Arts restaurant review

The good war?

Fine, but not exotic, dining at The Helmand

The Helmand

143 First Street, Cambridge

Dinner: Sunday – Thursday 5 – 10 p.m., Friday – Saturday 5 – 11 p.m.

Are we going to invade Britain any time soon? Of course not, their food is terrible. Are we going to invade Canada? Why would we? We already have Taco Bell.

But is it possible we’ll invade some foreign, exotic country whose dishes you’ve never eaten before? Yes.

Somewhere in the bowels of the Pentagon, a young neocon yearns for the taste of an unfamiliar dish, and it is only a matter of time before this yearning manifests itself on the world stage.

Armed with this powerful new model of foreign relations, I set out to settle an open question in the foreign policy world: Was the war in Afghanistan a good idea? Was the juice worth the squeeze? And what better place to put the War in Afghanistan to the test than The Helmand. Owned by Mahmood Karzai, brother of President Karzai himself, The Helmand is clearly an official bid to earn the succor of wavering foreign policy wonks who now doubt whether Afghanistan deserves a continued U.S. troop presence.

If there is one thing the Bush Era accomplished, it is to associate the neoconservative school of foreign policy with warmongering and empire. Perhaps the hawkish reputation of neocons is well-deserved — it is, after all, hard to otherwise categorize a set of thinkers who believe both that American primacy is the best path toward national security, and that primacy is best preserved by active involvement and intervention in affairs abroad.

Nonetheless, whether the popular conception of neocons is deserved or not, it’s clear that neoconservatism has not done itself any favors by exchanging its former standard bearers (e.g. Francis Fukuyama), for the new lot (e.g. Paul Wolfowitz). Where the former focused on democratic movements, the latter emphasizes troop movements — even if one believes these two to be sides of the same coin, the public relations fallout from putting the worse foot forward is undeniable.

The neoconservative school is in dire need of a reboot. So, I write today with a bit of revisionist history. I come with an excuse for the mistakes of the past, and a new, potent theory for understanding why and how the United States chooses to involve itself abroad. Here it is:

Neocons aren’t inherently hawkish. They are just misunderstood, hardcore foodies.

In my hometown of Fresno, there is a very large population of Hmong, an Asian ethnic group hailing from southeast Asia. Most of this population is descended from refugees who fled after having fought on the losing side in Vietnam and Laos. And while the wars they fought in and the losses they suffered were tragic, they were unquestionably a boon for the gastronomes of central California. Where before a Fresnan might have had to pay a small fortune to obtain authentic Hmong cuisine, now it’s just a short walk away.

It might be more “traditional” to judge the wisdom of a conflict based upon the geopolitical goals it accomplished or failed to deliver. And if you judged the war in Vietnam by such a limited metric, then sure, you might chalk it up as a loss. But neoconservatives have transcended this parochial sort of accounting. They see the bigger picture — they understand that in the long run, diversity is the real strength of the American nation, and war’s capacity to enrich that diversity, particularly its capacity to enrich the food supply, is at the heart of our national interests.

The Helmand, all things considered, is an excellent restaurant. For the price (in the area of $30 per person), it delivers a meal that compares well with any other option in Boston. The lamb was tender, the rice was tasty, the bread came with delicious dipping sauces … it was a meal I would very happily have again.

However, the reason I came to the Helmand was not to see if the food was good — I came to see if it delivered an epicurean experience that was novel and exciting enough to justify the blood and treasure spent abroad. And I am sad to report that The Helmand is not enough to make our foreign policy in Afghanistan a success.

The kaddo (a baked, candied pumpkin dish) was both excellent and new, and the ambience of the place as a whole was also different in a good way, but there the novelty ends. In hindsight, my conclusion is unsurprising: Afghani cuisine is not far removed from that of either Pakistan or India. If you come to The Helmand expecting anything more than a variation on south Asian dishes, you will likely come away disappointed.

If you are looking for a place that will give you your money’s worth in fine dining, The Helmand certainly deserves your attention. I recommend the same meal I had: kaddo, lamb, and as much of the amazing free bread as you can eat while retaining your dignity. But if you are looking for a new hot thing in the culinary world, maybe your time would be better spent at home, working on withdrawal timetables.

Anonymous over 10 years ago

Listen, buddy.

A) More than half of this article is irrelevant bullshit, if you're out of things to say, don't pad it. Make it short and sweet, or copy a yelp review, who knows. Keep it on topic.

B) When you finally got to the review portion... wow. Have you read a food review before? On what credentials are you writing for the Restaurant Review section of the tech? Your actual "review" has very little to say about the actual food, besides that what you ordered was "both excellent and new" and the ambiance is "good". Well, thank god. I was worried for a second that you would use actual adjectives.

Here's the deal. Take some time to read Zagat for a while, and while you're at it just find a new job. You've trolled the tech for long enough and while I don't care enough about the actual publication to say anything before, when you disgrace actual foodies with this sad pathetic excuse for a review, I felt the need to say my piece.

Keith Yost over 10 years ago

Listen, random internet man:

A) Most of this comment is irrelevant vitriol-- if you cant think of anything to say in a comment, then shut your yap, or go back to panhandling for money on a street corner, who knows. Keep your insanity to yourself.

B) When you comment... wow, have you ever commented on a food review before? What credentials do you have to be commenting on the Restaurant Review section of a major college newspaper? This is serious business sir, and if you have nothing more to say about the writing than that it is "irrelevant bullshit," then you need to go read a thesaurus! I only read comments that make full and complete use of Roget's, that way I know I'm getting my money's worth.

Here's the deal. Take some time to win some national awards for your writing, and while you're at it, take a break from the internet for a while. While I don't care enough about random internet commenters to seriously respond to them (or, like you, maintain consistency between word tenses in my sentences), when you make it clear I've inadvertently bugged you, that I've gotten under your skin so deep that you just HAD to mouth off on the internet, I feel the need to troll you a little more.

There's a great comeback in Mad Men that comes to mind whenever folk like you get yourselves all riled up

Underling to Don Draper: "I feel bad for you"

Don Draper: "I dont think about you at all."

By tomorrow, I wont even remember you exist.

Anonymous over 10 years ago

Wow. Nice professional reply there, national award winner.

Jen over 10 years ago

In late September 2001, I was walking by Helmand and noticed that the "Afghan Cuisine" part of their sign had been covered up by an American flag. Whether this was an expression of sympathy, a display of remorse for what some of their countrymen had done, or just an attempt to avoid reprisals, I don't know. I do know that this was a tense time for friends of mine whose ancestors were from the Middle East, Central Asia, or the Indian subcontinent. In addition to mourning like the rest of us, they were also subject to harassment and suspicion. Whether or not the author was aware that Helmand predated our war in Afghanistan, I found this review insensitive at best and not very funny,

When you finally get past the odd attempts at political humor, the actual review of the restaurant is also marred by the author's bizarre expectation that Afghani food should be radically different from other cuisines in the region.

I do agree, however, that Helmand is an excellent restaurant and second the recommendation of the kaddo dish. I would also suggest trying the Aushak, a leek- (and optionally beef-) filled ravioli with mint sauce, something that some readers might find more 'exotic' than the lamb dish.