The paella pleases the bread is divine

Restaurant: Westminster's new Chameleon serves up a casual California cuisine with some standout dishes and accompaniments.

November 17, 1996|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

Anything less like its namesake than Westminster's new restaurant Chameleon is hard to imagine.

Chameleons are supposed to blend into their surroundings -- isn't that the whole point? But here, on the town's quaint Main Street, the restaurant's spare stylishness sticks out like a sore thumb. (Except that a sore thumb sounds unattractive, and Chameleon is anything but.)

The old-fashioned storefront has been newly renovated. Bare wood floors gleam; the off-white walls are hung with contemporary nudes; the furnishings are simple but have lots of pizazz.

The menu, too, is quite simple. Or menus, I should say, because they change daily. The food is very much California Casual, with an emphasis on seasonal foods, fresh vegetables and seafood, and with more starters than entrees. Michael DeCesare is the chef; he's also, with his wife Jessica, the owner.

The waitress told us, "Michael used to fix it for him," when we asked why Jimmy Buffett's Paella was so named. (The singer used to come in for dinner at F. Scott's, the restaurant where DeCesare worked in Nashville, and would request "Michael's paella.")

This was the best of our main dishes -- what the restaurant calls "Large Plates," which are six dinners with recommended wines.

It consisted of plump, well-cleaned mussels and clams in their shells, fat shrimp and strips of sausage with a fiery kick. The seafood and sausage were nestled around highly spiced rice; Jimmy Buffett must like his paella hot.

To back up a bit, the star of our starters was an intriguingly seasoned mushroom terrine, constructed of chopped mushrooms layered with portobellos for a complex interplay of textures. It came with a suave green salad, which made it a good and inexpensive choice for a light meal.

But the bread was what was most outrageously wonderful at Chameleon. It was hot and soft inside, buttery and crusty on the outside, with just a dusting of coarse salt. We drank wine and ate the bread with sweet butter and ate more bread.

Maybe that's why we approached the decent but uninspired grilled rockfish, green peppers, onions and artichoke hearts with only mild interest. And why the roasted eggplant and tomato soup, which tasted like a good pasta sauce, got ignored.

Nothing here was an out-and-out failure. (Even the service, which was excruciatingly slow, was still very pleasant.) But there were a few errors in judgment.

Error one: a raspberry vinaigrette on a Boston lettuce, red pepper and blue cheese salad that was actually a tart raspberry puree. It looked gruesomely like blood drizzled on the green lettuce leaves.

Error two: putting smoked chicken, fried onions, mushrooms and feta cheese on a phyllo-crust pizza. OK, it was my error for ordering it.

Error three: adding that one ingredient too many to a signature dessert of bananas wrapped in phyllo, shaved chocolate, raspberry puree and custard sauce. That one ingredient too many? Peanut butter.

Oh well, that still leaves you with the happy choice of a chic little tiramisu or a moist homemade chocolate cake. With both of them, the kitchen's basic good sense reasserted itself.

Chameleon

Where: 32 W. Main St., Westminster

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday, brunch Sunday

Prices: Appetizers: $2.50-$9; entrees: $14.50-$20; major credit cards except AE

Call: (410) 876-9476

Pub Date: 11/17/96

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