Don't Miss Chameleon Café's Maryland Menu
There are restaurants to admire, to rely upon, and to tolerate in spite of some bad habits. And in a category the size of a perfectly round pearl there are restaurants to love beyond reason, and it’s under this heading that the Chameleon Café (4341 Harford Road,  254-2376) falls. No longer the new kid on the block, Chameleon Café has lost none of its luster, even as the sheer novelty of its gorgeous existence, along a barren stretch of Harford Road, has worn off.
Credit belongs to Jeff Smith, the still ridiculously young owner/chef, whose good, sweet nature has been as instrumental to the restaurant’s success as his impressive training, irrefutable skills, and colossally impressive menu-making. The Chameleon Café remains a lovely place to have dinner, inside the not-overly-bright orange walls of its square, window-gifted dining room flattered by cool sea-foam tablecloths and shiny wood floors. It’s one of the few dining rooms where the absence of piped-in music doesn’t create an enervating void. It’s the sound of people talking about their lives, about the end of summer, and, of course, about the food.
Right now, but not for long, Smith is working his Maryland menu, an annual offering of regionally important fare--rockfish, bluefish, tomatoes, and, of course, sweet crabmeat. The nervy thing is that crabmeat only ever plays a supporting role on Smith’s menu, showing up in a chilled seafood salad, in a green tomato and crab soup, in a crab royal topping for the rockfish, and, lumpily, in a crab and cantaloupe salad. Crabmeat doesn’t get packed into a cake here, and diners are left free to run barefoot over other dining options.
A bluefish fillet ($19.95) gets treated with the kind of great professional care that tempers its tendency to overpower. Baked to a moist but not oily finish and topped with a sunshiny herbed lemon mayonnaise, this fillet yielded flavors just strong enough to keep the palate pleased. Its nicest qualities were highlighted by a silkily smooth and fresh-tasting shrimp mousse and perfectly fried zucchini and corn fritters. Like the other entrées tried this evening, it evoked a summer weekend spent at the home of a gourmand.
One night the bluefish, the next pan-fried chicken Maryland ($19.95), purveyed from Sparks-based Springfield Farm, delicately breaded, and fried up in some of the unsalted butter in which the Chameleon Café surely owns stock. The sensibility here owes a good deal to the French tendency toward full-bore flavoring--spa cuisine it’s not. Fattening out the chicken plate are gently fried bananas, a horseradish cream sauce that managed to announce more than one flavor, and a sprinkling of lardons, amazing little flavor pellets, the result of abandoning fear of bacon fat.
Springfield Farm also raised the pigs that show up as pork chops ($19.95) on Smith’s Maryland menu. If you still need convincing that meat just tastes better when it comes from humanely treated animals, then this pork chop might do it. Smith keeps things country simple here, grilling slices from the loin, underpinning it with a classic buttery brown sauce, topping it with strips of country ham, and siding it with a helping of moist and peppery whole hominy.
Don’t deny yourself one of the menu’s rich soups, a Silver Queen corn chowder ($5.75), flecked with potatoes, bacon, and onions, each spoonful announcing the advantage of working from a real corn stock. Marginally more special is the green tomato and crab soup ($6.50), in which back-fin crab has been introduced into a stock-enhanced purée of tomatoes, green peppers, and leeks creating an unusual, provocative, and satisfying palate teaser.
Homemade mustard and a Silver Queen corn relish liven up a charcuterie plate ($10.95) that brings together other homemade delicacies: links of celery and sage sausage and, the biggest prize, otherworldly free-range chicken pâté softened up with gobs of butter. Fried green tomatoes ($8.95) are squirty, firm, and hot on the inside, crunchy on the outside--this happens but rarely--and, if that’s not enough, they’re topped off with a dollop of goat cheese and luscious Serrano ham.
The meal is paced leisurely--for some, maybe borderline slowly--but service here is smooth and professional, and the wine list is both well written and thoughtfully assembled. A vegetarian entrée is also in place. Reservations are taken without irritating follow-up questions or veiled threats, and then honored. In other words, call now.