The hottest table in town these days has to be the five-month-old Comal restaurant in downtown Berkeley.
After a glowing three-star review in the San Francisco Chronicle, people have been flocking to this stylish, upscale Mexican restaurant. With a no-reservation policy (except for the odd policy of taking only 5:30 p.m. reservations), wait on busy nights can be 45 to 90 minutes.
I ended up at Comal last week when my nephew was in town. After he spent the day exploring UC-Berkeley, I met up with him at Comal exactly at 5:30 p.m. to get a table. We waited for about 10 minutes at the bar, which gave me enough time to order a Comal Swizzle ($9), which looked like a Tequila Sunrise. (It was actually a complicated mix of tequila; Falernum; pineapple, passion fruit and lime juices; Cascade hops tincture; and crushed ice.)
We were then seated at our table outside the main dining room and the open kitchen. For us, we got a view of the second bar in a covered area adjacent to the patio. This place is huge, as you might have guessed.
The menu by Chef Matt Gandin emphasizes the California seasonal styling he mastered as chef de cuisine at Delfina paired with his love of Mexican cuisine, particularly from the southern state of Oaxaca.
Changing daily, the menu has quite a bit of starters, from snacks to small plates, and then special quesadillas, enchiladas, tamales and tacos. At least three large plates, oftentimes roasted meats, are designed to share between two to three people.
My nephew and I focused on a few starting dishes, and each ordered our own plates (a lamb quesadilla for him and the beer-marinated carne asada tacos for me). The ingredients were all fresh and nicely cooked, but the flavors didn’t depart far from the typical Mexican cuisine we could have found in the Mission.
Our guacamole with chips and three types of salsa (not sure what they were since they’re not described on the menu nor explained by our server) seemed tame. The guacamole was fresh and chunky but the freshly fried chips seemed like any other tortilla chips.
A little gems salad with cotija cheese ($9) looked similar to other attempts at a Caesar-like salad at Mexican restaurants, with the addition of radishes and pickled onions. And a beef-and-pork albondigas ($12) in an adobo sauce lacked heartiness, instead offering up a runny sauce with simple meatballs.
My nephew thought his lamb quesadillas were good, but the tortilla was too thick, so the flavor overpowered the meat. My tacos were tasty and good, and I did enjoy the medium-rare centers of the tender meat.
Everything about our meal was good, but nothing spectacular. The restaurant is sophisticated yet casual and the service is friendly. But the food, while complex in fresh ingredients, lacked soul.
Except for one very special dish.
I’d heard some buzz about the traditional flan ($7), served up rustically with fresh strawberries. Just one bite and I decided this was the best flan I’ve had around town, with a gorgeous creamy texture that still had substance. The flavor was balanced, and not too sweet even with its caramel topping.
Comal is a welcomed addition to that gritty stretch of Shattuck Avenue, filled mostly with small restaurants serving college students and frequented by downtown Berkeley’s regular panhandlers. Even though I wasn’t blown-away by the flavors, I appreciate the effort of the kitchen and I dream fondly of the flan.
Rating: 2.5 out of 4 camera snaps
Comal, 2020 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. PH: 510.926.6300. Open for dinner daily from 5:30 to 10 p.m. (till 11 p.m. on Friday, Saturday). Reservations only for 5:30 p.m. for parties under 6, major credit cards accepted. www.comalberkeley.com
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