Occupation: Registered Dietician and Marathon Runner
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Helmand Palace
Reviewed Helmand Palace: Thursday, September 8, 2011
The first time I dined at the Helmand Palace was more than ten years ago when I was visiting my sister, long before I lived in the Bay Area. The restaurant left such a strong impression that it was one of the first restaurants I dined at upon my move to San Francisco. For those who are not familiar with Afghani cuisine, I like to think of it as a fusion of Mediterranean and Indian flavors. Onions, peppers, mushrooms, and rice are frequently combined with chicken and lamb and various spices including cinnamon, mint, and cilantro.
While you decide on what to order, complimentary bread with three distinct spreads are brought to the table. The three sauces — yogurt-mint, cilantro, and sweet and spicy –offer the palate unique flavors that complement one another and tantalize your taste buds. To start, be sure to try the kaddo appetizer. This pan-fried and baked baby pumpkin melts in your mouth. The savory pumpkin is perfectly complimented with a slightly spicy ground beef tomato sauce and topped with a light sugar coating and drizzled with a creamy and cooling yogurt garlic sauce. I have been known to go to the Helmand Palace because of a craving for this dish alone! The aushak ravioli is another delicious appetizer that won’t disappoint. This savory combination of leeks and scallions fills a loosely folded noodle and is topped with mint spiked ground beef sauce. It should be noted that both of these appetizers can be enjoyed as a vegetarian alternatives.
Not sure what to order as an entree? Ask your waiter. Depending on what you crave, your server will guide you in the right direction. I have tried many of the lamb and chicken dishes and have yet to be disappointed. Here are two of my favorites. The dwopiaza is a leg of lamb that is marinated and then grilled, resulting in a flavorful and tender entree. The mourgh challow chicken breast is sautéed with spices, yellow split-peas, yogurt, cilantro, and curry. It is served with challow, a fragrant and flavorful rice. The portions are hefty and ideal for sharing.
So if you are curious about authentic and unique ethnic cuisine in San Francisco, without breaking the pocket book, the Helmand Palace is for you. You will leave with a happy palate and looking forward to your next visit. The waiters are always friendly and truly support their menu. Vegetarians are well received.
Occupation: Creative PR Firm, Owner
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: El Huarache Loco
Reviewed Helmand Palace: Tuesday, September 6, 2011
I hadn’t heard of Helmand Palace before so I was eager to go, considering that when I lived in New York I was a big fan of Afghani food. I love the spices, the flavors, the sauces, the exotic quality of the experience. I circled the block for about 20 minutes futilely looking for parking and finally when I saw an opening right in front of the restaurant, I saw that they had validated parking around the corner. I just didn’t realize it, because the parking sign was hidden by the car that held that spot for some time beforehand. This is a good tip to tell future restaurant-goers, because it is parking hell generally in that neighborhood. I say, take a cab!
I arrived on the later side, 8:30 PM, which, early in the week, I consider to be a bit of the dead hour in San Francisco, having witnessed that’s when things really get cooking in New York. There were three tables taken then: a large international group of what appeared to be tech wizards (men and women of many nationalities) celebrating a birthday, a couple, and a solo diner. The food photos out front were a bit of a turnoff initially for me, as I’ve seen many touristy restaurants around the world that do that. I suppose it makes sense if you don’t know what you’re getting into, but to me it seemed to make it less of a culinary adventure. Plus the photos could have been more appetizing, they didn’t do the presentations justice.
The small bar area up front looked like a good place to whet one’s whistle on busier nights, but that night it was empty, and a lone, hard working waiter acting as host and server greeted me. He had a very kind face and was welcoming even though he seemed to be on a personal call when I walked in. I was struck quickly with an odd sort of cleaning liquid smell when I came in, sort of a disinfectant, which I always find to be a bit off-putting when I want my senses and appetite stimulated. The place was decorated in Afghani carpets, more modern lighting, and some village murals, which had charm. There were fresh flowers on each table, but it just seemed that a little low lighting and live music would have given the restaurant more warmth and made it a good date night place. It looked as if it had a stage for that purpose, perhaps on the weekend nights.
After perusing the menu and receiving some lovely sauces with warmed bread (a sort of raita, a cilantro-based sauce, and a spicy red sauce for dipping), my appetite was piqued. I ordered the vegetable aushak and the mourgh challow, as well as a reasonably priced glass of Sauvignon Blanc ($6), one I didn’t recognize and don’t recall, but which was decent. I always find that many ethnic cuisine-focused restaurants don’t spend enough time finding cheap and cheerful wines, but always seem to go for the mass appeal of the cheaper and widely recognized wines; a missed opportunity.
The aushak, which was a vegetarian ravioli filled with leeks, scallions and served with a yogurt, garlic, mint sauce, topped with yellow split peas and carrot sauce had a nice texture. The raviolis seemed to be homemade and quite delicate, however, I found the split peas to be a bit tough, i.e. undercooked, and the seasoning of dried mint to be too overpowering for the dish. The portion was just right, not too large, not too small and enough to share.
My next dish was the mourgh challow, which was chicken breast sautéed with spices and yellow split-peas and yogurt, cilantro, and curry sauce. The rice was fluffy and buttery, and a perfect texture, not clumpy or sticky. The accompanying sauce and chicken looked inviting, however, when I bit into the chicken, I instantly got the sense it was an older cut of meat, perhaps because it was a long weekend beforehand, but the meat didn’t taste fresh despite how good the sauce was. A bummer.
My overall impression was that I would give this place a second try, the prices, staff, and earnestness certainly were appealing, and I think perhaps trying different items on the menu might be worth doing. The large party seemed to be regulars and knew what to order — this might be the sort of place where ordering wisely will make for a whole different experience.
Occupation: Advertising Sales President
Favorite Restaurant: Izzy’s Steaks and Chops
Reviewed Helmand Palace: Friday, September 9, 2011
This was the first time I’ve eaten Afghani food, so I was curious to see what it would be like. There was a miscommunication on my initial attempt to eat there. I had called for a reservation the night I was going and they had confirmed a table for me, however when I got there, they had a big sign on the door saying “Closed for Private Party.” They did have a few tables available during the party, but they were all taken when I got there at the time of my confirmed reservation. When I had called to make the initial reservation, they clearly should have told me about the private party. Then when I went back, I quickly realized the service was not good. The waitstaff were all very polite, but we sat there at least 10-15 minutes after being seated before they came to take a drink order. The thing is the restaurant wasn’t crowded. There were only about 6 tables occupied. They seemed more interested in clearing the plates from the empty tables and setting them again than they did in taking our order. I saw they do a takeout business, but still would have liked more attentive service.
The first food to arrive was the Afghan flatbread, which was warm, it just was pretty bland. It came with 3 different dips, cucumber yogurt, cilantro, and red chile peppers, which added nice flavors. When the bread was served with the nice looking dips, there was no explanation of what they were. It was all just put on the table. I had to ask the waiter to say what they were. Since we weren’t familiar with the food, I relied on the waiter for help when we ordered. He did a very nice job recommending things to us. The kaddo appetizer was excellent. It was pan-fried then baked baby pumpkin seasoned with sugar and served on yogurt garlic sauce, topped with ground beef sauce. The pumpkin was sweet and the mixture of it with the beef sauce was delicious; melt in your mouth. The meat got me excited about the lamb and meatball entrees we had ordered. I also had the aush soup, which was a noodle soup served with the same beef sauce as the kaddo, and mint yogurt. It was basically the Afghan version of chicken noodle soup, just served with meat sauce instead. Overall, the dish wasn’t so flavorful, but I enjoyed the beef again.
For the entrees, I had the seek kabab, which was char-broiled leg of lamb marinated in a puree of onion, sun-dried baby grapes, and garlic, and served with sautéed eggplant and pallow rice. I enjoyed the lamb, which had good flavor, however the rest of the dish was bland. I didn’t like the taste of the eggplant at all, and it just didn’t seem to go with the lamb. It didn’t have much taste and would have been better if it had a richer, tomato sauce flavor to go with the lamb. I liked the pallow rice, it was seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg, and cumin seeds, which you could really taste those flavors. The 2nd entrée was the koufta challow: beef meatballs with Afghan seasoning sautéed with sun-dried tomato, hot peppers, and green peas in a tomato sauce served with challow rice. The meatballs were absolutely delicious. I loved all the flavors of the dish with the juicy tomato sauce, and there was a bit of spice to it. For me, this was the standout dish along with the pumpkin dish.
I was too full for dessert. I had an Amstel Light with the dinner. I was surprised to see there wasn’t an Afghan beer on the menu, as it’s fun to try the beer of the country when available. Like in the beginning of the night, the service was inattentive. Our empty plates just sat on the table, as I tried to get someone’s attention to clear them and bring us the check. Again, they continued to clear and set the empty tables rather than check on the customers in the restaurant. Overall, I’m glad I tried the restaurant; I did enjoy a few of the dishes, it’s just that the inattentive service wouldn’t bring me back to Helmand Palace anytime soon.