BALTIMORE - There are three things that everyone in Baltimore wants you to know when you come for a visit: Baseball great Babe Ruth was born here. Poet Edgar Allan Poe died here. And there's a great Afghan restaurant owned by Hamid Karzai's brother.
In fact, on a couple of recent trips here, so many people mentioned The Helmand restaurant's connection to the former Afghan president that it began to sound like an urban legend.
But I don't care who owns the place. I just want good food. And as guilty as I felt about passing up those famous Maryland crabs, a certain delicacy offered at The Helmand, called aushak, was calling my name.
The menu at Helmand describes aushak as ravioli. But if your idea of ravioli is frozen pasta that you boil up, then ravioli is to aushak as wooden shoes are to silk stockings. (Did you get that, SAT mavens?)
Aushak are silky noodles filled with leeks, then covered in ground beef sauce and served with mint yogurt. You don't chew them so much as let them slip into your being. And as much as I enjoyed the company of my dining companions on my two visits, next time I go back to The Helmand, I am not sharing aushak with anyone. (Fortunately it comes as an entree as well as an appetizer, and can also be ordered vegetarian or vegan.)
Also delicious were koufta challow, which are lamb and beef meatballs served with a peas-and-tomato sauce. I have had kofta (the spelling varies) in other Middle Eastern restaurants and sometimes found them dry and uninteresting, but these were packed with flavour, spicy even, with a melt-in-your-mouth texture.
The first time I ate here, I didn't order nan bread, thinking I didn't want to fill up on carbs. What a mistake! Not only are those little pieces of warm bread yummy in their own right, but if you don't have them, how are you going to mop up the sauces? I nearly licked the plate without nan, so the second time, I made sure to get some.
I also loved the mantwo, little meat pastries served over yogurt, with carrots, split peas and beef sauce. There are plenty of vegetarian dishes, too — standouts include stewed pumpkin and eggplant — and a vegetarian sampler.
A word about dessert: All the people who tell you about Karzai's brother also tell you to try the Afghan ice cream. There are two types — one with crunchy rice noodles and rosewater, and another flavoured with cardamom and served with dates, dried figs and fresh mango. Of the four desserts I sampled (purely for research purposes, of course), I preferred the Middle Eastern pastries — including a pistachio treat — to the ice creams and to a paneer custard, though my companions liked the ice cream.
Now, about the owner being Karzai's brother: It's true. Owner Qayum Karzai is the brother of the former Afghan president. Qayum even ran for election to replace his brother earlier this year, but dropped out of the race. His first restaurant was in Chicago, but he sold it some years back to concentrate on the Baltimore location, which marked its 25th year in October. And if you hear the same story about Karzai's brother owning a restaurant in the Boston area, as it turns out, another brother runs a Helmand in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
As for my determination to have a whole plate of aushak to myself on my next visit, in a phone call, Qayum Karzai advised the following: "The best way to eat Afghan food is to share."
If You Go...
THE HELMAND: 806 N. Charles St., Baltimore; http://www.helmand.com/ or 410-752-0311. Reservations advised.