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Helmand: A contrarian view

With all of the Helmand-praising around here over the past few years, I've got to submit my personal opinion on the matter.

The place is overrated and does not deliver the food that a restaurant of its atmosphere and price level should.

The menu needs to be edited. The dozens of menu items suffer from Taco Bell Recombinatorial Menu Syndrome- everything is pumpkin-meat-rice-something. It shouldn't be so difficult to figure out what the optimal configuration is.

The food comes out looking and tasting like boring hotel food. Like a fancy wedding with competent but boring caterers. The flavors don't jump, they don't surprise me... they're mellow and pleasant, and that's it. I wouldn't mind cooking this stuff up for dinner and maybe serving it to guests... but destination food this isn't. Plus, service is distant and sometimes incompetent (if I haven't finished my starter, don't stand there with the damn entree, waiting for me to quickly finish off my plate so you can take it away).

This might be a good place to take business associates or old folks or someone else that requires unoffensive food that's palatable to a chowhound. The downside is that it's loud in there, so important conversations might be lost.

I feel like if you're gonna eat ethnic food, go for the gusto. Eat somewhere with spice, somewhere exciting.

Anyone: where is the exciting Afghan food in Boston? I like to make Afghan dishes at home, and I have been to a couple good places in NYC...

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  1. And I wish they'd find a better house wine by the glass. Such a shame since they've got a really nice wine list for a non-European ethnic joint.

    That said, though, on the rare night my wife and I can escape Helmand is always near the top of the list of destinations, if only on the strength of the little pumpkins--undeniably a unique chowing experience--and the delicious bread with those three sauces.

    1. Hmm. I gotta disagree with you on this one, Luther, whereas I usually don't. Not to take you too literally, but there are plenty of dishes without meat or pumpkin (not many without rice, but it's rarely an unavoidable main ingredient). To the extent that there's a somewhat narrow range of ingredients, all of which tend towards mellowness--are you suggesting that's atypical of Afghani food? (I find it to be true of local Turkish food too; and personally, since lamb/eggplant/pumpkin/yogurt/chickpeas are among my favorite ingredients in the world, I'm happy regardless.) If so, could you elaborate? Finally, what dishes did you try specifically?

      3 Replies
      1. re: tatamagouche

        From Helmand: pumpkin with no meat, pumpkin with meat, lamb rib (chop or roast? can't remember), beef filet, and some kind of lentils.

        My best Afghan memory from NYC (sorry, I have no idea what the place is called, it was years ago) involved noodles with a seriously garlicky yogurt sauce, topped with a savory meat sauce. The bread was better (the Helmand bread was too chewy) and the sauce served with the bread had a perfect balance of mint, cilantro, garlic, and vinegar.

        It's just the context that I don't like. The food at Helmand would be much more enjoyable for maybe $5/plate less, in a less pretentious atmosphere- one that doesn't imply "THIS IS FINE DINING." For example, something like the experience at Kolbeh of Kabob.

        1. re: Luther

          wow, luther, gotta disagree with you there. i posted on my very mediocre experience of kolbeh a few months ago. didn't have a thing that was worth returning for.and i ordered the things recommended on ch., quite a few dishes. when i compare it to Lala Rokh , it's like comparing Ground Round to the Union Square Bistro. my personal opinionated take, as usual.

          1. re: Luther

            Well, Helmand or no Helmand, your NYC dish descrip. sounds great.

        2. I have to disagree, too. Not so much about your overall comments - I mean, Helmand certainly isn't Daniel or French Laundry or anything. But let's face it. The average entree there is about $15.00. It's unbelievably reasonable. The food is good, not great, but WAY above average for the price points. And I had my first date with my sweetie there, so it has great sentimental value.

          And as tatamagouche pointed out, the "mellowness" of the food is typical of the regonal cuisine Helmand prepares.

          Anyway, call me stubborn, but I still like it. As does my wallet.

          1. Sorry for piling on. From the price break point of view, I think it's interesting and well prepared food for good value. It's not tacos lupita cheap, but it's a place that i'm happy to take people to for the combination of ambience, interest and quality. I spoke up recently about the rack of lamb, which I think is terrific and I agree wholeheartedly about the fresh flat bread and dipping sauces.

            1. I will say that on my one visit to the Helmand, I was so turned off by the attitude of the hostess, that I have never gone back. I definitely don't need to put up with attitude in East Cambridge.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Bob Dobalina

                The woman with the short blond hair? She's horrible! Every time I go there I feel like my very existence is burdensome to her.

                Having said that, I personally enjoy the food enough to go there fairly regularly.

              2. Um - I totally agree. Stopped eating their salty, over-cooked , over-rated food about two years ago...

                1. love the food. hate the hostess. and not the one with the short blonde hair

                  1. i actually agree, at least partially, with the "contrarian view." i think the helmand has lovely ambience and delicious bread, and, of course, magnificent pumpkin. my two complaints have been voiced here already: (1) i find that the hostesses are generally unfriendly. they seem unwilling to schedule reservations, unwilling to seat you, etc. and (2) i do think that if you're a vegeterian, there isn't much *choice* at helmand. now, the choices that exist are good ones, and i do love the pumpkin. but if you are a vegeterian, there just aren't that many options there, or at least that's how it seemed to me last time i ate there.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: littlelady

                      You know, as a meat eater, you are allowed occasionally to not eat meat. It won't kill you.

                      When I was at the Helmand, I ordered a variety of things, but noted that the veggie dishes were generally better. So I will stick to those from now on. This does not make me a vegetarian. I'm just ordering what I like.

                      1. re: Alcachofa

                        dont disagree with you at all.
                        i am veg and i actually dont think theres that much choice for vegs at helmand- basically, in my limited experience, there are a bunch of veg dishes that are various configurations of the same 3 or 4 things.

                    2. I happen to like the food at The Helmand a lot (count me in the chorus on that pumpkin app), especially on cold nights when I can get seated near the fireplace, though service can be slow, and the crowds on weekends are worth avoiding.

                      I definitely have not gotten any of that "hostile hostess" treatment, and will be keeping an eye out for that next time. That's not a great way to win repeat business. It always amazes me when a restaurant of any level doesn't greet customers warmly. A host that acts as though seating you there is a privilege that they might deign to grant you is especially obnoxious.

                      On the other hand, if they take reservations, and you haven't bothered to make them, you can't really get upset at being forced to endure a long wait at a busy time.

                      1. I love Helmand. The food and the atmosphere are something special, IMHO. About the only other option for Afghan food in the Boston area is Ali Baba Tandoor in North Cambridge. I like their food a lot, too, but Helmand is definitely better, I'd say.

                        1. Please tell me where you've found great Afghan food in NYC, because the Helmand blows away any place I've found in Manhattan. Please also tell me which hotels you frequent because I'd kill for room service like this...

                          1. I enjoyed your polemic Luther, and while I do not agree that Helmand is mediocre and unimaginative (as you imply), I do think this is a useful corrective to the unalloyed praise the place gets on this board. The service is truly terrible, and it is not the best food in the universe as many tend to claim. It is, however, pretty cheap for upscale dining, and seems unique since there are hardly any Afghan places in the area (I would also disagree with littlelady - they actually have quite a lot of veg selections considering the Afghanistan is in Central Asia and meat is nearly universal in those cuisines).

                            One thing that we might need to take in to account when assessing Helmand (and a lot of the 'ethnic' places we frequent), is that the range, variety and creativity in combination of ingredients and preparation we tend to expect are not culinary values in much of the world. While cuisines like Indian or Chinese and to a lesser degree Brazilian or Mexican might have a lot of variety, this is largely a function of the fact that these are some of the largest countries in the world (many of their major regions are larger than the whole of Afghanistan) with massive populations and a diverse array of ecotypes, and they have also have had a lot of time to develop high cuisines for the domestic and international bourgeoisie with culinary values similar to our own (Afghanistan remains a poor, war-torn and isolated country).

                            Just to offer a contrast to your own reasons for being a contrarian, I offer this anecdote: I ate at Helmand the other night for the first time in a few years, and had an interesting conversation with a Pakistani friend with whom I was dining. In lambasting Helmand for their excessive culinary creativity, he pointed out: "real Pathan food is spiced meat cooked over fire." He also went on for some time about how kaddoo is normally served (not combined with garlicky yogurt and meat sauce), and put forth an argument against Helmand's overall lack of authenticity.

                            3 Replies
                              1. re: elbev

                                I was just thinking about that last point - is there such a thing as "authentic upscale Afghan food" or is it an American mutation?

                                But then, it wasn't long ago that lobster was peasant food too.

                                1. re: elbev

                                  I've never seen anyone claim it's the "best food in the universe." And authenticity be damned -- I'll take my kaddoo with garlicky yoghurt sauce any day of the week.

                                2. I've gone twice. Once it was incredible, among the best ethnic food I've eaten in Boston (best chicken kabob ever). The other time it was just OK (well overcooked fish). But for the price, I think this is an excellent restaurant. The wines by the bottle are so cheap (less than two times markup).

                                  1. Looks like I'm kinda of late to add my opinion, but I'm going to anyway. I haven't posted here before (or anywhere for that matter). I ate recently at The Helmand while I was in the Boston area for business, and I did that because I have been a fan for years of the San Francisco branch. It has a very different decor/feel to it, but the same food and I can see why there are contrarian views about the one in Cambridge, I think the dining room and hostess are a little too snooty for the food (which I think is fantastic) and the wines by the glass were definitely below par. Having said all that, the current manager in Cambridge is the former host in SF and I have to say, he is one of my favorite restaurant personalities anywhere. They should get him an assistant manager and let him host!

                                    1. As someone who lived in Afghanistan--you must consider that, in Afghanistan, there never was much variety of flavors--this is certainly true now, but was also the case 30 years ago when I lived there. Ingredients are limited--there is pumpkin, lamb, beef (in the winter because there usually isn't refrigeration), some beans, and rice, and, sometimes, green vegetables. So, to create a fancy upscale cusine you would basically have to create food that isn't Afghan. Some afghan dishes are amazing. The noodle dish referred to above is Aushak--a kind of leek ravioli, with a spiced meat (I use a lot of mint) toppng and drained yogurt on top. It is a wonderful dish. There is also Qabuli, rice cooked in the broth from cooking lamb and raisins and carrots, with spices like coriander and cumin, served with lamb shanks. Those are the 2 fanciest dishes.

                                      There is lamb kabob and liver kabob--the lamb kabob is traditionall served with small pieces of fat from the tail of a fat-tailed-sheep to give it flavor. And there are simple stews served over rice. Best of all--incredible bread!!

                                      The best of Afghan food won't be found in restaurants--you need to find a family to invite you over! But even there, the options will be limited.

                                      For upscale and varied--if you want that you have to find a really good Persian restaurant. I'm going to be in Boston this weekend (my usual area is NY-NJ), and a friend is taking me to LaLa Rokh. Persian food can be upscale--they use a wider range of ingredients and have developed a wonderfully complex range of dishes. But even there, most Persian restaurants serve kabob and some rice dishes--nothing approaching the amazing food you have in someone's home.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: Gabbeh

                                        LaLa Rokh SO doesn't compare to the food that you would get made at home. Even most Persians when going out eat kabob, because a restaurant just won't take the time to make the food right.

                                      2. Three of us went to Helmand this evening - though with some 2nd thoughts. I've never had Afghan food, so I don't have a point of comparison.

                                        Having read this string of posts, I think I was fairly sensitive to the service and friendliness issue. My own view was that the service was fine; maybe not exceptionally good, but certainly not bad. As to the hostess, I would describe as aloof and not welcoming, but not as bad as I was prepared for and not hostile.

                                        As to the food, I was very pleased. The pumpkin appetizer is a must have. Our lamb dishes were not overcooked and the spices reasonably suble and not oversalty.

                                        Not the best meal I've ever had but far above my "chowhound weighted" average. And very high on a price/performance basis. All of us felt it worth a return visit.

                                        1. Glad to see some anti-Helmand folks out there. The simple solution is to try Ali Baba Tandoor restaurant, just beyond Porter Square in Cambridge. They are a friendly mom-and-pop operation, and the food is superior to the Helmand.

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: twopotato

                                            For the general public, Helmand is a fantastic eating experience and the food is like nothing most Cheesecake-Factory-goers are used to. I hope it never goes away. Anyone been to the SF location? Is it the same?