in fresh tomatoes, served with pallow rice. Pallow rice is seasoned with canola oil, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin seed and black pepper and then baked. I of course picked this dish because it allowed me to sample so many different things. The okra and eggplant were my favorites. The okra was tender and drenched in a rich and chunky tomato sauce. The eggplant had a silky smooth consistency and a smoky flavor. The cool yogurt sauce on top mixed with the smoky eggplant was heavenly. The spinach was fine, but nothing spectacular. The pumpkin tasted as though it had been candied, with a sweet glaze on top, as well as more of the yogurt sauce. The pallow rice (the rice that inspired Emily’s post) really pulled the dish together. It was warm, hearty and heavily spiced. Mixed with the rich and saucy components of the plate, it was downright heavenly.
Dave ordered the Chapendaz: marinated beef tenderloin, grilled with a puree of grilled tomatoes, hot peppers, onions and cumin seeds served with lentils, barley and spinached rice. I was completely enamored with my dish, but if I could make one change, I would switch out the spinach in my dish for either the lentils or barley in the Chapendaz.
The Helmand excels on all accounts. In addition to well-executed dishes and friendly and efficient service, the decor inside is stunning. The walls and windows are all straight lines and angles, nothing curved. Various mirrors, paintings, costumes, and artifacts adorn the walls as well as vases of flowers and decorative pitchers on some of the surfaces. The decor gives the room quite a museum-like feel. The Helmand succeeds in creating a unique dining experience and completely transporting you. You might not think you are dining in the Middle East, but step inside and you will soon forget that you are steps from Kendall Square.
143 First Street