Bauer on Comal: A restaurant I would have opened

If the Chronicle’s Michael Bauer had ever opened a restaurant, Comal would be “exactly like it”. Photo: Tracey Taylor

For Michael Bauer, the Chronicle’s restaurant critic, Comal, which opened in downtown Berkeley in early May, has achieved a flawless debut.

Bauer has nothing but praise for the food prepared by former Delfina chef de cuisine Matt Gandin, which he describes as being prepared with “a subtly fresh fanaticism.” He admires the impeccable service, the state-of-the-art acoustics, courtesy of Berkeley’s Meyer Sound, the “meticulously designed” interiors, and the cocktails — “some of the best  in the Bay Area.”

He awards the restaurant three stars overall, and in each of the three categories considered — food, service and atmosphere, which translates as all-round “Excellent”, and concludes that, had he ever started a restaurant, it would be this one: “Comal is exactly the type of place I’d have liked to open.”

Comal’s executive chef, Matt Gandin, was formerly chef de cuisine at Delfina in San Francisco. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Gandin told Berkeleyside in April that he is treating Mexico as if it were an extension of California and his dishes reflect that approach, blending typical Mexican ingredients with seasonal local produce to create mouthfuls such as enchiladas with heritage pork, kohlrabi-turnip slaw, and bok choy with a spicy arbol chile and pumpkin seed sauce. As Bauer puts it: “Gandin was working on a doctorate in Mexican studies before being lured to the stove, so he understands tradition, but he adds his own twists, creating food of the kind you might get from an innovative chef in Mexico City.”

Comal is owned by John Paluska who used to manage the band Phish. It’s his first restaurant venture and he has taken care to oversee every last detail, co-opting local architectural and design talent, and sourcing highly regarded names in both food and drink to run the show. On a recent evening he was talking about the installation of some eco-soundproofing for the outdoor patio — good acoustics should work both indoors and out, he said.

Paluska was acutely aware of the potential backlash he might face in choosing to open a “big” restaurant in downtown Berkeley rather than, say, in an up-and-coming Oakland neighborhood, or in San Francisco. But, after doing his homework, he concluded the location was a no-brainer. “Downtown Berkeley has a tremendous amount of untapped potential,” he said.

Read Michael Bauer’s full, glowing, review in the Chronicle.

Review: Comal — fresh flavors, a dizzying choice of tequilas [05.11.12]
Comal: New restaurant takes a bet on downtown Berkeley [04.30.12]

Want to get a digest of all the day’s Berkeley news in your email inbox at the end of your working day? Click here to subscribe to Berkeleyside’s free Daily Briefing.

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside. Email: