The SF Chinatown Chowdown Lunch Series strayed a bit out of Chinatown today with a gathering at The Helmand on Broadway to try the $9.95 lunch buffet. The Helmand specializes in the cuisine of Afghanistan; with influences from India and Persia, the food at Helmand is hearty, but elegant. I've been wanting to try this buffet since it was first mentioned on the board a couple of months ago and I wasn't the least bit disappointed.
I was surprised at how attractive the Helmand's dining room is; it's large but cozy, with high ceilings, white-washed and brick walls and very comfortable blue velvet chairs. White tablecloths and lantern candles break up the space and give each table an intimate feel. When ChowFun (Derek) and I arrived at about 11:30 and let the hostess know that we were a party of 12, tables were quickly and efficiently rearranged for us and as soon as we were seated baskets of warm unleavened naan-type bread were served with a trio of sauces: cilantro-vinegar, yogurt-cucumber, and spicy red pepper. The tart, cooling, and slightly spicy tastes of these sauces reflect the deft combination of flavors in each of Helmand's dishes.
I believe there were about two dozen items on the buffet beginning with 2 soup choices: Shorwa which is lamb and fresh vegetables (ChowFun said this was very tasty) and Mashawa, lamb, mung beans, chickpeas, black-eyed peas and yogurt which I tried and liked very much (I'm a chickpea junkie). There were several salads including an Afghan-style mixed green salad of chopped tomatoes, green onion, cucumber, fresh cilantro, mint and a bit of white vinegar that was tasty even if it's not tomato season. A more unusal salad was Shornakhod, potato and chickpeas mixed with a cilantro vinaigrette. Among the vegetarian choices were Banjan, pan-fried eggplant seasoned with spices then baked topped with tomato sauce and served on yoghurt sauce, Kaddo, pan fried pumpkin seasoned and baked with sugar and served on yoghurt sauce (a sweeter version than others I've tasted; almost like a dessert), and my favorite, Vegetarian Aushak, a triangular ravioli filled with leeks and scallions topped with yellow split peas, onion and carrot sauce and the yoghurt sauce. I loved the contrast between the thin, delicate wrapper, the just wilted green onions and the yoghurt sauce; I could have eaten a whole plate of them. The meat choices inlcuded Kaufta Kabob, ground beef mixed with green onion, fresh cilanto, garlic, ginger, and hot pepper, charbroiled and garnished with rings of white onion and slivers of red bell pepper; I thought that this was a very juicy and flavorful version of this dish. Lamb Kourma and Chicken Kourma were both very delicious and the Qabelee Pallow, rice baked with lamb, raisins and glazed julienne carrots filled out my carb cravings very nicely. Dessert was Sheerberaing, rice pudding flavored with a bit of cardamom and chopped pistacios.
Every dish I tried was nicely spiced and tasted fresh. Service was attentive; as soon as I got up to go back to the buffet my used plate was removed; my water glass was kept full and the buffet was monitored and items were refilled as needed. Don't be put off by it's location in a somewhat grungy block in Northbeach. I will definitely return! Many thanks to nja (Nick) and ChowFun (Derek) for organizing these lunches!
430 Broadway (at Montgomery)
Lunch buffet served Monday-Friday 11:00 am-2:30 pm
$9.95 per person, plus tax
Full menu is also available
Parking isn't easy in this area but Portsmouth Square isn't that far and there are 1-hour meters.