I’ve never been to Mexico. A friend of mine once moved to Cancún, to work on commission in a hotel for Americans on business trips.
I said I’d visit him, but since I spent whatever money I had on wine and second-hand books, I could never afford the flight.
I hoped he’d forget about my offer. Pretty soon after he got tired of hustling the honeymoon suite to wannabe Warren Buffets and moved back to Britain. When we finally met up, my friend told me that he knew I’d never make it across the Atlantic, because “you’re always really careful with your money”. He must never know the truth.
That was the closest I ever came to visiting Mexico. Fortunately, John Sim has been to Mexico. He met his fiancée Cati there. And together they decided to return to the UK, not in flight from the drudgery of some hotel, but to establish an authentic Mexican restaurant in London. Cati even brought her mother, who makes the guacamole and gets through a dozen crates of avocadoes a week in the process. We’re a long way from Doritos BBQ Rib territory.
Comensal Clapham isn’t interested in satisfying your ashamed lust for a Mexican mess-feast. Expected ‘classics’ of the genre are nowhere to be found. If you want someone to cook you some Old El Paso fajitas, look elsewhere. Instead, the menu hinges on a varied list of sharing platters, not unlike tapas, which encourage venturesome lunges into unknown flavours. After all, if you’re going to order several dishes to share, you’re more likely to branch out than to stick to a favoured staple dish. And since you can’t have a burrito, branch out is exactly what you’re going to do.
Even the decor declares itself free of preconceptions. With a pronounced inclination for rosy pink first evident in the restaurant’s masthead, Comensal distances itself from the usual tropes of Mexican cooking. It positions itself as a grown-up restaurant, an exercise in the broadening of boundaries. People come here because they want something different.
Guacamole offers a familiar benchmark to test Comensal’s kitchen, and it’s a total success. The guac here is the best you’ve ever tasted. Arriving in a deep, swelling granite cauldron, which our poor waiter struggles under, it’s a signal from intent from Comensal, a message that the simple things will be done well. With an oily, chunky texture that’s both moist and punchy, this guacamole belongs to an entirely different category to every pre-made version I’ve come across, and most of my own attempts too.
It’s accompanied by a bowl of crunchy corn tortilla chips, reassuringly writhing and curled from a recent spell in the deep fat fryer, their colour a dusty, deserty yellow. These are polished off well before we witness the bottom of the guacamole bowl, and without any fuss a waitress brings another helping of the chips.
Unsurprisingly, much of the tapas menu is made up of taco dishes. But forget about those barely-edible plastic ‘corn’ shells you’ve been served in the past. Physically impossible to eat, those bright-yellow clams shatter like glass after the first bite and pathetically surrender their filling in defeat by the second. Here, the tacos are miniature tortillas, the size of mug coasters, arriving open and ready for you to assemble. The Saudero Tacos – sautéed strips of Scottish brisket steak in a Mexican marinade, served with onions, coriander and spicy salsa – are a nice workout of the senses, the spices gently sparring with your palette, a great warm-up for your mouth. For £6.95 they’re also good value, arriving in a generous trio.
Other street food options fare similarly well, especially the Napolitos Taco, whose key ingredient is cactus. At the risk of appearing close-minded, I’ve never looked at a cactus and found my appetite aroused. Approximate in both taste and texture to grilled green pepper, the cactus strips have a powerful, astringent flavour that immediately tell you that you’re eating something fierce and wild. Clearly I’ve been underestimating pot plants.
We select the Mole di Mama Con Pollo on the basis of the menu’s authoritative declaration that it is Comensal’s signature dish, only for our waiter to admit that it is no longer served. Apparently it wasn’t popular enough. On a main menu consisting of just three dishes, how could the one chosen for special accreditation become so neglected?
Undaunted, we choose the remaining two dishes which haven’t yet felt the sharp end of Clapham’s finely-discriminating palette. But if any doubts were emerging about Comensal, the sea bass smashes them away. Smoky, complex, and fiery, it’s as good a use of a fish fillet as I’ve seen, arriving with red rice and baby green vegetables for companions. Coated in Chintextle paste, a chilli, garlic and roasted pumpkin seed blend from the Oaxaca region of Mexico, the sea bass has autumnal flavour, foggy with spices.
Enchiladas de Mole offer another mysterious sauce. One of the principal ingredients of mole is chocolate. It takes a moment to register that we’re eating chicken fillets covered in chocolate sauce, topped with Mexican cheese and served in a soft corn tortilla. Cumin, chilli and tomatillos represent a potent supporting cast of flavours. The result is something rich, velvety and almost waxy in its aromatic possession of what was once your mouth. Absorbing the sauce willingly, the chicken becomes a vessel for this horde of exciting flavours, transformed under the exotic influence of the mole.
After this carnivalesque procession, dessert is reassuringly simple. Pastel de Elote, an unassuming corn cake, is dry and crumbly, with a coconut-like texture. It’s a touch too powdery. The alternative option, rice pudding, is nice and humble, simultaneously reminding me of school dinners and my grandmother’s endearingly ‘40s living room. Neither dessert is going to leave you swooning, but given that you can order chicken covered in chocolate for your main meal, that’s probably a good thing.
Can Comensal’s orthodox interpretation of Mexican cuisine replace Tex-Mex dishes in the hearts of Londoners? Of course not. I know I’ll be queuing for a barbacoa burrito at Tortilla enough times yet to make a loyalty card a genuine no-brainer. But Comensal’s menu has dishes that are delicious in a completely new and surprising way, offering the opportunity to taste a less familiar and more fascinating Mexico. A Mexico I suddenly want to visit. Should another friend decide to move to Cancún, I’ll be on the first flight. Unless Book Mongers in Brixton holds a sale again.
words Chris Zacharia