Sunday, July 08, 2007

My Karzai Bathroom Confusion

While I was staying in D.C. recently I drove up to Baltimore with some friends for a concert and dinner. We dined at The Helmand, an Afghan restaurant in the beautiful Mount Vernon cultural district. The restaurant is owned by Quayum Karzai, brother of Afghan president Hamid Karzai. Other members of the Karzai family run branches of The Helmand in San Francisco and Cambridge. Brother Hamid was extended an invitation at one point, some years ago, to join the family restaurant business, but he had bigger fish to fry.

The connection to a world leader hasn't hurt The Helmand in the P.R. department, but it can stand on its own. The restaurant has a subtly elegant room and good food at very reasonable prices.

We started with two appetizers. The first, kaddo borawani, is described as "pan fried and baked baby pumpkin seasoned with sugar and served on yogurt garlic sauce." To be honest, I'm not a big pumpkin fan, but this is one dish that gets featured in all the reviews. I think it would be a great dessert after a turkey dinner, but I'm not sure about starting a meal with it.

Kaddo Borawani

Our other appetizer was aushak, a kind of Afghan ravioli stuffed with leeks (or sometimes chives) and topped with yogurt and meat sauce. The Helmand's sauce was meatier and richer, with more tomato, than other versions of the dish that I've tried, and the combination of the meat sauce and the creamy yogurt atop a pasta thing gave it an uncanny resemblance to a Bolognese lasagna.


I was a bit disappointed by my main course, lamb lawand. It's a stew with a tangy tomato sauce and mushrooms, topped with yogurt (like many of the dishes). It was served with spinach and chalow (basmati rice with cumin) on the side. The lawand sauce was excellent; the problem was the lamb, which was rather dry. My friend fared better with the chicken version, and they also do a vegetarian lawand.

The highlight of the meal for me was dessert, the "traditional" Afghan ice cream, cardamom-spiced vanilla with figs, dates and fresh mango. This was really spectacular, with a gelato-like consistency.

At a certain point during the meal I had to use the bathroom. The waitress pointed the way to the restrooms, but when I saw the two doors I was confused. There weren't signs for Men and Women, or Ladies and Gents. There were oriental prints of birds on each door. It was apparent that they weren't unisex bathrooms, but I couldn't decode the birds. One of the prints was a peacock, but the other was a more austere bird I didn't recognize. I stood there for a few moments, trying to decide what to do. I have a confession to make: I'm ornithologically challenged. I took a look at the peacock. I figured it must be the women's room. After all, I don't strut my feathers. I figured the plain bird was more macho, so I went in. Since they were single-occupancy bathrooms, I had no idea whether I had made the right choice.

When I got back to the table I explained my dilemma to my companions. It was then that I learned the facts of life. I probably knew that among birds it's the male that's more flamboyant, but I had forgotten. I had never previously considered the gender of peacocks, though the name should have been a clue. For all I knew there were male and female peacocks. And who the hell ever heard of a peahen, which was the bird on the women's room? The waitress overheard our discussion and said, "You're talking about the bathrooms? That drives everybody crazy. We keep telling the owner to change it."

A couple of days later I called my friend Donna and told her about my bathroom confusion and my avian ignorance. "That's OK, Pete," she said. "You know a lot of things; you're allowed a few lapses."

Donna called me back a few minutes later with an afterthought. "It's not just birds, you know," she said. "Think about lions."

I did think about lions. There's nothing in the least bit feminine about male lions. But peacocks? A peacock has no business on a men's room door.

Here's a blog post from another confused Helmand diner.

Helmand on Urbanspoon


Anonymous Dayna said...

Pete, i love this post!!
and yes, there is such a thing as a peahen, it's a female peafowl, honest!

9:40 PM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

I'm still crying fowl.

1:04 PM  
Blogger Adam Gerard said...


I just wanted to let you know that your article was quite enlightening. I have visited The Helmand in Baltimore but I had no idea that the owner was a member of the Karzai family. Nor did I know there was a location in Cambridge.

But I did have the same problem with the bathrooms. It's okay to be ornithologically challenged, at least when related to restrooms; I strongly feel that bird knowledge should not be a requirement of proper bathroom usage. I'm considering contacting my congresswoman to see if she will introduce a House Resolution on this important matter.

It is only slightly reassuring, however, that Helmand management is aware of the issue since they continue to use the paintings and confuse their patrons.

10:20 AM  

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