Taste of the Town

Oaxacan Roots


    Before I knew much about Comal’s food, I knew a lot about its sound. One Thursday evening, during our regular patter in the transition from her KPFA radio show to mine, my pal Bonnie Simmons waxed lyrical about the audio system at Comal. As a deejay and music industry insider since the late ’60s, Bonnie knows a bit about sound. So does first-time restaurateur John Paluska, who spent 17 years managing the band Phish. Paluska engaged Berkeley’s Meyer Sound to take on one of the biggest headaches that plagues the modern dining scene: noisy ambience made worse by badly reproduced recorded music. How many of your restaurant meals have been ruined by a cacophony of voices made even more rackety by the muddy “thump, thump, thump” and grating “tss, tss, tss” of indeterminate music emanating from tinny, oddly situated speakers?
     According to Bonnie, the Meyer folks, known for their pioneering 1997 installation at Yoshi’s in Jack London Square, had solved the problem in
glorious fashion. So I entered Comal for the first time with high expectations of the sonic ambience and only vague presumptions about the cuisine. I knew that executive chef Matt Gandin, formerly of San Francisco’s Delfina, was putting an upscale, market-driven spin on Mexican cuisine with Oaxacan roots. And I’d heard some word of mouth, including out on the Shattuck sidewalk before we walked in, about the food being good but pricey for the portions.
    What first captured my attention, though, was the beautifully-designed 3,000-square-foot interior. As four of us made our way toward the enormous roofed patio out back, I was dazzled by a floor plan that makes a 170-seat dining area feel relatively intimate, and a smartly coordinated decor of multihued wood (floor, tables, booths, benches, ceiling), rough narrow strips of lath on concrete wall and harmonized lighting (including dramatic, cylindrical copper mesh shades). I was already thinking this was Berkeley’s most beautiful new restaurant in years when we reached the outdoor area, with another dining area under large heaters hanging from a translucent canopy, a full bar and an open-air beer garden with picnic tables. Suddenly we didn’t mind that we might have to hang out for an hour for a table.
    Then came the cocktails. Libation consultants Josh Harris and Scott Baird (the Bon Vivants) riffed off the encyclopedic list of tequilas and mezcals (available by the shot, $4–$25, and in flights, $18–$23; paired with house-made sangrita) and came up with some of the most intriguing, and successful, concoctions in the Bay Area’s current cocktail-crazed universe. Two visits provided the opportunity to sample five drinks. Robin couldn’t break away from the margarita ($9), distinguished by the orange-scented agave syrup, so it was up to me and our friend Steve to cover the Del Rio (tequila, sherry, St. Germain, orange bitters and grapefruit zest, $11); the Manhattanesque Joaquin Murrieta (tequila, Carpano Antica, Amaro Montenegro, orange bitters, lemon zest, $11); the liquor-intense Abuelo Sucio (tequila, mezcal, house-made grenadine, house bitters, $11); and the Palomaesque (an unusual smoky-citrus-sweet mashup of mezcal, cocchi Americano, grapefruit, lime, honey, salt and soda, $9). There wasn’t a wrong note in the bunch.
    If you lead into a meal with tequila, mezcal and perfect, freshly-cooked tortilla chips with perhaps the best restaurant-guacamole ever, plus chipotle, fire-roasted tomato and tomatillo dipping salsas ($8), what can go wrong? Virtually nothing, at Comal. The thoroughly menu-savvy and genuinely agreeable servers practically guarantee that. And the food more than holds up its end. Familiar Mexican dishes are given nightly changing twists, distinguished by high-end fillings and often-complex sauces. We had duck enchiladas ($14) bathed in red mole and crema; on another evening they were offered with heritage pork. The tamales ($8) were filled with English peas and green olives, topped with salsa ranchera; a chicken version with mole negro shows up regularly. The tacos — grilled rock cod with pickled cabbage and avocado aioli ($12), al pastor (spicy pork) with pineapple-chile salsa ($11) — justify their not-exactly-food-truck prices through their elevated ingredients and exceptional tortillas.
    Less expected offerings include a luscious little gems salad with a green goddess dressing, radishes, Cotija cheese and spiced pumpkin seeds ($9) and the earthy tlayudas, a crisp tortilla flatbread smeared with a purée of anasazi beans and avocado leaves, topped
with crimini mushrooms and wild arugula ($13). You could go an entirely small-plates route with yucca fries ($6), refried beans ($5), bok choy with chile-pepita salsa ($7), tripe with garbanzo beans, tomato and morita chile ($9), wood-grilled white shrimp in salsa Veracruzana ($14), halibut or bass ceviche ($14), quesadillas filled with rabbit or chicken ($13) or squash blossom and epazote ($9). Or you could share the large platters of spit-roasted chicken ($39), guajillo adobo spareribs ($48) or a 22-ounce bone-in rib-eye steak ($49). Desserts, if you’ve somehow saved room, include rice pudding ($9), flan ($7) and spicy chocolate budin ($8).
    On our two visits, not every dish soared to equal levels of finesse. A chile relleno ($9) with a darker poblano or pasilla and a more complex sauce can be found elsewhere. And the beef and pork albóndigas ($12), although tasty, were a bit dry and chewy, and the sharp, dark red adobo sauce was close to one-dimensional. (We had ordered a side of the deep and tantalizing mole negro, $3, for dipping chips and tortillas and ended up using it to enhance the meatballs as well).
    We did notice two architectural missteps: open views into the dishwashing station from the dining area, and the unfortunate location of table 70 at the corner that turns into the hallway where, unappetizingly, a bathroom door was sometimes left open. Otherwise, the attention to detail at Comal is standard-setting, exemplified above all by the sound system, custom-designed with more than 100 speakers and 28 microphones to pick up and “wash” the ambient noise, project music clearly but unobtrusively to the foreground (we enjoyed full-range audio of the Pretenders, New Orleans R&B, vintage soul and African pop) and allow for normal, unstrained conversation. It’s an ear-friendly restaurant experience unlike any other, creating an environment that invites you to pay relaxed attention to your companions and your meal. On every level, Comal says, “Listen up!”

Comal. Mexican. 2020 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 926-6300. Serves dinner Sun.–Thu. 5:30 p.m.–10 p.m. (bar 5 p.m.–11 p.m.), Fri.–Sat., 5:30 p.m.–11 p.m. (bar 5 p.m.–midnight). (Specfically, Comal accepts reservations for parties of up to 6 people at 5:30 p.m. only, and those reservations can be made in person or by phone; for parties of 8 to 10 people, Comal offers a pre fixe family-style dinner at 5:30 p.m. and again at 8 p.m. contingent on a first seating.) www.comalberkeley.com.

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