This neighbourhood Mexican eatery has arrived on the same stretch of Clapham’s Abbeville Road that also includes Bistro Union, Newton’s, La Bonne Heure and Abbeville Kitchen; an independent restaurant quarter in an otherwise residential area.
A friendly bustle spills alluringly out onto the roadside terrace on our evening visit, while bright pink exteriors that lead into a bar area flanked with Hispanic-patterned tiles ensure it doesn’t lack in vibrancy.
The food is no shrinking violet either. A large bowl of freshly-prepared guacamole for sharing, presented with crisp homemade tortilla chips, kicks things off in suitably fresh-flavoured style. The dip is soft, creamy and sharply spiked with lime: a stand-out of its kind. Our waiter proudly explains to us the kitchen’s decision to make it hourly rather than in one more efficient job lot as would be tempting, and the benefit is in the taste.
We’re momentarily disappointed with the rest of the menu. Not because there’s any lack of appeal among the array of tacos, enchiladas and so on, but because the restaurant’s website and promotional material had banged on with such strength about Comensal’s modern, authentic and different approach that we were expecting something a little more unusual. You know, maybe bugs or something.
Perhaps we should be looking at this in a more positive way, though. There was a time not so many years ago, in the dark days before Wahaca and other excellent and authentic Mexican restaurants, that the slowly-cooked and richly earthy frijoles served at Comensal would have been exotic. And when the idea of a fried fish taco — which comes with light, fluffy batter and a ragingly moreish chipotle salsa — would have been mind-stretching.
Mole chicken (that’s this kind of “mo-lay”, not a rare cross-bred animal that clucks and digs holes) is one dish that you’d be unlikely to find in your regular Tex Mex spot. Here it’s labelled as the chef’s signature dish, coming in the form of a chicken breast slathered in the mole sauce and served with Mexican red rice. The sauce itself is something of a sensation: moody and brooding, like a pouting supermodel of the sauce world. It’s sweet from prunes, smoky from dried chillies, deep with flavours of cumin, garlic and coriander, and given a radiant sheen from a slick of dark chocolate. We can forgive it a very tame level of spice given the flavours are so pronounced, but like a tumble on the catwalk, an overcooked chicken breast can’t help but disrupt the show. It’s far from terrible, but a perfect example of why breast is rarely best in a dish such as this. For all the shouts of authenticity, it feels like Comensal is catering for certain Claphamites who don’t like bones or too much chilli a tad more than they’re letting on.
Don’t let this put you off. Throw a well-crafted Margarita and a couple of ice-cold Negra Modelo beers into the mix, and it’s very easy indeed to fall in love with Comensal. The service is charming, the setting refreshing and the food refined, intricate and bright-flavoured.
Just think of a trip here less as a gap year-style voyage of discovery and more as a short break that’s cultured but laid-back. A meal at Comensal is certainly no worthy eight-hour bus ride, but rather a soaring flight of fancy through some of Mexican cuisine's greatest hits. You may pay a little more for the polished edges and pretty plates, but you’re getting a class act in return.
Comensal is at 32 Abbeville Road, Clapham SW4 9NG.
Disclaimer: We review anonymously and pay for all our meals/drinks.