In 2019, when the Sydell Group sold Freehand Hotels to Generator — a European-based hospitality company with an eye for hostels — it could not have predicted the pandemic. But tourism went dark shortly thereafter and the New York property’s restaurants closed in accordance with city mandates. Under new ownership, now that travel is picking up, several changes are underway at the Freehand in Gramercy. Gabriel Stulman’s Simon & the Whale — which helped put the hotel on the map in New York — is not returning. In its place, Tamy Rofe and Felipe Donnelly — behind the Fort Greene Latin American spot Colonia Verde — were brought in to operate their own restaurant. Comodo opens at the Freehand on October 20th at 23 Lexington Avenue, near East 23rd Street.
While there is a new menu and location, Comodo is actually a reincarnation of Rofe and Donnelly’s first restaurant that they opened on MacDougal Street back in 2012 with the same name — that is, until rising rents forced them to hedge their bets in Brooklyn five years later.
“Checking out the space, it reminded us of the spirit of our first restaurant, if we had had more experience and money,” Rofe says.
At the 2.0 version of Comodo, Donnelly says he is excited to bring some of the signature Latin American flavors — Mexican, Colombian, Peruvian, and Brazilian — they’ve come to be known for, but there will be new twists like fish sauce and other ferments incorporated into certain dishes.
Colonia Verde was originally focused around open-fire grilling and rustic steak dishes; by contrast, Comodo will have a more experimental, ambitious menu. “The backbone is the same — you might recognize one or two items from back in the day on MacDougal — but it’s been an evolution of almost 10 years and seeing what dining means today,” Donnelly says.
To that end, for dinner, they’re bringing back their fan-favorite Comodo sliders on pao de queijo (a Brazilian cheese bread); here, they’re presented as sliders with lamb-cranberry meatballs and a chipotle crema. Other dinner items at Comodo include wild mushroom al ajillo tacos on Sobre Masa tortillas and a beef tartare with guajillo adobo, anchovy, tobiko, and chicharron. For dessert, there’s a chocolate tamal with smoked guajillo ice cream and a gooseberry tart.
When the restaurant opens tomorrow, there will also be a slim-but-growing breakfast menu. Eventually, it will feature Donnelly’s play on hollandaise: An arepa with pork belly that’s been cooked in hoisin and a yellow Peruvian sauce known as huancaina, finished with an egg on top. Likewise, they’ll serve Mexican-style overnight oats with cacao, as well as conchas sourced from La Newyorkina. Brunch will eventually follow.
The wine list will be considerably bigger than at Colonia Verde. “The neighborhood is home to a lot of old world wine connoisseurs but the hotel is definitely younger,” says Rofe. “We want our menu to be a mix of things for everyone.” In addition to Comodo’s own wine selections — which has been described by the team as “honest” and “expressive” — the menu will also feature French wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy that were left in the space from the previous operators. “It was kind of haunting to enter the space; there was an exodus after March 15th,” says Rofe. “We kept finding things like shoes and open bottles that were left.”
On the cocktail side of the menu, there’s an espresso martini dubbed The Party Upstairs, a nod to the forthcoming lounge with dancing opening at the hotel in the former Studio at the Freehand space.
What’s clear is that a splashy Manhattan restaurant opening was not something the duo had sought out. “We had no intention of opening up another restaurant during the pandemic,” Rofe tells Eater. “But our industry colleague, [Matt Kliegman, behind, among other projects, the Freehand’s Smile To-Go outpost] urged the hotel to reach out to true neighborhood spots, rather than big restaurant groups from Midtown that were initially on their list.”
The idea of not having to build out a whole new space was appealing. “We had talked so much about not jumping back in the hamster wheel [of New York City], but we couldn’t say no. It was a dream come true,” says Rofe. “The mission of the hotel is being social and having fun, and we are a social restaurant.”
Right before the pandemic, in November 2019, Rofe and Donnelly had opened Cosmico, a wine bar located inside the Williamsburg music venue National Sawdust. With concerts on indefinite hold, the team scrambled to pivot the nascent operation into Disco Tacos this past summer. “Thank god everyone likes tacos at all times,” says Donnelly. Though the post-concert wine bar never had a chance to takeoff at National Sawdust, the Freehand’s upstairs nightlife project has Rofe and Donnelly excited to host a nightlife crowd, too.
As for the 70-seat Comodo space, Rofe says she didn’t want to change too much of the interior design the team inherited from Simon & the Whale. They kept the green tile, which, Rofe says, reminds her of Latin America (as well as the Colonia Verde’s branding). They’ve also added small details like a curtain and dividers, to help it feel a bit more home-y.
The launch of the original Comodo was inspired by a supper club that Rofe and Donnelly ran out of their former Tribeca apartment, where the duo’s hospitality careers first blossomed. With a 12-seat private dining room at the new Comodo, they hope to bring some of that supper club spirit to intimate pop-up dinners in the space — an extension of the “Sunday Asado” events they currently host in the backyard of Colonia Verde, which brings in different chefs for a casual barbecue.
“It’s called Comodo, after all,” Rofe says of the restaurant’s name that translates from Spanish to mean comfortable. “We want it to feel cozy but also elegant. That’s the magic of a restaurant right? You want it to feel like a home, but you can’t actually replicate it at your home.”