Komali's Safe Bet
When Komali prepared to open in February 2011, chef and owner Abraham Salum described it as a contemporary Mexican restaurant. In an interview with the Observer before the opening, the Mexican-born restaurateur, who recently became an American citizen, hoped huitlacoche, lengua, grasshoppers and other exotic ingredients would dot his menu. But when the restaurant unlocked its doors on a snowy winter evening, the most exciting ingredient on the bill was cactus. While filet mignon and chicken breast were well represented, there wasn't a single insect or fungus-infected corn kernel on the menu.
Salum's cooking was greeted with enthusiasm for the most part. The Dallas Morning News review awarded three stars, despite noting main dishes that lacked the adventurous spirit of the cocktails and desserts. D Magazine followed soon after, saying Salum had succeeded in creating a stylish restaurant with a focus on regional Mexican cuisine, but also lamenting his more timid plates.
Salum countered. Occasional brunch specials offered lengua, menudo and beef tripe tacos for diners who wanted to distance themselves from Dallas' ubiquitous Tex-Mex menus. The dishes never caught on, though, and the regular menu remained free of offal and critters.
Then a year after opening, Salum announced a big change for the restaurant named after the round iron skillet used to fire tortillas. Anastacia Quiñones, a chef known for her time at the equally loved but unsuccessful Henderson Avenue Mexican restaurant Alma, would take over the kitchen.
Salum admitted his restaurant needed some refining. He said Komali would take a more adventurous approach with its food, leveraging more Mexican ingredients to evoke the contemporary cuisine he described when Komali opened. Yet five months after that announcement, Komali is still as white-bread as it was when it first opened. Some menu items border on Tex-Mex milquetoast .
Camarones a la plancha sounds good on the menu, promising seared shrimp with tequila butter, heirloom cherry tomato confit and grilled bread, but what arrives is devoid of personality. Headless, tail-free shrimp look more butter-poached than seared, and two bland cherry tomatoes, one red, one yellow, do little to recall an ingredient cooked in its own succulence. The tepid baguette slices might be nice to dip in tequila butter, but the sauce is too bland to enjoy.
Ceviche served with tortilla chips sounds great, too, and the dish covers all the bases. Fresh-tasting fish? Check. Plenty of acid? Uh-huh. Fresh onions and tomatoes? Yup. Yet the flavors never jump on the palate, and the massive martini glass of snapper becomes boring after a second bite. A serving size that could easily sate four diners is painfully monotonous for two. A solo diner saddled with this much citrus-cooked fish will feel overwhelmed with each and every chip.
Another plate looks beautiful when it arrives, with a fat, forest-green poblano cut open like a purse and perched in a pool of rusty tomato salsa with a crema zigzag for fat and flare. But if the crab meat the menu promised in the chile relleno de jaiba was indeed "lumps" when the kitchen started, then Quiñones' cooks need to learn to treat those delicate bites more tenderly. Mushrooms, onions and corn share space in the pepper with fine strings of crab meat that seem almost forgotten.
Filete de res almendrado is really just a meat and two sides dressed in an almond-based mole. The sauce is wonderful, rich and full of earthy flavors, and the steak is seared and seasoned nicely. Slice it open to reveal a ruby-red center that's cool to the touch: a perfect rare as ordered. But the potato gratin the menu sold is oily potato medallions topped in a blanket of melted cheese with roasted poblano in the fold just to make things feel Mexican. And while a deep-fried marble of goat cheese that crowns the steak is an exciting touch, the side of broccoli looks as Mexican as the diners in the dining room.
Like any successful restaurant, Komali draws many of its customers from the neighborhood, and the diners at every table in the whitewashed and sleek dining room look more than pleased; they look really happy. The place is packed at 10 p.m. on a Friday more than a year into its existence in a city that's known for fickle customers who abandon trendy concepts as soon as the next hot spot opens.
While good restaurateurs know the customer is always right, Salum's concessions seem especially disappointing when you consider what might have been. Komali opened just before Mesa and Meso Maya, restaurants that suggested Dallas was ready to embrace authenticity with a level of refinement missing from places like El Ranchito and Veracruz in Oak Cliff. Komali stood at the forefront of a Mexican revolution in a Tex-Mex town, and then they put beef and chicken fajitas on the menu.
Every meal at Komali starts with a free basket of chips and salsa, too. The kitchen fries tortillas in-house for a thick, sturdy and crisp chip, but while the salsa tastes bright and fresh it doesn't pack enough punch to please even a timid tongue. Add tostadas topped with tuna tartare, taco plates and enchiladas, and Komali starts to feel like a better Javier's, without the cigars.
Some dishes are almost perfect. The cream of poblano soup is flavorful, heavy without being overwhelming and subtly warm at the back of your throat and all the way down into your center. Tortilla strips for garnish along with roasted corn sitting at the bottom of the bowl, however, are gummy when a crunchy snap could provide a perfect textural juxtaposition to the smooth puree.
Pastel Azteca layers corn tortillas with shreds of chicken, strings of melting cheese and a salsa verde as mild as a perfect spring day.
A queso fundido that's been on the menu since the beginning is offered with a choice of roasted poblano, mushrooms or chorizo. Opt for the first two and slather your tortillas with the pasilla salsa served on the side and tarted up with raw tomatillo, then indulge in the warm melted cheese. The corn tortillas are fresh and made on site, but the kitchen uses masa harina instead of freshly ground corn. Even though they're tender, the shortcut robs them of that fresh, roast corn flavor present in the best tortillas. The flour tortillas are purchased premade, as is the bottle of Cholula hot sauce that's brought to my table with the ceviche.
Komali is a more than attractive space that sends out beautiful looking plates. It has flashy $14 margaritas with spice and flare, and a competent, polite staff that's warm and helpful. It even has a dining room full of beautiful diners who've come to eat Mexican food that feels safe. Yet even though weekend specials occasionally include duck or beef tongue, those looking for an adventurous or authentic Mexican meal will find the food flimsy.
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