By Molly Gore
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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.
Kaddo (pan-fried pumpkin) $4.95
Aush (noodle soup) $3.95
Dwopiaza (grilled lamb) $14.95
Koufta (meatball stew) $10.95
Theeka kabab (prime rib) $14.95
Feereny (pudding) $4.95
Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; and for dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m.
Parking: reduced rate with validation at Econo Parking, two doors west
Muni: 12, 15
Noise level: low to moderate
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."