When the Chameleon Cafe opened five years ago, Lauraville was still a well-kept secret. The neighborhood renaissance had hardly begun. No plans had been announced to develop a chic little shopping center and yoga studio at the corner of Harford Road and Montebello Terrace, and the area's real estate hadn't taken off the way it soon would.
The idea that the new restaurant across the street from the Safeway would be serving haute cuisine instead of crab cakes, hon, was almost inconceivable. Prices, given the quality of the food, were surprisingly low.
How times have changed.
City Paper gave the Chameleon its Best New Restaurant award soon after it opened. It was voted one of Baltimore magazine's 55 Best Restaurants. Zagat reviewers called it a "diamond in the rough" and gave it a top rating for food.
When it opened, the Chameleon was a coffee shop during the day and a restaurant at night. Owner Jeff Smith says when the business took off, it became difficult to do both well, so they decided to concentrate on dinner. The coffee shop is now defunct.
Chameleon is no longer the bargain it once was, and that's not surprising. It's now the neighborhood restaurant for a more affluent clientele, not to mention the fact that its reputation has spread beyond Lauraville's borders. Prices for the eight entrees on the current menu average about $21.
Yet it's easy to forget this small, casual place with its own little herb garden running around the side and back. Even if you drove by it every day, you wouldn't be struck by the exterior of the corner house. Inside is a different story, at least as far as the dining room proper is concerned. It's decked out in soft Mediterranean colors, handsomely set white-clothed tables, and paintings by local artists. A youthful, enthusiastic staff adds to its casual charm.
The food has considerable charm as well. The simplicity of the seasonal New American menu is a hoot. (When was the last time you saw a $19 chicken dish simply called "Chicken"?) But when the organic chicken breast arrives braised to juicy tenderness and served with fresh green peas, new potatoes and carrots, you stop chuckling.
There are unexpected dishes, but they are never too outre, like the salmon fillet poached in red wine with a blush-colored hollandaise. Peas, leeks and fennel added layers of intriguing flavor.
In honor of spring the Chameleon offers a camembert asparagus tart, with a quiche-like filling in a very short pastry. Sauteed greens with toasted walnuts balance its richness.
There was still a pork chop on the menu, with piquant red cabbage, a dice of roast potatoes and a mustard cream sauce -- a more wintry dish than you might expect in May, but done so well it would be appropriate anytime.
Because, our waiter told us, it's not an R month, the oysters that are on the menu were off the table. Instead there was calamari, fried quickly with just a dusting of cornmeal. The rings were wonderfully tender, in the running for the best I've had, with a chunky, sweet-sour red pepper sauce on the side.
But if I ordered just one thing at the Chameleon, it would be its charcuterie plate, which varies in composition from day to day. It may sound heavy, but in reality it's a pretty little selection of luxurious pates, fruit-studded terrines and homemade sausage (made with the herbs from the garden outside), along with accompaniments like a homemade whole grain mustard and fruit compote.
One thing that has slipped a bit since my last visit is attention to the visual pleasure of the plate. A lovely warm-weather salad of citrus fruits, avocado and bibb lettuce had been tossed instead of arranged with its avocado puree salad dressing, so that everything was the unattractive color of a '70s kitchen appliance. If you shut your eyes, it tasted light and appealing.
A soup of pureed asparagus, vegetable stock and pistachios was monochromatic; it needed a sprig of something green to pretty it up. (And why -- although this is off the subject -- not serve it and the vichyssoise chilled on an 80-degree day?)
But in spite of small flaws here and there, the Chameleon Cafe is a charmer. Our young waiter was enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the international wine list, and many, if not most, bottles can be had by the glass. The bread is excellent, and the desserts are made on the premises. (The ricotta cake shouldn't be missed, and the creme brulee isn't bad either.) You get the feeling the staff would greet you like an old friend the next time you came -- if only you didn't wait five years to do it.
Address: 4341 Harford Road, Lauraville
Hours: Open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $6.95-$7.95; entrees, $17.95-$25.95
*** (3 stars)
*** (3 stars)
** 1 / 2 (2 1/2 stars)
RATINGS / / Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *