The first thing one might notice when walking into Comedor is that it doesn’t look like a Mexican restaurant — at least not the type that uses Talavera tiles and roughly hewn wood to telegraph authenticity. A chalkboard black door leads to an equally shadowy reception area where a tangle of branches provides the only texture in an otherwise austere space.
Of course, anyone who has dined in Mexico City knows that the dining rooms there have no single feel. Tom Kundig’s architecture — using glass blocks that abstract the cityscape — is just as home in that city as it is in Austin. That some might not read it as Mexican speaks to a lack of imagination and a tendency to imprison tradition with cliché.
Comedor, which sneakily opened on April 16 at 501 Colorado St., is a restaurant that refuses to be pigeonholed. The chef team of Philip Speer, Gabe Erales, and Alan Delgado have created a menu that honors historical foodways but still feels strikingly contemporary. Of course, in a space feels like a gallery, each dish is as vibrant as a painter’s palette.
The main menu is divided into two blocks. The para la mesa section is Comedor’s version of small plates, although dishes themselves largely avoid the preciousness that that term implies. A half-moon carnitas quesadilla, for example, is presented unceremoniously with a tin of smoked salsa.
But even the most beautiful selections center on taste first. Topped with a delicate frill of fennel fronds, a live diver scallop crudo is one of the most breathtakingly plated on the menu, but the garnish’s licorice flavor anchors the sweetness of a fermented pineapple broth. Marrow tacos, likely to be the signature dish, likewise feature a confetti-like hoja santa and pecan gremolata, a wholly necessary touch to cut the richness of the fat.
Moving on to the fuerte segment, the selection of “strong” entrees, the kitchen explores the possibilities of mole, featuring various varieties in a quail Milanesa, a strip loin, and a Spanish octopus that should please fans of Speer’s Bonhomie. The most surprising dish was also the most humble, a simple mix of heirloom beans, Texas mushrooms, and masa dumplings slyly mimicking the shape of the caps.
Comedor, however, is at its most playful when it comes to the postres. It’s apparent that Speer is thrilled to be focused on desserts again as soon as one sees the shrimp-like tail of sugar work sticking out of the refreshing guava sorbet cradled with dollops mezcal foam. His take on Gansito, a Twinkie-like Mexican snack cake, arrives in a plastic sleeve.
As one might expect, agave spirits lay the foundation of the cocktail menu created by owner and developer William Ball’s team at Garage bar next door. Though showcased in a simple margarita, tequila and mezcal often play a supporting role in the drink build, like in a manzanilla sherry sipper with lime and cucumber. The common thread is a creative use of vegetables, with carrots provide dazzling color in one drink and chile tinctures in several others.
Chiles are sacrosanct in Mexican cuisine, and their use throughout the offerings neatly sums Comedor up. Used for their unexpected vegetal qualities in some dishes and familiar heat in others, they form a bridge from ancient cultivation to today. It's as effective an argument as anything that tradition can't breathe when it is preserved in amber.