At Maggie's Farm, on a late December night, the small, square Harford Road dining room was full, with couples and foursomes along the edges, and in the middle, two separate large parties, of 12 and 18, celebrating birthdays.
We were concerned about our own good time. Are these people going to get loud? Can I get my order in before they do?
There was no need to worry, not at Maggie's Farm, which serves up big flavors with a mellow attitude and makes the hard work of preparing and serving good food feel effortless. This has always been the way here.
Maggie's Farm used to be the Chameleon. The name change became official late last year but the transition started much earlier, back in the spring, when Andrew Weinzirl joined the Harford Road restaurant as executive chef. Weinzirl now owns the place, along his wife, Laura Marino, who is making the desserts.
The Chameleon is credited with laying the first bricks on a Harford Road dining corridor and with spearheading in Baltimore a dining movement we've come to call "farm-to-table."
I get why some people have become tired of the term, but why object to the trend? You'll have to convince me that it's a bad thing for chefs to develop relationships with farmers and providers and to be concerned with the quality of the ingredients they're feeding to people.
In any case, Maggie's Farm doesn't use that phrase, and neither did Chameleon. Neither does it list farms on the menu, something that apparently annoys some diners intensely.
All of the farm-to-table elements are in place. There are the meats from local farms, and vegetables in season, which in winter tend to be rooty and bitter things like parsnips, brussels sprouts, sun chokes and salsify. There is a menu section featuring the restaurant's charcuterie, savory jams and pickling.
But can you taste the difference on the plate? You can when it's done well. Weinzirl and crew are keeping up to date with the latest techniques and ingredients, mixing them in seamlessly with classic preparations.
Crispy roasted brussels sprouts are made delicious with this season's big pork products, guanciale, from the jowls, and a syrup, or saba, from Concord grapes. Another appetizer, Local Mushroom Toast, coats hen of the woods mushrooms with miso butter, which adds a layer of depth and richness.
Fat little cornmeal-fried oysters are served with a gribiche, a hardy and piquant French sauce finished with capers, parsley and cucumbers, and the accompanying braised spinach is spiked with not Pernod but Herbsaint, an anise-flavored liqueur from New Orleans. This oyster appetizer is a holdover from the Chameleon days. I know a woman who orders a double portion and calls it dinner.
Persillade, a parsley sauce, and braised salsify, a root vegetable resembling a skinny parsnip, help turn an entree of roasted cod into a fantasia of mellow flavors and pillowy textures. The cod is served in a trout-infused sauce the menu refers to as a "chowdah" — chowder flavors, in other words, that act as a sauce and not a soup.
Pieces of crispy fried chicken, a Thursday night special, are served with horseradish mashed potatoes and a dish of homemade kimchi. The chicken, brined and coated with buttermilk batter, stays juicy, Weinzirl told me, because it is thoroughly steamed before frying.
For a pork and beans entree, it's a brine of molasses and apple cider that gives the pork chop its delectable flavor and bits of braised pork belly that make the baked black-eyed peas taste so wonderful.
The dessert selection when we visited was small but very tempting — a sticky toffee pudding, an apple cider cheesecake, a chocolate pumpkin tart. We were very full, though, so we settled, happily, for a coffee-chocolate creme brulee.
Matthew Weaver, a familiar presence for years at the Chameleon, is now the restaurant's general manager. He's behind the cosmetic changes that began evolving early last year.
The atmosphere is more polished and refined, and there is a smart cocktail list now to complement the affordable wines and craft beers. But it's still a place for the neighborhood. There are now more weekly specials, and the daily menu includes a hamburger.
When word got out about the changes at Chameleon, some of the restaurant's longtime fans worried. They shouldn't have. And people who never knew the Chameleon should visit Maggie's Farm.
Where: 4341 Harford Road
Contact: 410-254-2376, http://www.maggiesfarmmd.com
Open: Monday through Saturday for dinner and Sunday brunch
Prices: Appetizers $7-$13; entrees $24-$38
Food: American cuisine, with a seasonal emphasis
Service: Extremely considerate and well informed
Best dishes: roasted cod with persillade and "chowdah," Truck Patch pork and beans, cornmeal-fried oysters
Parking: available on Safeway lot
Outdoor seating: Sidewalk seating in seasonable weather
Noise level: Comfortable, even when the dining room is full of birthday parties
[Key: Superlative: ✭✭✭✭✭; Excellent: ✭✭✭✭; Very Good: ✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭; Promising: ✭]