A is for Appetizers
The Helmand · Café Madrid · Henninger's Tavern · Café Zen · Grand Palace · Morgan Millard · Al Pacino Café · Sarah's Café · Iola Café
Start your starters-only meal at Mount Vernon's jewel, The Helmand (806 N. Charles St.,  752-0311), with a bowl of one of the rich, stewlike soups: thick, tomato-y aush, with its homemade noodles, or the beef-and-bean mashawa. Follow it up with a mix-and-match of bowlani (delicately fried pastry shells filled with potato or leek), banjan borawni (eggplant seasoned with tomatoes and spices), and aushak (leek-filled Afghan ravioli, available with either meat or vegetarian sauces). Pick from a plate of shurnakhod, a salad of potatoes and chick peas in a piquant cilantro dressing. Make a dessert of the spicy/sweet pan-fried pumpkin. Of course, the entrées here are equally magical, but there's always next time.
You'll never miss the main course after a round of tapas at Café Madrid (505 S. Broadway,  276-7700). Bring lots of friends. Share a pitcher or two of a fine, not-too-sweet sangria as you dive into plates of sautéed mushrooms and artichoke hearts, stuffed mussels, shrimp in garlic sauce, Spanish sausage, fried squid, and that hearty, all-purpose omelet called tortilla española, dense with onions and potatoes, traditionally served slightly warm or at room temperature, like quiche. They make you feel like family here. And if you do press on, you'll be rewarded for your capacity, right up to decadent dessert.
The "New American" cuisine served on linen by candlelight at Henninger's Tavern (1812 Bank St.,  342-2172) is a true (albeit expensive) dining indulgence. But eaters in the know stick to the barroom side of this Fells Point restaurant; there, they perch on stools and enjoy the excellent appetizers, which exemplify the kitchen's culinary creativity without necessitating the layout of major entrée dollars. We know of no better way of cooking oysters than pan- frying them in Pernod and fennel cream sauce with spinach--utter heaven. Other way-better-than-pub-grub choices include Henninger's crab soup; the unusual, slightly sweet chili; or the Texas BBQ Shrimp, wrapped in applewood-smoked bacon, brushed with homemade BBQ sauce, and served on a bed of warm cucumber salad.
It's not easy being green, unless you're one of the transcendent, verdant, vegetable dumplings served in the tranquil confines of Govans' Café Zen (438 E. Belvedere Ave.,  532-0022). The appetite-enhancing sesame noodles are certain to provoke an envious shade in any other establishment claiming to proffer a similar item in this category. The enigmatically titled Ants in a Tree (shredded chicken and vegetables on a bed of lettuce, which is, um, green) is a world unto itself. We usually wind up doggy-baggin' our entrée due to appetizer overload.
Forget about rollin' out the chuck wagon: On weekends at Grand Palace (5721 Ritchie Highway, Brooklyn Park,  636-8333) the staff rolls out the dim sum carts, laden with a seemingly endless assortment of tiny treasures from virtually every link in the food chain--baked, boiled, steamed, or fried. You'll leave full, and heavier in the wallet than you might expect.
We enjoy reading the entrée menu at Morgan Millard (4800 Roland Ave.,  889-0030)--such nouveau cookery (grilled beef tenderloin with red-wine shallot reduction, sesame-crusted tuna) in a restaurant at the nation's oldest strip shopping center amuses us no end. But it's "the Morg"'s appetizers that really slay us. We make a meal of the shrimp bisque or the decadent salad of roasted pear, blue cheese, walnuts, and field greens, perhaps with an order of Prince Edward Island mussels on the side. We're sure the entrées eat as good as they read, but for the moment we're too busy with the starters to find out.
At Al Pacino Café (various locations) and its sister restaurants, Sarah's Café (1019 Light St.,  752-2378) and Iola Café (3501 St. Paul St.,  662-0552), our favorite entrée is an appetizer: the Mid-East Combo Platter, a sampler of stuffed grape leaves, falafel, salad, tahini sauce, hummus, foul, baba ghanooj, and a warm round of pita bread. Of course, you're supposed to share it, but if you try to share ours, you'll get your hand slapped. We've found the very filling combo platter a terrific prelude to a nice long nap. You can also enjoy any of the platter's components separately as "real" appetizers, the way the good Allah intended.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201