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A Taste of Afghanistan in Little Italy

For those of you who avoid the mediocre food and touristy crowds of North Beach, Helmand might be reason enough to give the neighborhood another shot. Not particularly noticeable among the ubiquitous Garlic! Garlic! Garlic! restaurants and neon-signed sex shops, Helmand offers well-executed Afghan food perfect for a special night out or just a casual post-work meal.

Helmand's dining room is large but cozy, with dark heavy furniture and chairs that look lifted from an old-fashioned hotel lobby. White tablecloths and lantern candles break up the space and give each table an intimate feel. The comfortable but slightly formal effect is marred only by the tacky National Geographic posters depicting Afghan life that line the walls.

With influences from India and Persia, the food at Helmand is hearty, but elegant. Every meal begins with a basket of warm unleavened naan served with a trio of sauces: cilantro-vinegar, yogurt-cucumber, and spicy red pepper. The tart, cooling, and piquant tastes of these sauces reflect the deft combination of flavors in each of Helmand's dishes.

The thorough and unusual menu makes it difficult to settle on an order, but for starters, a good choice is kaddo, baby pumpkin seasoned with sugar, pan-fried and then baked, its sweetness perfectly - if surprisingly - cut by the accompanying tomato-beef and garlicky yogurt sauces. These sauces also round out a light but full-flavored dish of homemade ravioli filled with mellow leeks and spicy scallions and topped with mint. If you must avoid meat for some unfortunate reason, variations of both of these dishes can also be ordered off of Helmand's fairly substantial vegetarian menu.

Lamb is the focal point of most of the entrées, although a few beef and chicken dishes are also offered. Chowpan, half a rack of marinated lamb, was soft and flavorful; the smoky, grilled taste of the meat set off nicely by sweet sautéed eggplant. A sprinkling of cilantro-vinegar sauce perked up the slightly dull baked rice accompaniment.

Also excellent was the chapendaz: grilled beef tenderloin served on a sauce of grilled tomato with a lively spinach rice, smoky Southern-tasting lentils, and a yellow split-pea purée. The strong competition on the plate did little to detract attention from the delicious, perfectly cooked tenderloin.

As suggested by the floor-to-ceiling wine rack against one of the walls, Helmand has a solid wine list, dominated by local California vineyards. Most of the wines are reasonably priced, with a few bottles under $20. Cocktails are also offered, although I didn't realize there was a full bar until I passed an open closet full of liquor on the way out.

To finish off the meal, Helmand offers a handful of deserts. Feereny, cream pudding topped with kiwi, mango, and strawberries, was smooth but uninteresting. Much more exciting was the sheerekh, homemade ricotta ice cream. With the light, crunchy consistency of ice milk and the rich flavors of vanilla, pistachio, and cardamom, the dish had such a satisfying mouth-feel I continued dipping into it long after I was full. As far as coffee goes, stay away from the watery American cup and head straight for the more potent - and geographically appropriate - Turkish variety.

The only Afghan restaurant listed in the city's Zagat's, Helmand takes a cuisine unfamiliar to most San Franciscans and makes it accessible. Next to any of Helmand's full-flavored and skillfully prepared dishes, spaghetti and meatballs doesn't hold a candle.

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