Restaurant Review: Komali
Chef Abraham Salum urges Dallas to stretch its palate and get to know regional Mexican cuisine.
The menu offers a familiar item, puréed black bean soup, next to an exotic one, huatape verde de mariscos, which is a complex tomatillo, onion, garlic, and white wine broth thickened with masa. The wondrous soup is filled with tender mussels, buttery scallops, and soft shrimp. The dish is a bargain $10 meal and a sure hangover cure. Several people at my table weren’t too jazzed by the pork pozole, but I’m a sucker for the sturdy liquid from braised pork simmered with quajillo peppers until it reaches a spicy, smoky, almost tomato flavor. Whole kernels of hominy float next to chunks of tender pork that break apart at the touch of a fork. Season it your way. The pozole is served with a plate of thinly sliced cabbage and radishes, chopped cilantro, and a pinch of ground oregano.
Tex-Mex fans, beware. When you order the queso fundido, you won’t receive a melamine bowl filled with melted Velveeta. Instead, you’ll find hot cheese nirvana with bubbling white Oaxacan cheese mixed with chorizo, mushroom, or poblano. Spoon the melted cheese into a warm corn tortilla, and add a touch of one of the two side salsas. One is a rusty red concoction of arbol chiles, cilantro, and tomatillo. The other is a blend of pasillo pepper, cilantro, and red onion.
Shrimp tostadas are gringo-friendly. Each of the three tostadas is topped with a handful of shrimp lightly tossed in Mexican crema mixed with chipotle, onions, tomatoes, and fresh cilantro. I love the ceviche at Stephan Pyles, but Komali’s generous portion of snapper marinated in lime juice with slices of avocado is the best I’ve tried in a long time. Both items are summer friendly, especially when paired with a nice white wine.
Unfortunately, Komali’s anemic wine list makes such a pairing difficult. Of all the cuisines in the world, the complex flavors of Mexican food scream for wines that harmonize with them. Servers weren’t much help pairing our dishes with the short list of wines from Argentina, Mexico, Chile, and Spain. Until they get this situation fixed, I’d point you to the stellar list of close to 100 tequilas. They offer vertical flights (blanco, reposado, and anejo varieties of the same brand of tequila) or horizontal ones (three samples of the same variety, but different brands). If you need assistance with tequila, grab a seat in the bar, and ask Leann Berry, whom you might recognize if you frequented Ciudad. She has designed some delightful concoctions, including a brilliant sweet and sour tamarind margarita, which I think is the best version of this classic Mexican drink north of Ixtapa.
Dinner service begs you to follow the appetizer, salad, entrée format, and, naturally, this being Dallas, Komali has a steak-and-potatoes option. But here the 8-ounce pan-seared filet rests in a rich, rusty almendrado sauce that translates loosely into a béchamel with tomatoes and crushed almonds. A lovely ball of fried goat cheese sits atop the beef, and the plate is filled to capacity with fried potatoes and mixed vegetables. The kitchen uses chef Salum’s grandmother’s recipe for albóndigas en salsa de pasilla (Mexican meatballs). Bordering on bland, the ground pork and beef is mixed with rice and a touch of mint. The accompanying side of rice is simply scented with cilantro. The dish gets a slight kick from the pasilla sauce made from dried peppers and tomatoes.
Skip the chiles rellenos stuffed with crab. It might sound good, but the delicate crab is overpowered by the poblano pepper. Instead, treat yourself to one of the wonders of the culinary world, the black mole from Oaxaca. The dark, almost purple sauce is served over chicken and topped with sesame seeds. The sweet and burnt flavors fade in and out of the rich mixture of ancho and guajillo peppers, tortillas, onion, garlic, and unsweetened chocolate, and then end with a mild cinnamon finish.
Unlike the hearty cuisine, Komali’s contemporary interior design, created by Julio Quiñones, is slick and stark. The bleak exterior is forgotten once you open the door. The first thing you see isn’t a human; it’s a striking Italian sandstone sculpture of half a face that doubles as a chair. It shocks you into feeling you’ve just walked into an art museum instead of a restaurant. To the right is the bar area with a long communal table and a row of banquettes backed by floor-to-ceiling windows. The art installation in the main dining room is a pastel yellow and blue tiled mosaic fireplace covered with three-dimensional ceramic objects and broken pottery. All of the walls are covered with sisal, a fiber made from agave leaves, and painted white.
I gasped the first time I walked in, but after sitting in a corner booth, I found the main dining room austere. And the strip of mirror above the booths at eye level is dreadfully unsettling for those of us who do not like to watch ourselves eat.
Abraham Salum has succeeded in creating a stylish restaurant with a focus on regional Mexican cuisine. I enjoyed my meals at Komali, but I’d like to see him take a few more chances with his menu. “We did my lengua, muendo, and beef tripe tacos for brunch one day,” Salum says. “We thought the staff would end up eating it, but we sold out.” That Facebook page is adding new friends every day who appreciate the difference between Mexican and Tex-Mex.
For more information about Komali, visit our restaurant guide.