The place is the Helmand, an unusual Afghan eatery that I chose almost by accident, and nearly at the last minute, after discovering when phoning to make a reservation that the Vietnamese restaurant on Clement that I'd intended to take a group to had apparently gone out of business. Two of my four guests were known to me (my goddaughter Anna, who eats no red meat, and her father, Jeff, who prefers straightforward food) and two were not (the cinematographer and associate producer who'd come to San Francisco with Jeff from Los Angeles to work on a documentary), and I wanted a place that was reasonable, interesting, and (you should excuse the expression) very San Francisco.
I checked my list of new restaurants I want to visit: Most seemed too expensive or too trendy (a club or lounge atmosphere just wouldn't work), and this was for dinner on a Saturday night, when many places are already booked. I called Robert and explained what I needed, and he offered up the Helmand. Food from Afghanistan sounded fine to me. I remembered meals at the long-gone Khyber Pass restaurant in Berkeley and in a few low-rent places in L.A. and the San Fernando Valley -- kebabs and rice. Everybody likes grilled meat, there'd be chicken or fish for Anna, and I could drive the visitors through North Beach and throw Chinatown and Fisherman's Wharf in for free.
My first surprise came on entering the restaurant from a slightly sleazy block of Broadway. The Helmand's tiny anteroom is cramped and unpromising, but it opens onto a long, narrow room with three rows of white-clothed tables that seemed soigné, warm and welcoming on that chilly night. We were led to a big round table in the back, and settled in to admire the simple but pleasant décor. At first I thought the brightly colored prints on the wall were reproductions of Victorian English paintings of Oriental exoticism, but then I realized they were photographs of modern-day Afghanistan. ("Helmand," it turns out, is the name both of Afghanistan's longest river and of the owner's first-born son.)
The second surprise was opening up the three-sectioned menu and reading the almost overwhelming list of dishes available: five appetizers that I'd never heard of (see the list above), three unfamiliar soups, 18 entrees that were new to me even when I recognized part of a name (theeka kabab, for example, is grilled prime rib marinated in a purée of onions, sun-dried baby grapes, and garlic and cooked on skewers), and a number of vegetarian dishes.
We started with the five unknown-to-us appetizers, and I was in love with the place as soon as I'd tasted them. Mantwo and bowlawni were described as being "homemade pastry shells," but in reality they were more like dumplings or ravioli. The mantwo was filled with a chopped-beef-and-onions stuffing and topped with a slightly sweet, gentle sauce of yellow split peas, carrots, and ground beef. The bowlawni were two fat dumplings, one filled with chopped leeks and scallions, the other with spiced potatoes, sided with creamy, tangy minted yogurt. We tried two fabulous soups: aush, a dark beefy broth full of chewy noodles, topped with yogurt, mint, and a dab of ground beef sauce, and shorwa, a very lamb-y broth full of long-cooked chunks of lamb and lots of fresh vegetables. My favorite dish was the kaddo, a baby pumpkin that had been pan-fried and then baked with a sprinkling of sugar until it was meltingly sweet, served on a pillow of garlicky yogurt and speckled with ground beef: an amazing combination of flavors and textures. Switch out the garlic yogurt for the minted one and lose the beef, and it would make a terrific dessert.
Or a main course, as it turned out: Anna ordered the vegetarian kaddo and banjan challow plate for her entree, and here the succulent pumpkin came sided with banjan, highly seasoned eggplant that had been pan-fried, then baked with fresh tomatoes until both were soft, served with challow rice (baked with oil and cumin seed) and dabs of the two yogurt sauces, garlicked and minted. We also feasted on two kababs, seek (charbroiled leg of lamb) and theeka (grilled prime rib), both heady with their marinade of onion purée, sun-dried baby grapes -- a raisin by another name -- and garlic, the lamb served with sautéed eggplant and pallow (aka pilaf, baked rice seasoned with cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin, and black pepper), the beef with sautéed lentils and pallow. After tasting the dwopiaza (grilled marinated lamb sautéed with yellow split peas and topped with vinegary onions, served with garlic mushrooms and pallow) and the koufta (a stew of fat ground-beef meatballs with tomatoes both fresh and sun-dried, hot peppers, and green peas, served on challow rice), Bill, the young cameraman, endeared himself to me by saying that this was one of the best restaurants he'd ever eaten in.
There wasn't a disappointing dish on the table, and this feeling continued through dessert, which included the Helmand's special version of baklava called bucklawa, the phyllo dough layered with a marzipanlike combination of chopped walnuts, almonds, and pistachios scented with cinnamon and cloves and served with a honeyed caramel sauce; feereny, a bland, creamy pudding topped with raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, and chopped kiwi and mango; and sheerekh, homemade ice cream flavored with ricotta cheese and vanilla and topped with boiled milk sauce, cardamom, and pistachios.
After one meal at the Helmand, it had jumped near the top of my favorite restaurants in San Francisco -- hell, my favorite restaurants anywhere -- and it didn't hurt that the lavish, delicious meal, with a beer, an iced tea, a modest bottle of red wine, and three cups of good coffee, had cost just over $36 a person, tax and a 20 percent tip included.
But I returned to sample an even greater bargain, the $9.95 buffet lunch on offer Tuesday through Friday. There you can also order from the regular menu, but my father and I headed straight for the tempting long buffet. We both started with cups of the two soups on offer, the shorwa that I'd had before, and another, more pungent, lamb soup called mashawa, full of chunks of lamb, chewy mung beans, and black-eyed peas in a broth made slightly sour by yogurt. Dad went on to a plate of assorted salads: organic mixed greens that you could top with vinaigrette or yogurt dressing, Afghan-style mixed green salad (a crisp relish of chopped tomatoes, green onions, cucumbers, fresh cilantro, dried mint, and white vinegar), shornakhod (boiled potatoes and chickpeas in a cilantro vinaigrette), and a green yogurt-and-chopped-vegetables salad (cucumber, green onion, and cilantro). I was too inflamed by the sight of a dozen meat and vegetable dishes, and filled my plate with kaufta kabab (charbroiled logs of ground beef seasoned with green onion, cilantro, garlic, hot pepper, and an exciting bit of fresh ginger), lamb kourma (chunks of lamb in a tomato sauce), mourgh kabab (surprisingly moist charbroiled chunks of skinless chicken breast, served with grilled onions and slices of red and green peppers), delightful chicken curry kourma (in a creamy orange sauce), and aushak (big tender ravioli filled with chopped leeks and scallions, scattered with ground beef and mint). In addition to pans full of the kaddo and banjan I'd had before (and happily sampled again), there was sabzi (chopped spinach sautéed with chopped onions and tomato), bendi (sautéed okra), red lentil dal, a mixed-vegetable curry, another eggplant dish, a stew with tomatoes and peppers called laghatac, and my new favorite, gulpea (crisp-tender cauliflower that had been sautéed with tomatoes, Serrano peppers, onions, and turmeric, turning the florets bright yellow in parts). I used the salads as relishes. There was also challow, plus a rice dish with bits of lamb, raisins, and julienned carrots called qabelee pallow. We were getting enough to eat.
As were the many happy eaters around us, including several tables full of students (I'd stood behind one, apparently a regular, loading up his plate with qabelee pallow, chicken curry kourma, and kaddo, all in different shades of orange and yellow, who called out to his friends, cheerfully, "I always go for the same stuff!"). My father said that he liked the dal and the chicken curry more than similar dishes he'd had in Indian restaurants (Afghan cuisine blends Indian, Persian, and Middle Eastern flavors into a style of cooking all its own). When he said, "If the Helmand was near work ...," I expected him to continue, "I'd eat there at least once a month," which is what I was thinking; instead he went on, "... I couldn't eat there; I'd have to take a nap after."
I felt his pain. Mine was that I couldn't manage more than a spoonful of sheerberaing, a creamy rice pudding topped with slivers of pistachio and bits of crushed cardamom pods. Doggie bags are frowned upon at buffets; I said that I wished I'd lined the pockets of my coat with plastic wrap. My father joked that I could split a piece of the flat Afghan bread and surreptitiously make a rice pudding sandwich that I could scrape out at home, but I declined.
When I called later to inquire about hours and such, I mentioned that I had loved the buffet lunch but had been too full to finish my pudding. "Oh," the staffer said, "you should have told us. We would have let you take some home."