As we ate in the spacious dining room (a room, I might add, that is elegant in a simple unassuming way), I think the hit of the evening was the kaddo - it's received a couple of raves on this board - and well deserved ones, imho. (Now everyone knows what my favorite was. *grin*) It's pumpkin.
These pumpkins definitely spent a lot of time in the oven, because they (literally!) melt away into a saturated sweetness as soon as they hit the palate. The touch of yogurt sauce on the pumpkins was quite welcome; I liked that faint tang and creaminess amid the sugar rich pumpkin. This combination of pumpkin and yogurt came in an appetizer on its own, with ground beef - a rare occasion when the meat serves a savory supporting role and the veggie takes center stage. Pumpkin also appeared as part of a quartet on a veggie special and as a side with another lamb dish. (More about them soon.)
But before the appetizers, we had some pita-like flatbread that we dipped in 3 sauces - a yogurt based dip (with mint?), a spicy red dip (chilli and red peppers?) and my favorite - thin pesto-green dip (Gordon thought it might be cilantro).
Other appetizers we had were of the dumpling variety. I've probably gotten them all mixed up because I wasn't paying attention when the waiter served them up and offered identification. I'm sure others will jump in if I've made any mistakes here.
There were sharp squares of dough folded up into little flat 4-sided pyramids filled with ground beef and topped with some vegetables. Yogurt made an appearance here with a beefy (tomatoey?) sauce - the combination reminds me a little of sour cream on borsch - hearty, tangy and quite good in a simple homey kind of way. (It's mantwo, I'm guessing, based on the receipt that Ruth kindly passed to me.)
If I was right, that means the other one was probably bowlawni, longish dumplings (the menu calls them pastry shells) filled with chopped leeks and scallions. I liked this a lot, because the texture of leeks and scallions stood out. I somehow missed the spicy potato filling (I'm looking at the menu here), probably because I cut myself a piece of this in the wrong way. (backup anyone?) Yogurt again, but lightly.
Then aushak (through the process of elimination and menu checking, unless I mixed it up with the bowlawni) - with a filling similar to the bowlawni, but also with bits of minced beef.
I remembered the entrees better when I was reminded that the last guy that arrives gets to write up the dinner. I remembered that lamb was prominent - we had lamb in three dishes and in each dish the meat was moist and tender. I had a bit of trouble distinguishing the lamb itself from dish to dish - it was the sauces and accompanying items that made them different to me.
The other thing that was also prominent was the long grained rice, fragrant in three guises, with light articulate grains, almost bryani-like in mouthfeel but without the weight of their oily indian counterparts.
My favorite rice was the orangy/light red pallow - rice spiced like a light bryani (cardomum, cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin seeds and black pepper according to the menu). In the qabelee, this rice was used to bury pieces of lamb shank, the first lamb dish I tasted. Here, I liked the sweet bites from the glazed shreds of carrots and raisins when their flavors blended in with the spices from the rice and the more earthy meat.
Pallow also came with the veggie special - the fabulous pumpkin, eggplant, spinach and a deliciously soft but unslimy okra sauteed with tomatoes that Celery happily approved.
Then there was challow, another incarnation of rice that was lighter with spices (just cumin seed, said the menu). This came with two dishes: one of them was the sabzi challow, lamb no. 2, smothered by very finely minced spinach - very well prepared (I thought saag! - but no creaminess here).
Another challow dish was the koufta challow, a hearty beef meatball dish sauced in tomato, which suited the gentler challow well (the sauce might have been more contentious with the heavier spices in the pallow rice). I liked the koufta challow a lot, especially the tomatoey sauce that packed a tiny bit of heat and the soft, supple green beans, both good matches for the meatballs.
The last rice was emerald in color, covered with many tiny flecks of spinach mixed in. It's just spinach rice - no special name for this one. We had it with the 3rd lamb dish - a pretty good lamb steamed and sauteed with lots of yellow-split peas, onion and red bell peppers. And another guest pumpkin appearance.
I wasn't torn between the different desserts this time, because there were only 4. "Let's get one of each!" and we did. :)
My favorite was the bucklawa - fragile layers upon layers of crispy filo. This version was exceptional - it was not too sweet as they tend to be and well spiced - cardamom was very obvious, but not heavy handed.
The rice pudding was quite good for this simple dessert - held well together but not gluey.
The ice cream had us somewhat disappointed. The flavor was great, we could taste the milky kulfi-like sweetness, but it was icy, as though it was thawed and refrozen.
There was another cream pudding topped with berries, I thought it was OK.
On the whole, I liked Helmand, mostly because of the kaddo, but also because the food was good for the price (generously portioned entrees in the low teens). Corkage was $10 a bottle (thanks to everyone for the lovely wines!). I'm totally glad I came to dinner - thanks again for the great company and especially to Ruth for organising.