On February 27, a 75-foot-wide chunk of Telegraph Hill crumbled, releasing several hundred cubic yards of rocks and boulders to smash into the back of buildings at the corner of Broadway and Montgomery. Luckily, this happened at 3:30 in the morning, so the worst-hit buildings were empty and no one was injured. Unluckily, damage was so extensive that the city red-tagged ten structures, forcing more than 100 residents from their homes and closing several businesses. Best-known of the latter was The Helmand, S.F.'s longtime favorite Afghan eatery and one of the best lunch and dinner values in North Beach.
Since a rockslide is considered an "act of God," the damage was not covered by insurance policies. The various property owners could not reach agreement on dividing the cost, so the restaurant remained closed for months. Its owners finally gave up, moved to a new space at 2424 Van Ness (most recently Yaya), and reopened at the beginning of this month. The name has changed slightly — it's now Helmand Palace — but the food is just as good. The room is considerably smaller, but still charming, with white tablecloths, cloth napkins, and soft lighting, and paintings, photos, and handicrafts that evoke traditional Afghan life.
The cuisine of Afghanistan has much in common with those of its immediate neighbors to the east and west. Just as in Pakistan, the staple food is naan and other flatbreads, which may be served plain with tea, accompanied by chutneys or pickles, or provided as an accompaniment to kebabs or kourmas (curry-like braises or stews). As in Iran, rice is highly prized, and usually prepared as a pilaf, with oil and spices. Soups and desserts also show a strong Persian influence. Afghans have also adopted dishes from their Central Asian neighbors to the north, most notably mantu dumplings from the Uzbeks (who comprise about 10 percent of Afghanistan's population).
In a traditional Afghan meal, all the dishes are set out smorgasbord-style, and guests help themselves according to their appetites. At Helmand, the menu is organized American-style, but, reflecting the grazing tradition, many dishes are available in both small portions as an appetizer or side dish, and large portions as an entrée. Many are also offered in both meat and vegetarian versions.
The lunch buffet offers the fastest and cheapest way to get acquainted with the food. A constantly replenished steam table holds 20-odd dishes, more than a person with a reasonable appetite can practically sample at one sitting, and includes dishes not on the à la carte menu (from which you may order instead of, or in addition to, the buffet).
Two dishes seem to come up most often when longtime fans speak of Helmand. One is kaddo: good-sized pieces of pumpkin are first pan-fried, then baked until most of the moisture has cooked out, resulting in a creamy, dense texture. The pumpkin is then topped with two sauces, a beef ragú similar to that used in Greek dishes such as moussaka and pastitsio (in the vegetarian version, a dal-like sauce of split peas and carrots is substituted for the ragú), and a mix of thick yogurt and garlic virtually identical to Indian raita. The other favorite is aushak: large ravioli stuffed with leek and scallion greens, cooked al dente, then sauced as for the kaddo, but with mint added to the yogurt.
Mantwo, beef and onion dumplings reminiscent of Russian pelmeni, come with all three of the aforementioned sauces: yogurt, meat, and split-pea. Banjan, eggplant prepared much like the kaddo, comes with minted yogurt and a fresh tomato sauce. Kaddo, aushak, mantwo, and banjan are similar enough that it's probably best not to order more than two of them unless you're with a large party.
If you're in the mood for soup, try the mashawa, a complex dish of lamb, several kinds of legumes, and yogurt. The lentil dal (which Afghans don't think of as soup, so it's listed under side dishes) is also very tasty. Shorwa, a soup of lamb and fresh vegetables, is comparatively bland and boring.
For carnivores, lamb is the choice for a main course. The lamb kourma, served only as part of the lunch buffet, is one of Helmand's best dishes: The gamy meat is slowly braised until it's falling to strings, like Cuban ropa vieja, in a complexly spiced tomato sauce that combines North Indian and Middle Eastern flavors. A variation called kourma challow, served at dinner, features similarly braised lamb sautéed with a generous helping of vegetables such as zucchini and green beans (nicely al dente).
Other standout entrées include lamb lawand, a commonly featured dinner special, in which chunks of leg are braised with a complex, saucy mix of ingredients dominated by capers and cilantro; and kofta kebab, ground beef seasoned with herbs, garlic, and hot pepper, then grilled on a skewer. Theeka kebab, prime rib marinated in onion, garlic, and dried grape powder, was more expensive and less interesting.
With the exception of the aushak and mantwo, entrées are served with either challow (boiled rice mixed with vegetable oil and cumin, then baked) or pallow (basically the same dish plus cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, and black pepper). If the main dish does not contain many vegetables, the plate also includes a vegetable side such as banjan, lentils, or sautéed spinach.
Desserts remain a strong point. Rice pudding, flavored with cardamom and pistachios, is among the best in town. Sheerekh, a rustic housemade ice cream, has an unusual but pleasant grainy, slightly crunchy texture. Best of the bunch and most unusual is feereny, a not-sweet cream pudding thickened with farina and served with fresh fruit.
The wine selection is better than average for the price range, and the list offers a wide choice of Californian and European bottles. One caveat: The vintages are not listed, and some of the wines are too old, so check before the server opens the bottle. (Note to wine lovers: The great Italian-centric wine shop Biondivino is right around the corner at 1415 Green, and is open till 11 most nights.) The beer selection (bottles only) is less interesting. Unlike at the old location, there's no hard liquor.
Service was friendly but a bit rough compared with the old location — entrées arriving when the table was full of dirty appetizer dishes, having to ask for water refills (dark-blue glasses may not be the best choice). On the bright side, the food all arrived hot, and the servers dealt with problems promptly after we flagged them down. Presumably the old staff all found new jobs during the six-month hiatus, and things should improve once the replacements get more experience.
If you knew the old Helmand, rest assured that not much has changed. Reborn as Helmand Palace, it remains one of the few places in town that offers the winning combination of great food, a white-tablecloth atmosphere, and reasonable prices.