There's more here than meets the eye

Restaurant: Chameleon Cafe looks like a coffee shop, but at night its dining room serves up some quite sophisticated food.

Sunday Gourmet

October 07, 2001|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

The new Chameleon Cafe looks like a coffee shop run by art students -- usually a formula for funky decor but not for notable food.

Your heart may sink when you walk in the front door if you're looking for anything more than a cafe latte, but keep going to the dining room in back. The Chameleon is just that: a coffee shop by day that turns into a restaurant with sophisticated food at night.

The cafe would fit very well into trendy neighborhoods like Canton and Federal Hill. You don't expect to find something like this in Lauraville across from a Safeway. People have discovered it, though, in its first few weeks of existence; and the dining room fills up on the weekends. Reservations are recommended.

The dining room's decor is fairly minimal, but its soft Mediterranean colors warm up the hardwood floors and bare windows. Touches like the deco sconces, tablecloths and votive candles on each table suggest that the restaurant should be taken more seriously than you might think at first.

The servers are young, dressed in black, and might have a piercing or two; but they know how to wait tables and are knowledgeable about the food.

The menu is more minimalist than the decor, with only two appetizers and five entrees; but it changes regularly with the seasons. (In fact, by the time you read this, several of the dishes we had may be history.) Heirloom tomatoes with fresh herbs is one of the appetizers that will soon disappear. If you're lucky, you'll still be able to order the chilled mussels and tiny cubes of cucumber on the half shell bathed in lemon-scented cream. They're arranged around a bit of mesclun and frizzled julienne beets. Gorgeous.

A charcuterie plate is often a special, and this evening it features a chicken terrine with pistachios, tiny croutons topped with a swirl of chicken-liver mousse and a mild but flavorful homemade pork sausage. These good things are arranged with various chutneys and mustards; with the chewy fresh baguette and sweet butter, they're almost a meal.

Soups tend to be homey, like a heartwarming potato and leek in a milky base or a balanced, flavorful gumbo, spicy with sausage. Salads are generous, with the last of summer's tomatoes, cubes of Port-Salut cheese and a pleasingly sharp vinaigrette.

The best of the current menu's entrees may very well carry on into fall. Half a roasted free-range chicken arrives with the breast meat sliced for you, with an edge of crisp gold skin and a creamy sauce. Red-skinned potatoes spiked with rosemary and just-tender green beans flank it.

That's not to say anything against a generous rib-eye steak with its fragrant port wine sauce and the same accompaniments. Or the handsome piece of fresh swordfish, grilled and laid on a bed of lentils with a fresh corn relish on top. Only a perfectly respectable but not very interesting vegetarian entree of grilled eggplant and tomatoes failed to hold our attention.

The Chameleon Cafe doesn't look like a restaurant that has a liquor license, but it recently got one and has a modest but respectable beer and wine list. On the back of the beer and wine list is the dessert list, so you can start planning to save room while you're still at the point of ordering drinks.

I didn't think I could ever get excited about creme brulee again -- talk about trendy dessert overdoses -- but the Chameleon's modest vanilla version with a few fresh raspberries is out of this world. If you want something more flashy, try the warm peach cobbler -- a bit too spiced-up for my taste -- with ice cream and blackberry sauce. But I can't recommend the chocolate pate: Even with creme anglaise and raspberry sauce, it was too bittersweet for any but the most dedicated chocolate fanatic.

CHAMELEON CAFE

Food: *** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 4341 Harford Road

Hours: Coffee shop open Tuesday through Sunday; dinner served Tuesday through Saturday

Prices: Appetizers, $5-$9; main courses, $8-$18

Call: 410-254-2376

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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