Once you slide into the furtive entrance, past the welcoming foyer and into the comfort of your heavy leather chair inside the stunning dining room at Comedor, you may have already forgotten you were in Austin.
Look to the sky in the soaring window-lined room, and you might be able to identify one of the neighboring towers, but probably only if you’re familiar with the Indeed building. You are sitting in a gorgeous space — all concrete, steel, brass and hickory — completely revealed by natural light at an early dinner while also completely hidden.
The exterior, as you no doubt noticed on approach, is blanketed in black brick and glass blocks. Never has an Austin building so imposing been simultaneously so invisible. The dining room, and its adjacent brick-walled courtyard accessed in temperate weather by massive hand-cranked glass doors, is your fortress of sophisticated solitude for the evening. There might be four drunken bros in jeans and flip-flops riding scooters the wrong way down a one-way street just a few feet away, but you’d never know it.
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The building, designed by Seattle-based architect Tom Kundig, doesn’t look like anything in Austin. (It’s actually the Olson Kundig firm’s first creation in the state.) And it doesn’t feel like Austin. It’s a mix of vibes: Northwestern millionaire's lakeside mansion, New York City modern art museum and Mexico City al fresco dining experience, the large courtyard dotted with a fountain and palo verde and acacia trees. It’s a grand statement, one that puts the onus on the kitchen to back it up and keep Comedor from becoming simply spectacle.
The culinary team, helmed by executive chef Gabe Erales, answers the challenge, culling Mexico’s myriad trademark ingredients and preparations and combining them with our area’s own bounty to create contemporary Mexican dishes deserving of the space, while making the case that Austin is ready for the type of artful, modern Mexican exemplified in places like Mexico City, New York City and Los Angeles.
The dishes at Comedor (the name means “dining room” in Spanish) fit into one of two menu sections: para la mesa and fuerte. You’ll want to order a handful of those shareable dishes for the table (the first group, for those with a limited grasp of Spanish). It’s a strong and vibrant collection with few missteps, and a roster complemented well by the heady mezcal list. If seafood is your thing, the oblong pearls of scallop crudo perky with tepache (fermented pineapple) broth and piqued slightly by pasilla peppers is a must ($18). The piquancy with raw fish preparations gets cranked several notches in an aguachile dish of ribboned yellowfin tuna and bites of watermelon compressed with unusually spicy costeno chilies. Or maybe it was the dots of chile de arbol that brought the heated rush; regardless, the dish is a perfect end-of-summer contrast of textures and the interplay of spice and ice ($18).
Erales previously worked at the from-scratch Dai Due Taqueria, and the kitchen at Comedor also takes pride and care with ingredients. They source heritage corn from small, independent farmers throughout Mexico and nixtamalize it in house for a masa both slightly nutty and tangy. It is cooked into a tostada that serves as a palette for an array of colors and flavors from ash-roasted beets, lime vinaigrette and expressive dollops of chile vinaigrette ($6) perched on a smooth layering of black-eyed pea puree. And the kitchen uses the corn for a toasty quesadilla oozing with huitlacoche and creamy Mexican cheese, the funky earth of the corn byproduct amplified and contrasted with smoked Fresno chile ($14). The masa worked to varying degrees of success at a brunch highlighted by exceptional enfrijoladas that looked like an oversized, fudge-dipped Oreo ($14), though it found no expressiveness as the foundation for waffles dotted with rich and bright flavors lost to the wells of the lukewarm waffle ($13).
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The best of the excellent vegetarian options at dinner was a tamal created with a blend of acorn squash and spaghetti squash served in a pool of mild mole amarillo ($14). The flavorful vegetable mix was moister than its carnivore counterpart, a dry and stringy goat barbacoa tamal, and it didn’t even have the benefit of lard ($15).
The most animalistic offering arrived in the form of three bones ($33) filled with gelatinous marrow. The texture and primal flavor can often put me off bone marrow, but here the kitchen tempers but doesn’t fully tame the marrow with a layering of hoja santa and pecan gremolata, a showering of puffed amaranth and a glassy glaze of caramelized brown sugar. It’s decadent savagery that some compound by taking shots of mezcal through the bony luge, though I’d recommend downing your agave spirits in a more sophisticated way, as a mezcal cocktail with amaro, genever and orange bitters ($14).
The array of shareable dishes at the restaurant operated by partners Philip Speer (longtime culinary director at Uchi and most recently of Bonhomie), William Ball and Conor Oman (both of neighboring cocktail bar Garage) thrilled me on my first visit three months after the April opening. But the main dishes (from the fuerte section of the menu) didn’t live up to the promise. An overcooked piece of fish ($34) seemed mundane, and the pecan-based mole on the hammered and fried quail milanesa carried an astringent bite ($22).
I worried I was in for a repeat performance after several superb openers at my next dinner. But this time (and the next) there were no stumbles. That meaty halibut cooked on the plancha? The fish still resembled something I could probably find at a number of restaurants, but the mole verde changed how I thought about the form. Bright, buzzy and light with tomatillo, epazote, cilantro and hoja santa, the sauce almost levitated from the plate ($34). That mole was contrasted by a black garlic version pooled at the tip of an onyx tendril of tender, charred Spanish octopus on a dish that looked like something from a "Game of Thrones"-themed seafood restaurant ($25).
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Speer serves as the restaurant’s pastry chef, and given the former James Beard Award semifinalist’s talent and history, the desserts at one dinner confounded. This is, after all, the same man who introduced Austinites to tobacco cream, fried milk and coffee soil at Uchi and Uchiko a decade ago. A runny arroz con leche studded with local peaches ($9) and a dense tamal de chocolate with caramelized milk ice cream ($11) proved his creativity and facility with flavor pairings, though the execution on both needed tightening. I had no such complaints another night, with a tres leches ringed by sweet corn milk and topped with an artistic flourish of burnt meringue ($10). I’ll choose to remember that one. It’s the better and more deserved ending to a transportive dining experience.
I could have just devoured the glistening pork chop as dessert and called it a wrap ($48). The double-cut pork chop again recalled some medieval savagery with its weapon-ready size, and it hit me directly in the pleasure center of my brain. So much so that I ordered it at consecutive dinners (a rare move). The hulking but tender pork was lacquered to an almost candied finish with tangy apple cider vinegar and served with the pineapple-and-pear sweetness of a ruddy chintesle mole. (Chintesle is roughly translated to English as “tablecloth-stained,” according to a Comedor server in full command of the menu and hospitality, something that could be said of most but not all of the employees we encountered.) After savoring the most readily obvious meat of the pork chop, take your surgical skills to the bone and shave the thin slices of meat that cling there. They taste like candied pork belly, but better, especially after a quick slick of mole. It was beautiful and primal, a dish you want to pull at on gnaw on, intent to savor every last bite. At least nobody passing by outside could see me at work.
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