What you see from the window of a train can tell you plenty about a place — patchwork fields and animals momentarily startled, bright graffiti in hard-to-reach nooks, ramshackle settlements on trips from somewhere to somewhere else. Each snapshot is a summary of someone else’s reality, and a long train trip is a voyeur’s meditation.
A traveler in Newton Centre, having never passed through these parts and knowing nothing, would find the place illuminated by the storefronts that line the tracks — one-of-a-kind jewelry shops, boutiques selling clothing fashionable yet comfortable, charming little restaurants cheerfully decorated, showcasing local produce and the flavors of the world. What a cozy burg, this.
A new restaurant, Comedor, opened on Union Street in October, and it fits right in. Chef-owners Jakob White and Fernanda Tapia White met through BU’s culinary program and married last year. (The two worked at nearby 51 Lincoln, among other places.) Then came the expected next step in any young chef couple’s life: They decided to open a restaurant together. They draw from both of their backgrounds to create Comedor’s “American-Chilean” small plates. (The restaurant’s name means “dining room” in Spanish.)
The place is perfectly sweet. The entryway is decorated with potted orchids and ceramic good luck pigs from Chile. There is an open kitchen right up front, with windows that offer a view from outside. A wood bar stretches the length of the space. Brick walls are lined with shelves and set with arched windows. Bright, psychedelic murals by the Couto Brothers hang on the walls — an angry shark made up of rainbow swirls thrashing against a bubblegum-pink background, a colorful Uzi by way of vintage Peter Max. At wood tables, guests eat morsels from little white plates and wipe hands on striped tea towel napkins. It is clear that a team with good design sense rules this roost.
The menu is put together with the same honed aesthetic, clean yet playful. It is equally divided among meat, seafood, and vegetarian dishes. Chilean-spiced pork ribs are served with North Carolina mustard sauce. Empanadas are filled with brie and pork belly or salami and Fontina. Ingredients range from Vermont cheese and local shellfish to Lebanese garlic sauce, Argentine chimichurri, and Chilean spice mix merken. (She spent time at Sarma and he at Oleana, if some flavors feel familiar.)
The approach pans out very well for some dishes. Chicken drumsticks are fried, crisp and crunchy but juicy within, draped in “three alarm” romesco sauce and sprinkled with blue cheese and oregano. It is Buffalo chicken with a Spanish accent, and it is great (albeit more of a one-alarm situation).
Pescadito frito features fingers of tender, mild fish fried golden and served atop tostones with spiced honey, pickled chiles, and lemon. The heat, sweetness, and acidity perfectly complement the fried plantains and fish.
Lamb albondigas (meatballs) in a fresh tomato sauce are topped with toasted fideos, the Spanish noodle, and paired with pickled onions. A tortilla with green beans turns out to be a little glass jar filled with an egg mixture somewhere between omelet and custard, served with a spill of spicy kale salad and a fluffy white scoop of farmer’s cheese. There is a burger of the week, on one visit topped with quince and brie, cheese plate and slider all in one.
Sometimes dishes have too much flavor. The mild cheese provoleta is served toasty, golden, and stretchy, with baguette. But the mint chimichurri tastes like a mouthful of pizza shop spices, and its bouquet lingers for hours.
Mackerel crudo features slices of fresh fish drizzled with lemony vinaigrette, but these good flavors are overpowered by the large amount of raw onion in the dish. And a bowl of mussels, battered and fried a la Woodman’s clams, are served with toum, that Lebanese garlic sauce, here so intensely garlicky one bite offers lifetime protection against vampires, and at least a few hours without kisses.
More often, though, when dishes don’t work it is because there isn’t enough flavor. Those Chilean-spiced pork ribs taste fine, just not particularly spiced. An order of spicy pickles one night isn’t spicy, either. Mushroom Bolognese — served over tiny pennette rather than a long noodle, perhaps to better accommodate the small-plates theme — is bland, with none of the savory richness that makes Bolognese so compelling.
Those brie and pork belly empanadas are fatty and heavy. A wonderful, balanced salad of apples and hazelnuts on the side isn’t enough to offset it, but it is delicious eaten on its own, the empanadas remaining on the plate. It is impossible not to order the endearingly named “prawns in a snuggie.” They arrive with their heads peeking out of crisp blankets of dough, with a pool of spicy tomato fonduta that isn’t spicy or particularly flavorful, despite the presence of chorizo.
Comedor’s version of tres leches is a cold, solid brick of cake. Brownie bites are encased in fried tempura batter and served with dulce de leche. The best dessert is Jakob’s ice cream; when the flavor of the week is pumpkin-Parmesan, I’ll bite. It’s savory, creamy, and unique.
This is a fine place to drink beer, with some solid domestic options (Ommegang Hennepin, Lagunitas IPA) on tap and available by the pitcher, and a greater range of microbrews by the bottle. The wine list visits Chile, but it doesn’t linger there. There are a handful of bottles — a cabernet/carmenere blend, a sauvignon blanc — plus a few more selections by the glass. But your wine is more likely to come from California, Italy, or France. By the carafe, you can get red wine spiked with rum, orange, cola, and cocoa simple syrup. You will love it or hate it. A cocktail called the Rosa Dorado is a winner, a blend of bourbon, chile and honey simple syrup, lemon, mint, and bitters. An oregano sour, however, doesn’t taste at all like oregano.
Servers are well-meaning but can be awkward, offering confusing explanations, overfilling water. A host at the door greets me one night with all the fuzziness of a Komodo dragon; later she is spotted drinking wine and fiddling with her phone at the bar. She seems much happier.
Comedor has all the right ideas. Sometimes one wants more warmth, more spice, more and brighter contrasting flavors and textures. But the restaurant is always busy. It is clearly finding its place in Newton Centre.
★ ★ ★ ★ Extraordinary ★ ★ ★ Excellent ★ ★ Good ★ Fair (No stars) Poor
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.